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The Riley Guide

The Riley Guide: Resumes & Cover Letters

References & Recommendations

More information can be found under Job Search Advice

According to the 2004 Reference and Background Checking Survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), 96% of all organizations conduct some kind of background or reference check on prospective hires, and almost 50% of survey respondents reported that reference checks found inconsistencies in dates of previous employment, criminal records, former job titles, and past salaries.

Yes, honesty on your resume DOES count!

References vs Recommendations: What's the Difference?

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References are usually what we think of for most job situations. If you have a former supervisor you can approach for a reference, or a former colleague, these are the best references to list on an application. Most references are oral, but recent graduates should request letters of reference from advisors or department heads. If you have been laid off, request a letter of reference from your current supervisor. Calls to the HR department will only result in verification of your dates of employment and job position and won't discuss how well you did in your job.

Graduate students and Post Docs will want to review the information on Recommendations. These are formal letters usually written by your academic advisor or, if you are lucky, a respected person in your field who is familiar with you and your work. They are used to support an application for an academic or research position, including continued study programs. Who writes these letters is an important as your own credentials and his or her name behind yours is a real boost to your potential. You often are usually not given a opportunity to review these letters, nor should you ask to review them. They are confidential and meant only for those reviewing your application.

By the way, references and recommendations written for you to get into a study program should not be re-used for a job search. Your writers addressed these letters for one purpose. They may not address what an employer needs to hear. This is not the time to cut corners and recycle. Get new letters.

Letters of Recommendation Explained, Shaun Fawcett (
...defines 5 main types of recommendation letters, explaining why the letter of recommendation written for you to enter graduate school will not work for an employment application.
Letter of Recommendation Power Phrases, Shaun Fawcett (
Yes, this offers suggestions on how to outline a letter of recommendation and include useful wording for the recipient, but it also really helps to define this form of correspondence.
Reference Letter Samples, Shaun Fawcett (
Letter of Recommendation Samples, Shaun Fawcett (
...what is a letter of reference, and why is it different from a letter of recommendation? These 2 articles by the same author help to explain the difference and offer samples to help you.

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Advice on References

References: Strategy for Job Seekers
"References matter. One enthusiastic, informed reference from a former supervisor can make the difference. Two or three can have an overwhelming effect." This article from Maryland Careers will give you the basics on how to approach, coach, and nurture your references and who are the best people to get to fill this role for you. Short, sweet, RELEVANT, and right to the point. Take 2 minutes and read it now.
Managing Your Refereces, A Recruiters Guide to the Universe (blog) excellent article on how to select and cultivate those you will use as references in your job search. Never leave things to chance! Make sure they know what you wish them to say, make sure they know how much you appreciate their contribution to your search, and always make sure you have their permission before giving out their names! This blog is run by Matt LeBlanc, a Senior Recruiter based in Nashville, TN, and he has some other great articles available to help you with your search.
Resumes Win Interviews, References Win Job Offers, Heidi M. Allison (
"Inquiring minds want to know, and no minds are more inquiring than those about to hire you. Rest assured, you will be investigated. [...] You are well advised to take more control of your career momentum by finding out what every potential reference will say about you." Ms. Allison offers 6 general "rules of thumb to maximize the tone and accuracy of your references."
Job Search Confidential: Seven Deadly Myths of Job References, Heidi M. Allison (
"Thinking about your prospects for landing that new job? You should think first about what your former boss and other references will say about you. There is no doubt that a person's past has a direct bearing on his or her future. No matter what the nature of the job or pay scale, people should take their references very seriously for they can make or break a hiring decision." This short article lists common myths about job references and the reality of the situation.
...nice handout from the Career Services center at Bellevue University (NE) with tips and suggestions on who to ask for references, when to present your references, and much more. This is a PDF document which requires the free Adobe reader to view.

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Your Online Presence: The Internet as a Job Reference

Some of these articles are a little older, but in those cases just substitute "Facebook" for "MySpace". Everything else still applies!

Fixing a Faulty Social Media Reputation, Janet Wall (
"It is an established fact that more and more hiring authorities are looking to social media sites to gather information about a person prior to making a final hiring decision. [...] How do you know if your online reputation is positive, and what do you do if it needs to be strengthened or repaired? Here are some steps you can take." Yes, not only how you can find out what is being said but what you can do to fix it or bury it. A must read in today's job market!
10 Things You MUST Do Before You Begin Searching for an Engineering Job,
I'm going to rephrase that title. These are 10 things you MUST do before you begin searching for a job. Period. It starts with Googling yourself, updating your Facebook Profile Photo (the photo of your dog won't cut it any more), erase your MySpace page (!!), create a LinkedIn account, and goes on from there.
MySpace Is Public Space When It Comes To Job Search (
"There is a growing trend in the number of employers who are Googling candidates to research for additional information," said Brian Krueger, President of "This trend has now spilled over to the use of Internet social networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, for screening potential candidates." No, you may not like it, but it is the way things are done now and have been done for quite some time. As I have often repeated on these pages, your online presence makes a huge difference in your job search.
Cyber-vetting's Usage, Risk, and Future, Yves Lermusi (
"Cyber-vetting may sound like solely a way to dig up dirt about someone. But it can be used to not only avoid a bad hire, but also help perform a good hire and increase the chance of a good fit." This is a well-written article discussing this issue and practice from the point of view of the employer and recruiter, which gives you good information on what they seek and why. Should you care? "About 80% of employers search and track the online activities of candidates in a practice often referred to as cyber-vetting." Legal ramifications are also introduced.
Warning: Social Networking Can Be Hazardous to Your Job Search , Kate Lorenz (
"A recent study by the executive search firm ExecuNet found that 77 percent of recruiters run searches of candidates on the Web to screen applicants; 35 percent of these same recruiters say they've eliminated a candidate based on the information they uncovered." Even worse, you can get in trouble with your current boss for things on your personal pages. Employee Beware!
We have information on Social Media and Online Networking.

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Requesting Letters of Recommendation

Advice on Letters of Recommendation, Social Psychology Network
Quick advice on who to ask, when to approach them, and what information to provide the writers so they can do a great job for you.
Requesting a Letter of Recommendation, Michael Ernst, University of Washington
Dr. Ernst was in the CS & AI Lab at MIT, but he has now relocated to the University of Washington. This is a marvelous article on how to request recommendations from professors, how to select who to approach, and how to best approach these people so you don't burden them unnecessarily (thereby diminishing the chances you'll get a good letter.

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Preparing References / Recommendations for Others

If you are a job seeker, you might want to print out the relevant articles as a guide for those you are approaching for references or recommendations.
Writing a Letter of Recommendation, Michael Ernst, University of Washington
...advice from one professor to others on how to write those letters your grad students and post docs need. Dr. Ernst was at MIT but has now relocated to University of Washington.

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Reference-Checking Services

...a provider of reference checking and background screening services for job and apartment hunters. For a fee they will run a background check on you so you know what your references and former employers will say, how your credit report looks, and more. Their website also includes links to helpful articles and services you may find you need.

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