'I don't have any references for a job application': a guide

Updated 21 February 2023

Employers use a number of tactics to help them hire the right person for their needs. One way to learn more about potential candidates is by following up on a reference. Multiple references can help strengthen a job application, and in turn, improve your chances of securing the job. In this article, we explain what to do in the case of not having any references to give and offer suggestions of people you might ask to act as a reference to help support your job application.

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The solution to 'I don't have any references for a job application'

It can be daunting if you find yourself thinking, 'I don't have any references for a job application'. Before offering a solution to this problem, it's important to highlight why you may need a reference when applying for a job. References are the names and contact details of people who can attest to your skills, experiences and personality. When someone acts as your reference, they provide a letter of recommendation or their contact information so hiring managers can ask them questions about your suitability for the job.

It isn't necessary to include your reference's details in your job application, as an employer can request one if they wish to take your application further. It may still be useful to have a list of suitable references compiled, so you're ready if an employer asks for one. Along with employers, academic institutions may also ask for references as you apply for a university degree. They may request different types of references, such as personal and academic contacts.

Related: Q&A: should you include references on a CV? (with example)

Why do employers ask for references?

Employers ask for a reference to gain a broader picture of who you are as a professional and a person. This helps an employer make a more informed decision in choosing their new employee. They may ask for a reference for any of the following reasons:

  • Learning about your character: It's difficult to get a proper idea of an individual's character and work ethic from a written job application. A reference from someone you have built a relationship with, such as a professor or previous employer, can give employers a better impression of who you are.

  • Verifying your education and employment history: With a competitive employment market, it can be tempting for candidates to overstate their qualifications or enhance their job history. A reference is a way to authenticate the contents of your application and assure an employer that all your information is completely accurate.

  • Checking your background: Certain jobs require a vigorous background check to verify your identity, credentials and criminal background. This helps secure competence and workplace safety.

  • Checking if you're a good fit for the company: References can allow for a more nuanced understanding of someone's professional and personal qualities. This can help an employer ensure that you're the specific type of person that fits into their work environment and culture.

Related: What are personal references and why do you need them?

What to do if you don't have any references

As important as a reference is for a job application, it's still possible that you're struggling to think of who to offer as a professional reference. This may be because you don't have any professional experience or work contacts. Here are some situations where you may have no job references and how you might overcome the problem:

You're a recent graduate

If you've just graduated from secondary school or university, you may have little professional work experience. References don't necessarily come from a previous employer. You can also seek out an academic contact or close character reference outside of a professional setting. This can be a teacher with whom you shared a good relationship or a sports coach.

Reach out and explain that this reference can help you kick-start your first career. It may also help to explain what the position is and why you think you're a great fit for it. Your reference may offer their contact information or even write a letter of recommendation to send off to your potential employer upon request.

You're self-employed

If you've been self-employed for a long time, hiring managers are likely to understand why you don't have any superiors or colleagues to list as references. It may still be possible to use your self-employment to gain a reference, for example by asking a trusted vendor or client to endorse your character and experience.

You aren't part of any clubs or organisations

A reference with who you share a long-lasting relationship may not be a necessity. Try thinking of someone trustworthy who can speak positively about your character, regardless of how many times you have met them. It may be useful to compile a list of people you've interacted with besides family.

Who to use as a reference

Past employers are a common choice of reference. There are many other types of references you can provide, granted they have observed your character and abilities. It's generally best to avoid people you're extremely close with such as family members, as they may not know you within an informal, professional setting. Here are some ideas for people you can ask to be a reference for a job application:

Academic references

Trusted individuals from your time at secondary school or university can make for great references. Common options can include your:

  • professor

  • teacher

  • headteacher

  • academic advisor

  • guidance counsellor

  • teacher's assistant

  • classmate

  • academic advisor

Character reference

A character reference is someone you know outside of work or school that can attest to the skills and qualities you've listed in your application. Common contacts you can list as a character reference include:

  • a sports coach

  • a religious leader

  • a family friend or neighbour you've babysat for

  • a colleague from volunteer work

  • anyone you've helped (such as an elderly neighbour)

  • a parent of a close friend

  • any extracurricular instructors (such as music teachers, tutors, youth club leaders)

Related: Character reference: definition, examples and writing tips

Professional references

Professional references are contacts that you've established while working at a previous job. It's generally best to have worked with your reference for at least a few months. It's also important to never use a reference from a workplace that you were let go from. Here are some individuals commonly used as professional references on a job application:

  • a mentor

  • a former supervisor

  • a senior colleague

  • a job coach

  • a hiring manager

  • any internal references (such as contacts from within your potential new company)

Related: ‘References Available Upon Request' and Other Phrases To Avoid

How to ask someone to be a reference

Consider these steps when asking someone to be your reference for a job application:

1. Establish a personal connection

The potential anxiety of asking someone to be your reference can be eased by making your request as personal as possible. It's essential to be polite and thoughtful out of common courtesy and to help ensure a positive reference. It may be advisable to ask for your reference in person to allow you to connect with this individual properly.

Related: Practical tips you can use when asking for a job reference

2. Be specific and transparent

When in contact with your reference, it's important to be direct in stating your goals and why you think you're a good fit for the role you're applying for. A good idea is to think of an experience or a time that your reference may be able to draw on to support your application. This can be a project or academic result that you're particularly proud of.

If you're vague about what you want your reference to talk about, they may be forgetful or appear unconfident in your abilities when they're contacted. Ensure you also discuss the role itself and its main responsibilities. This helps your reference know which skills and experiences of yours to elaborate upon.

3. Renew an old connection

If your potential reference is someone you haven't spoken to in a while, contact them first and ask if they're willing to help. When you reach out to them, remind them how you know each other. For example, if you're reaching out to an old sports coach, remind them of the team you played on, the period in which you played for them and any achievements you were particularly proud of.

4. Provide them with relevant documentation

Once someone agrees to be your reference, send them a brief biography and summary of your skills and experiences. This gives your reference something they can study and look to when they contact your potential employer. You may also want to send them a copy of your CV or job application.

5. Express your gratitude

Thank your reference for agreeing to help you and share how your relationship with them has impacted your life in some way. This can leave your reference feeling positive towards you so they can then relay this positivity to your prospective employer. A positive reference can be a great help in securing a job, and it's important to show gratitude for this.

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