So, it's finally happening. Graduation is right around the corner, your resume looks great, and you're all set to start applying for jobs until you realize with dawning horror that you can't think of a single person to provide as a reference, much less three.
First thing you should do? Stay calm.
All hope is not lost—we promise. Finding yourself without substantial references as you near graduation is not as uncommon as you may think. There are a number of reasons students may find themselves in this situation. If you're introverted by nature, then there's a chance you simply haven't been making a point of forming relationships with those you work with. Maybe you just never really got around to that whole “getting involved” thing, or you got caught up in schoolwork… and not much else. Whatever the reason may be, what matters now is how you solve the problem. It's definitely not too late to make some progress! Read on for tips that are sure to take you from panic attack to boss mode.
1. Know what you're looking for
You've got to know what you're looking for if you're going to find it, right? For this reason, it's important to know what type of references you need and why. Teresa Balestreri, director of career services at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, advises students in this situation to look for people who can comment on their “soft skills”—things like adaptability, reliability, and communication skills. If employers are reaching out to your references, then likely they're already interested in you as a candidate and would like to make sure that you'll be a good fit. (Just a heads up: Using relatives as a reference is always a big no-no!)
Lesley Mitler, president of Priority Candidates, Inc., advises students who feel as if they don't have enough references to reconsider professors they've studied with, faculty advisors for clubs they belonged to, leadership from summer programs they attended, coworkers from community service-based projects, and coaches from any competitive college sports.
According to Balestreri, many students don't realize that professors may be some of the best candidates for speaking on your soft skills. In a classroom setting, students are honing the soft skills they need to succeed in the workplace. Your professors have witnessed your behavior when working on a group project, your dedication to deadlines, and your punctuality when it comes to class meetings, so don't count them out.
2. Approach and reconnect
No one likes to be ambushed by a stranger spouting demands. If there's a professor whose class you did well in, perhaps consider paying him or her a visit during his or her office hours for a quick chat. If you opt to use email, give them something to work with—don't make them struggle to remember who you are by using vague phrases like “I took your class a long time ago.” Be specific! It may even help to bring up specific papers you wrote, if you feel it might jog their memory. Try following your introduction with this: "As I approach graduation, I'm hoping to enter the job market and would like to know if you'd be comfortable with me listing you as a reference. I would be happy to provide my resume and keep you informed about any jobs I apply for. I’d love to meet up and chat!"
Above all else, don't be shy. You never know until you ask! However, tact is the name of the game here. If they really don't remember you, don't push it. If a week or two goes by without a response, you can try a respectfully worded follow-up message (preface any follow-up messages by acknowledging that you know he or she is busy. Showing respect for his or her time goes a long way toward making a good impression). If things still don't pan out after that, don't take it personally; there are a million possible reasons why they may not have time to respond, so use this as an opportunity to develop a thick skin as you continue your search elsewhere.
3. Make new connections
Ok, so you've reevaluated your potential options and you're still coming up empty. If you've covered all of your bases and there's still no one who can vouch for you, that doesn't mean you should panic! It's just time to put yourself back out there. Luckily for you, it's never too late to get involved. You can start simple by really giving your all in your classes so that your current professors can't help but take notice. Volunteer opportunities can also do wonders for building your network, and such positions tend to come with the expectation of flexibility, so you'll be able to continue on your path toward graduation while still building up experience that will help you enter the job market.
4. Explore unconventional sources
Unconventional references, such as coworkers and fellow students, are okay as long as they're able to speak objectively on your skillset (high school connections should be avoided). Balestreri advises choosing peers who are able to comment on your leadership experience. For instance, choose a sorority sister who has sat on a committee with you, rather than someone who's just a friend.
Chances are, your college has an alumni network that you can utilize to meet people who are already doing what you'd like to do one day. Similarly, LinkedIn is useful for this purpose as well, as are leadership programs and networking events hosted by your university. Your best reference may be someone you haven't even met yet.
When reaching out to strangers, always mention how you came across their information, what you have in common, and your intentions ("I'm hoping to enter the field of graphic design.") In your initial message, politely ask if they'd be open to meeting with you as you gather information about the industry you hope to enter. Give them about a week or so to respond before considering a follow-up email.
"You never want to ask someone to be a reference before they really know who you are," Balestreri warns, so don't even broach the topic before you've met, talked in person, and connected well. Anyone you list as a reference has to be able to articulate to an employer in detail why you'd be a good fit for a particular position. If you find that the two of you have made a connection during your coffee date, then consider bringing up the topic with them, either near the end of the visit or by follow-up email.
If you've found yourself about to graduate with no references at all, it may be a sign that you need to focus on gaining more experience before diving into the job market. Think of your situation as a time to grow. If you start your class or service project ready and willing to learn and put yourself out there, you'll find your situation changing for the better in no time.