Careers and Employability Service

Choosing and Using Referees



Typically your first referee will be academic. This would be your course or personal tutor or some other member of staff who knows you well, such as a project supervisor. As well as being able to comment on your academic results and likely degree class, it would be helpful if they knew you well enough to be able to comment on your personal attributes as well. If your tutor isn't available and you can't think of anyone else to use, talk to the departmental office who should be able to suggest someone. All academic staff should have access to your marks.

Your second referee would typically be an employer for whom you had worked in the vacation. Alternatively it might be a family friend who has known you for a number of years. Ideally they should be working in some professional position - banker, teacher, doctor etc. Otherwise it might be a teacher with whom you were still in regular contact, or someone who supervised you in some way - church youth group leader, director of a youth orchestra you played for, sports coach for a team you've played for, supervisor of voluntary work etc.

References for postgraduate study. Employment references are less important here and you might put more than one academic referee - perhaps a tutor and a project or dissertation supervisor.

If you are asked for a third referee, it could be anyone from the above groups - a second employer or academic - preferably someone who will give a different perspective - a project supervisor, or someone who teaches on a different course.

The key point is that the referee should know you well enough to be able to write positively about you. They should also know you relatively recently - a teacher that you haven't seen for five years won't be able to say much about your present development. They should of course be someone who sees you in a favourable light.

referee.jpg (13390 bytes)

Choose your referees carefully ...


Don't just give their phone number, unless your referee has told you they wish to be contacted in this manner: referees may get annoyed if phoned before they have been contacted by email or letter. It's a good idea to say what their role is (e.g. store manager) or the recruiter may not know if they are the managing director or the cleaner!


You would not get a reference like this nowadays due to legal constraints.
  • This student impressed by her determination to do as little work as possible
  • Of all the people I have met, he was certainly one of them
  • Not so much of a has-been, but more of a definitely won't be.
  • Works well when under constant supervision and cornered like a rat in a trap.
  • Would be out of his depth in a puddle.
  • Has delusions of adequacy.
  • Sets low personal standards and then consistently fails to achieve them.
  • Should go far: and the sooner he starts, the better.
  • Is depriving a village somewhere of an idiot.
  • Has reached rock bottom and has started to dig.
  • His staff would follow him anywhere, but only out of morbid curiosity.


  • Will you please be a referee for a job for which I am appalling?
  • I haven't given referees, but I could find somebody if it is necessary.
  • References available on request - if I give them a few quid.
  • References: none. I've left a path of destruction behind me.
  • Don't take the comments of my previous employer too seriously: they were unappreciative beggars and slave drivers.

Something like this is normal:

Dr Mike Smith (lecturer in microbiology)
Department of Biosciences
University of Kent
Kent CT2 7NJ


Once you have chosen your referees there are certain steps you should take. Make sure that you ask their permission to act as your referee. As well as being polite it makes sure that they're prepared to receive requests for references. It's a good idea to supply your referees with a copy of your CV and other information such as:

  • the type of work you are going for and why it attracts you
  • what qualities you have that would make you capable of doing the job well - this might include your motivation, personal skills and qualities such as being able to work in a team, persuasiveness etc. You can use the section on SKILLS to help you with this.
  • what extra-curricular activities you have been involved in at UKC and what you have achieved during you time at university.
  • if you haven't seen them for some time, it would be wise to let them know what you have been doing since then.
  • any other information that you feel is relevant

The purpose of this is to help your referees to write a more detailed and accurate reference for you. Make sure you take a copy of your answers as it will help you to fill in application forms!


Sometimes it might be after receiving your application, but usually it is after the first interview, or at least after shortlisting candidates for interview. Sometimes it can be after selecting you for the post!

When you get a job or place on a course, make sure that you write to your referees to thank them for their help and to let them know what you are doing. Surprisingly few students seem to bother with this common courtesy. Writing references can be a difficult, long and involved process and you should at least thank them with a letter - who knows you may need to use them again!

You only need to supply references when the organisation you are applying for asks you for them. They could be supplied on a separate page if the job advert required these to be given. Normally applicants put the statement "I am happy to supply references on request" or a similar statement, but it's pretty obvious you will supply references when the time comes, so perhaps even this is redundant.

According to a survey by the five most important factors interviewers considered when hiring were:

  • Work experience (36%)
  • First impressions of the candidate (24%)
  • Education (12%)
  • Professional qualifications (10%)
  • References (9%)



A reference may take one of several formats:

It might be a prepared form asking various questions along the following lines:

Well above average
Above average
Below Average
Well below average
Written communication Succinct clear structured writing which is to the point and conveys its meaning.           Unstructured, verbose or woolly language which is hard to read and misses the point
Taking responsibility Seeks out information and makes decisions on their own initiative. Willing to do what is required to get the task done. Tries to improve themselves.           Unable to carry out work without constant supervision. Reluctant to make decisions. Unwilling to tackle demanding tasks.
Organising Plans ahead and breaks down objectives into manageable tasks with clear goals and deadlines.           Doesn't work well to deadlines. Struggles to amend plans in response to changing priorities. Doesn't allow for contingencies
Working under pressure Can cope with being thrown in the deep end. Can handle several tasks at once. Able to think on their feet. Works well to deadlines.           Struggles to deliver when given several tasks at once. Not good at thinking logically when under pressure.
Facing challenges Focuses on tasks to be achieved and not easily distracted. Shows determination to continue even when things are going wrong.           Shows little resilience and easily deflated when facing obstacles. Easily loses focus. Struggles to stand their ground.
Persuading Deals confidently and diplomatically with people at all levels. Can influence others via reasoned arguments. Can negotiate effectively.           Lacks tact. Struggles to influence others by using logical reasoning. Poor negotiating skills

Please comment on the student's academic performance over the past two years and their academic ability:


Another type of form

Please assess the candidate's abilities in the following areas in comparison with the general undergraduate population:
  Intellectual Qualities Creativity Interpersonal Skills Motivation Maturity
Well above average          
Above Average          
Below Average          
Well Below Average          
Please add a statement below commenting on anything else you feel relevant:

Or it might be an academic reference:

Please comment on the applicant's qualities below: Above average Average Below average
Ability to take in new ideas      
How well organised      
How hard working      
How articulate      
Persistence in pursuing and argument      
Ability to accept opposing viewpoints      
Originality of thought      
Popularity with peers      
Participation in university life      
Range of non-academic interests      
Adjustment to university life      
Please make any other comments you feel relevant below:      


Alternatively, it might be a general letter e.g.

Victoria Spice has applied to join our organisation as a graduate trainee and has given your name as a referee.

I would therefore be most grateful if you would comment on the following points:

  • How long have you known the applicant and in what capacity?
  • The candidate's academic record at university, and their expected class of degree.
  • Their personal characteristics and abilities and their ability to do the job they have applied for.
  • Whether this person is a fit and proper person to become an actuary given that our work requires the highest degree of professional probity and confidentiality.
  • Whether the applicant would be suited to a job which requires a major commitment to exam preparation
  • Anything else you feel we should consider.

referees whistle

References should not normally contain negative information on the applicant, so it would be unlikely that your referee would write anything negative about you, although if they organisation asking for the reference did ask about how much time you had had off, your referee would have to answer this question truthfully.

Overseas students might more commonly be given an open testimonial. This is a type of reference which is given to the student by the referee and can be shown to whoever necessary. Because it can be read by the student, testimonials rarely contain negative information and so are generally considered to be of less value by employers. They reason that any referee who has written something that you will see is going to be less frank than one passing their reference directly to the employer.


What your referee might really mean (NOT of course to be taken seriously!)

  • Careful thinker: can't make decisions
  • Very well qualified: has committed no major blunders to date.
  • Quick thinking: offers plausible excuses for errors.
  • Leadership qualities: has a loud voice.
  • Unusually loyal: wanted by no-one else.
  • Alert to company developments: an office gossip.
  • Needs work-value attitudinal readjustment: lazy
  • Will go far: managers son or daughter.
  • Should go far: please!
  • Effective time management: clock watcher.
  • Creative: finds reasons to do anything except work.
  • Excellent use of resources: delegates everything.
  • Active socially: drinks heavily.
  • Zealous: opinionated.
  • Unlimited potential: will stay until retirement.
  • Takes pride in work: conceited.
  • Takes advantage of every opportunity to progress: buys drinks for superiors.
  • Deals tactfully with superiors: knows when to keep mouth shut.
  • Approaches difficult problems with logic: finds someone else to do the job.
  • Expresses self well: can string two sentences together.
  • Spends extra hours on the job: miserable home life.
  • Conscientious: scared.
  • Attention to detail: nitpicker.
  • Good sense of humor: knows lots of dirty jokes.
  • Strong adherence to principles: stubborn.



Careers and Employability Service - © University of Kent

The University of Kent, Canterbury, Kent, CT2 7ND, T: +44 (0)1227 764000 ext. 3299

Last Updated: 04/08/2017