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The art of the ask: 10 tips for asking for a reference

Sophia Apostol
Sophia Apostol

Girl Guide cookies? Run-for-the-cure? We are both asking and asked often to support causes, and the “art of the ask” is meant to remove barriers and encourage participation. These principles can be used when you’re asking for references as well.

I’ve been on both the “asking” and giving end of the reference scenario. I remember finding it soooo hard to ask for references, but now I actually love giving them—it’s like I’m helping someone deserving get a job they really want.  And who wouldn’t want to play a small part in that?  Here are my top 10 tips for making it easier to ask for and keep a reference—from someone you know well or someone you don’t (see #8).

1. First contact. Mention how you know each other, especially if you don’t have frequent contact, and provide some context (Hi, I’m Sophia. We sat beside each other a few years ago at the OLA Saturday lunch. Remember that joke Jian Ghomeshi told that made us laugh so hard that coffee came out my nose?).  You want them to know exactly who you are so they can wax poetic about your charms and talents.

2. Find out what process works best for your reference. For example, I give blanket permission to referees to use me as a reference, but I ask them to let me know if they have had an interview, in case I get a call and have to perform my official reference duties. Then, I want the relevant information (#3, #4, and #5) so that I’m ready to go when contacted.

3. The job. Provide the full text of any relevant job description.  Too many times, an online link to a job doesn’t work because the deadline has passed and the posting has been taken down.  That forces the reference to ask you for information in order to understand the nature of the job so they can say nice, relevant things about you . . .don’t  force your reference into using their improv skills.

4. You. Highlight some of the key aspects of YOU that YOU want your reference to emphasize.  I may think that you have excellent skills or abilities for “XYZ”, but the position really needs expertise in the area of “ABC.” Ask yourself, “How can I help my reference provide the best information for this job?  What skills do I want my reference to highlight?  What aspects of my personality should my reference emphasize?”  Share that knowledge and insight so it’s clear how what you’ve done professionally and who you personally are align with the position qualifications.

5. Cover letter and CV. Please, please send your reference the cover letter and CV/resume you used to apply for the job. This one should b e self evident.

6. Update your references on the application process. Did you get an interview? Are they going to call references? Did you get the job? Did you not get the job? Don’t keep your references in suspense! Perhaps they can even give you an emotional boost when you need it.  References form an important part of your network, and they can also serve as mentors. Which leads to . . .

7. Thank your reference. This should definitely include an email, but how about at the next conference you take your reference out for a coffee?  Hint: I’ll be at the OLA Super Conference, and I like my coffee with two creams ;-)

8. Nurture the relationship. Don’t just reach out to your contacts when you want a reference—that just makes people feel used. Rather, connect with them on LinkedIn, send them a few emails a year to let them know how your job hunt is going or how you’re liking the job you got, or any other cool things you’ve got going on in your life. They obviously like you if they’re willing to vouch for you, so maintain the connection because you never know when you’ll need them again.

9. Develop your network. Our profession is small enough for you to get to the point that people in your network reach out directly when they hear about jobs that they think would really suit you.  To get to that level, your professional connections should have some knowledge of where you are, what you’re doing, what your goals are, etc.  Someone from your network can easily become a reference, so go forth and be social!

10. Pay it forward. Soon you might be in a position to be asked for a reference. Be clear with referees about how you’d like the process to work. Harken back to when you were doing the asking.  Use your powers for good and  help prepare referees for the road ahead. You’ll get more out of it than free coffee.


Sophia Apostol, Director of Sales, YBP Library Services and President-Elect 2014, OCULA. Sophia can be reached at sophia[at]


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