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Fast Pitch: Yes, you need to ask for a reference

March 6, 2011

Asking for references after an internship isn’t exactly like asking for references from high school teachers for your college applications. It can be a little more intimidating to approach someone you’ve known for only a few months and ask them to recommend you for a job, especially when the company may have been hoping to hang on to you.

That said, some things will always be the same. As a general rule for all recommendations, you should give the writer at least two weeks to write so it doesn’t interfere with their schedule. Thoughtful pieces, after all, require a little time for reflection.

It’s also a good idea to send a note with two or three talking points to jog the writer’s memory. Write them in concise bullets, so it doesn’t seem like you’re just putting words in their mouth. This can be an excellent way to generate consistent messaging in your application, but do stress to the writer that they’re only guides. The contributions ex-colleagues remember usually trump the things YOU consider to be your greatest accomplishments.

It's nice to have high-level coworkers write a reference, but only if they're familiar with your work. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

So who should you ask? Most people’s first inclination is to ask the person they feel is most enthusiastic about their work. That’s a good place to start, but make sure the writer is also very familiar with your job duties and accomplishments. Praise from a lofty executive might seem more impressive on first blush, but if it’s vague and general, in won’t do you many favors. That said, you’ll want to ask someone with a significantly higher level of experience and expertise than you have as an intern – not a young coworker who just got hired a couple months ago.

Another thing to mindful of when picking a reference writer is how the writer might respond to your request to help you get a job outside the company. It’s possible that your boss might feel slighted if he or she had intended to hire you.

To minimize the risk of offending someone,frame your request carefully,focusing on the reasons you chose that particular person. For example: “I wanted to ask you this favor because you’ve been an enormous help to me and really made my experience at the company worthwhile. At this stage, I think it’s important for me to branch out a little bit and try a slightly different perspective in my next job, but let’s stay in touch. I’ve enjoyed my time here and I’m always open to future opportunities.’

(Don’t use these exact words, by the way. A lot of people Google exact phrases these days.)

When you get your reference back, always follow up with a thank-you note. It doesn’t have to be lengthy, but make sure the writer knows you appreciate the time taken to write the reference. Don’t offer up a material reward, however – unless it’s an offer to pick up a casual lunch.

This post was written by Alex Braun, writer extraordinare at  If you’re looking for a good story, ask him about his Back to the Future photo shoot sometime.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Harman March 7, 2011 at 7:41 am

Completely agree! I recently completed my internship and had no intentions of working for the company. But the project manager was very keen on me continuing there. I only needed work experience to apply for graduate jobs as I’m looking to get into corporate world and not a small company which is great in its own way.. but not for me..

I appreciated my manager for all the help and support he provided. Clearly told him of my future plans in a polite manner and for my good luck, he obliged.
I got a certificate of appreciation and proof of my work there!

Thought I’ll share! 🙂


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