Should You List References on a Resume?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

It’s best to use the space you have on your resume in more productive ways, but collecting references to have on hand is a proactive step you can take in your job search.

[Featured Image] A woman is on the phone while looking at her resume. On her desk is a book and laptop.

Although it used to be common practice to list at least two references on your resume, it’s since become unnecessary in the digital age. Potential employers now tend to ask for references once you near the end of their interview process. Listing that information on your resume as part of your initial application takes up valuable space you could spend highlighting other things, such as your technical skills or job skills.

That being said, when you’re actively searching for a new job, it can help to proactively collect references so you’re prepared in case an employer asks for that information. Let’s go over why employers need references, why it’s not necessary to list them on your resume, and tips for asking someone to serve as a reference.

What are references? 

References are people in your professional or personal network who can speak to your previous roles, responsibilities, and character. You can provide several types of references:

  • Employment references include your past employers, co-workers, or clients.

  • Professional references look beyond your employment references to include your contacts from business, training, and professional or community organizations.

  • Academic references come from your instructors, mentors, or vocational counsellors.

  • Personal references know you personally and can speak to your quality attributes. These references don’t have the same credibility as the others, so employment, professional, and academic references are preferred.

The type of references you provide will depend on why they’re needed. After all, having a professor as a reference on a graduate school application will often carry more weight than your part-time job supervisor. On the other hand, if you’re applying for a role as a retail manager, hearing from your science teacher may not be as helpful as the shift supervisor for your clothing store job.

Why do employers need references? 

Employers typically request references from their top two or three candidates to learn more about each person, factoring that information into their final decision. References are an opportunity for potential employers to learn more about your past work and impact—and to gain an outside perspective on any lingering concerns.

When does an employer ask for references?

Potential employers can ask for your references at any point in the application process. But generally, you’ll receive that request during the final stage of an interview, when you’re among the top two or three candidates, and the employer is nearing a final decision.

When should you include references on a resume?

The short answer is never. References on your resume take up valuable space. Whether your resume is one page (if you have less than 10 years of experience) or two pages (if you have more than 10 years of experience), it’s important to use that space to promote your qualifications.

Also, since each job attracts more than 100 applicants and only two percent will be called to interview, it’s best to keep your references’ contact information private until you’re asked to share it.

How many references should you include?

When you’re asked to provide references, you should list three to four people who can attest to your experience and skills. If a professional reference isn’t available, you can ask friends and acquaintances to serve as a character reference.

Rather than including your reference contact information on your resume, you can create a separate list and submit it as a PDF or Word document via email (unless otherwise noted).

A reference tends to be a phone call or email during a job search. A letter of recommendation tends to be a one-page letter that’s required for college and scholarship applications.

How to format your references 

Many candidates submit their references in a separate document, sometimes called a reference sheet. Let's discuss how to format the information you'll need to gather.

Limit your references to one sheet of paper and use the same font and design details as your resume to create cohesion.

Besides including each reference’s contact information (name, phone number, email), provide some additional context by including their job title and the company they work for. You should also explain how you know the person, such as “Person A was my supervisor for three years at Company X.”

List each reference’s information in the following order:

  1. Full name

  2. Job title and company name

  3. Contact information (phone number and email address)

  4. Brief description of the relationship

When should you ask someone to be a reference?

You don’t have to wait for a potential employer to ask for your references before you begin collecting your references’ information. It helps to be proactive and reach out to previous managers, colleagues, or anyone else who could provide a strong reference. Ask if they feel comfortable speaking on your behalf should the occasion arise.

When you’re asked to provide your references, it’s good etiquette to reach back out to the people on your list and confirm their participation before passing along their contact info. Letting your references know that someone from the company you’re interviewing with might be in touch, helps them know to watch out for a phone call or email.

Tips for asking someone to serve as a reference

You can start by emailing the people you feel would best represent you and asking whether they’d feel comfortable serving as one of your references. You should also confirm their contact information.

If you’re nearing the end of a job search, explain the job you’re interviewing for, what excites you about the position, and the skills you can apply. If you’ve had the job interview already, you may be able to share questions you were asked to give the reference an idea of what that employer finds important.

After you’ve completed a job search, whether you get the offer or not, it’s always a good idea to thank your references for speaking on your behalf.

Explore further

Learn more about creating an eye-catching resume and cover letter with this free Guided Project on Coursera. Or you can explore several Professional Certificates from various industry leaders, each designed to help you develop or strengthen your skill set and add a notable credential to your resume. You can earn a Professional Certificate in business, computer science, or marketing.

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