I am writing about this subject because time and time again people who are looking for career references made critical mistakes which will cost them career opportunities. The sad truth is that these are mistakes that could have been easily avoided but often overlooked. This goes both ways too, whether you are seeking or acting as a source.   

As a college student, one professor who sat on a well-known college admission committee warned us about WHO to ask for a reference simply because he once received a reference letter that has these four words “NOT A GRADUATE MATERIAL” on it. Needless to say, the person who asked for this reference did not get into the program.  

Generally, if I were to select a good person for reference (source), I will keep this acronym TIEERS in mind:  1. Time 2. Instant, 3. Efforts, 4. Era, 5. Relevance, 6. Status.  

  1. Time: Give yourself plenty of time to think about who to ask, and wait for the person to respond. It takes time to find the right person, and for the right person to write a recommendation. Generally, all professionals are busy, it is not unusual to take up a month for someone to provide a reference.   
  2. Instant: Are you contacting your reference at this instant when you need a reference from them, or are you contacting your source for a reference at this instant after keeping in touch for so many years? If you contact a person to ask for a reference after not talking to such person for years, you have made it so obvious that you are only contacting them for your benefit. As a result, you will not get a powerful reference. People who work hard and have the heart to keep in touch with others will always find powerful references, the simple gesture of keeping in touch goes a long way. That said, one should avoid asking for a reference after long periods of disappearances. This is just ingenuine.  
  3. Efforts: Has your source ever witnessed your efforts at work? A source does not necessarily need to be your employer or colleagues from work; if you have volunteered for any organization and performed good work on any consistent basis, this can be a wealth of source. People usually obtain sources from work simply because that’s where our career lies, it is only a logical point to start, but voluntary work done can also be good sources too. Ideal source should have work with you on multiple occasion when you have done good work.   
  4. Era: When did you work for/with your source? It is always good to have a source that can attest to your latest ability of who you are, and not who you were. The strongest source will be those ones who have witnessed and/or worked with you up to the time you need the reference. For example, this can be your supervisor from a previous job who you have kept in touch with while he/she knows about your career advancement.    
  5. Relevance: Your source must come from a working relationship, and not a personal relationship. If you are using family member writing you a reference, employers are not stupid and they will easily find out. It is a strong sign of weakness to use family members to provide references, whether you worked for them or not, you need to show that you have done good work and earned trust from other professional, and not from your own family member.   
  6. Status: Having a person with mighty professional or social status providing a reference doesn’t directly translate to become a powerful reference! You can have the governor of State to provide you with a reference, and If he/she hasn’t work with you long enough, they will have nothing specific to write about you other than describing you with generic phrases such as “hardworking”, “honest”, or “responsible”. Every reference written will have words similar to that. Powerful reference can easily come from unknown people. Besides asking your supervisors for a reference, it can easily come from co-workers, clients or customers who you have worked with or work for in the past. References from respected professional with social status doesn’t mean anything unless those people have worked with you and have good things to say about you.   

It all sounds so simple to look for a reference and I am amazed how people repeatedly missed these steps and ended up in less than mediocrity. I knew a person who tried to get into law school, and he started the preparation early with the goal to attend a well-known local school. We went through in details about every component of his application which included preparation for his qualification exam and obtaining a powerful reference with the aforementioned criteria. He ended up going to parties before his examination and ended up with low scores which did not meet the requirement for his graduate school application. One week before this application deadline, this person did not have his application essay written and had not asked anyone for recommendations, and he needed a minimum of two references. As an easy way out, he asked for his mother-in-law for a reference, then he asked another colleague who has not worked with him for ten years for a second reference. Worst yet, this student got a third reference from an individual he had only met twice and never worked with. Needless to say, this person did not end up in the school he wished for. It is a shame because this person did well on all his practice examinations, and if he would have done his preparations, stay focus, made good choices for himself, he would have gotten into his dream school.   It is devastating to see a person with great potential to fall apart at the very last week in spite all the advises given over the course of more than a year. The saddest part was that this person made poor choices on factors which were well under his control such as attending parties before taking exam and spending the time to find right sources for references. This led me to my final thought – when a person could not make good decisions for himself, and if this person ever become part of a profession that heavily relies on good-decision making skills, would he be able to make good decisions to save his clients? Maybe justice has been served when he is now travelling far and away from his family to attend a less than mediocre graduate school.  

Kwan Law
PH: (425) 448-1230