As a job-seeker, one of your most important assets is your stock of professional references. Both letters and phone recommendations can elevate a good candidate to a top choice and drop a good candidate down to the no-longer-considered pile. It's important that you manage your recommendations carefully to leverage them in the best possible way.
The most important thing is to ask people who have good things to say about you to be your references. This advice seems to be obvious, yet I can't count the number of times that I have checked references and gotten mixed reviews. When you ask for references, I recommend doing so via an indirect method, such as email. Indirect approaches allow a recommender to decline much more easily than a direct approach. Again, you want a good reference, so if you are not sure if you will get one, give the recommender an out by phrasing your inquiry this way: "Bridget, I plan to begin a quiet job search in the next two weeks. Do you feel you know me well enough to provide a reference about my leadership/basketball/conflict management/accounting skills?" If the recommender declines, don't be angry -- be thankful. Unless the reference is glowing, you don't want it -- even a lukewarm or I-don't-really-know-her-very-well reference can be damaging.
Collect letters of recommendation from colleagues and supervisors at every position. Today's job searches go quickly, and a fast search timeline may make it difficult to secure letters of recommendation. Avoid this scenario by asking for letters of recommendation for your "file." About two weeks before you leave a position, but after you have given your notice, ask for a letter that you can keep on file for any future job searches, grant applications, or fellowships. If you are consistent, you will have a number of recommendations ready to go at any time they are needed. Don't just ask supervisors for recommendations, however, think of colleagues you've worked well with, and if possible, try to get a letter from someone who has worked for you.
It's OK to be directive with your referees (nicely of course). Assign each a role: "Amy, I'd like your reference to focus on my leadership skills;" "Cathy, please focus your discussion on how well I work in teams;" "Mrs. Sizemore, can you emphasize my ability to work on short deadlines?" In this way, your recommendations can be tailored not only toward the type of work you did with the referee, but the skills that stood out the most.
Keep in touch with your references. As you progress in your job search, keep your references up to date. It is always helpful for them to have a copy of the job description and the company. Make them aware that they may be called and give a timeframe for the contact. You may also want to give your reference some direction at this time. For example: "During the interview, the director of HR, Ms. Grutman, kept asking me questions about my ability to prioritize tasks. I get the feeling this skill is a big deal for them. When you talk to her, can you work that in?"
As important as keeping your references up to date during the search is thanking them afterwards. Regardless of the outcome of the search, let your references know what happens, and be sure to extend your thanks for their efforts, particularly if they had to produce a letter quickly for you.
Tips for Obtaining Stellar Recommendation Letters
Always give your reference-writer plenty of time. Nothing is worse than a rushed letter.
Make sure that asking someone to write you a letter or recommendation and giving them the materials to do so are separate processes. If you aren't sure you can withstand rejection, send an email to you a potential reference. A good way to request a reference -- even from an old employer or professor is: "Dear Professor Crawford, I was a student in your Feminist Legal Theory class in 2001 at Pace University School of Law. You may remember that I wrote my final paper on Harriet Beecher Stowe. I am currently applying to be a clerk for the Supreme Court, and am wondering if you would feel comfortable writing a reference for me?" If the person says yes, then send the forms to him/her. As difficult as it may be to hear, you want to give someone the opportunity to say no to serving as a reference for you. A lukewarm letter is a bad reflection on you for a number of reasons -- the most important of which is: "Didn't she know anyone who could write her a better letter? Is this her best reference?"
Always provide your reference a copy of the position description (for a job) or the program description (for graduate school) and a current copy of your resume. No one can know everything about you, and it's very helpful to have the entire picture.
Ask your reference to address specific skills and competencies in his/her letter. Dividing responsibilities in references is a very smart strategy. One reference can address not only your great personality, but also your event-planning skills. Another can address your super personality but highlight your counseling and disciplining skills.
Always, always, always thank your reference-writer. The writer took time to compose a letter for you -- you should at the very least return the favor. Similarly, keep your reference writer in the loop -- did you get the job? Get into the program? When you do, write another thank-you note.
How to Obtain and Use References and Recommendation Letters