What to Do If You Don't Have Any References for a Job Application

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No references? Fear not. We’ve prepared a few strategies to get one for you.
Mar 14, 2024 11 min read

You have a brand-new, polished resume and cover letter for each of the roles that you’re applying for, and updated your personal website and LinkedIn. You’ve just had a phone interview and you feel you did well! There’s only one issue: you’ve just been asked to give three references and you don’t have any.

This is a common problem for those new to the business world. Whether you just entered a new field, are fresh out of university, or are making a significant change, you might not have any references from professionals within the field.

If that’s you, don’t fret. In this article, we will give you some tips to find references, including:

  • Gaining a better understanding of why you need references.
  • Understanding general reasons for a lack of references.
  • Discovering how you can scour your professional and personal network for specific references.
  • Tips to consider when asking for references.
  • Some examples of how to communicate a lack of references to a hiring manager.

Why are references so important, anyway?

References simply allow a potential hiring manager to get to know you a little more from an outside source. Although they’re going to hear your story in an interview, it’s best to hear other voices that can lend some credence to the claims that you’re making. A good reference can help you get a job because it can show a recruiter that other people have put trust in you and you haven’t let them down.

Some jobs may require two or three professional references in order to showcase your competency in your previous roles. A hiring manager may reach out to those references specifically to discover if everything you told them about yourself in the interview was true. That’s why it’s important to never ’fudge’ the details and make stuff up during an interview.

There are two main types of references that you’ll come across – personal and professional. Personal references include any number of people that you have in your circle of friends and family members. Whether it’s your favorite high school teacher, a personal acquaintance who can be a character reference for you, or coworkers that you worked with years ago, a personal reference allows you to showcase a bit more about your personality and the soft skills that you bring to the table.

On the other end of the spectrum, professional references can speak about your competency in previous roles that fit the position you’re applying for. A professional reference can be a former boss, a colleague at a previous company that’s in the same field as the position you’re applying for, or it could be a university professor whom you worked closely with to develop your thesis which applies the feel that you’re in.

Professional references are the two-in-one type of reference, as they can allude to your soft skills or people skills, but also can tap into your abilities with hard skills that are required for the position you’re applying for. For example, if you are a chemical engineer straight out of university, you may wish to use a professor who guided you on your master’s thesis. That professor may have intimate knowledge of how you work and your abilities, but they also might have an intimate understanding of whether your skills make you an outstanding employee.

Most employers will be specifically looking for a reference from your current employer, as they’re the ones who know your up-to-date skills and abilities.

What are some reasons that you may not have references?

When you are new to a field, chances are you won’t have references that you can use from previous work experience in that field. If you are straight out of university or switching careers, there’s a good likelihood that you won’t have any professional references to reach out to.

But here’s the thing: employers are a lot more understanding than you may think. They may know that you have no previous roles in this field, and so maybe they are just willing to learn a bit more about you through personal references. Don’t be afraid to share with a recruiter that you’ve never worked in the field.

Below, you’ll find some reasons you might not have professional references for a job application:

  • Applying for an entry-level position
  • Recent college graduate
  • Returning to the workforce after a gap
  • Self-employed small business owner returning to the workforce
  • Moved from another country and there is a language barrier between the new manager and the former employer.

Five people you can ask for a reference

Even if you have no experience within a field, you will likely still have opportunities to use other references. Most of the time, your new employer is just seeking to know a bit about your work ethic, personality, and any achievements that you’ve had in the past. As a result, you can use any number of references from throughout your professional, work, and educational experience.

Your favorite high school teacher or college professor

If you’re new to the job market, including your favorite high school teacher or college professor may help you gain an entry-level position. Try to choose one that you have a personal or working relationship with, and this may be difficult if you went to school at a larger university or high school.

Also, try to narrow your choices by choosing what professor or teacher you want to reach out to. Try to find those that you worked with, either as a teacher’s assistant or who helped you complete a major assignment, like a master’s thesis or a doctoral thesis. These are the ones who have the best ability to speak to your character and work ethic.

Community Leader, volunteer coordinator, or religious leader

Did you know your volunteer experience can benefit you when applying for a position? You can include any volunteer experience on your resume to help showcase certain skills and abilities. In that same way, you can reach out to a volunteer coordinator or community leader to help provide a reference for you.

Did you lead a youth group or help in a church choir? If you volunteered through a religious organization, you can also reach out to the leader of the local religious organization.

The benefit of including a volunteer coordinator as one of your references is that they can help shed light on your community involvement. In addition, they can also provide a hiring manager with a glimpse of certain soft skills that you’ve gleaned through working with other volunteers and members of the community. These soft skills include communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills.

Personal or professional coach

It’s always great to have someone volunteer to mentor you, show you the ropes and teach you the skills that you need to succeed in any business. If you received leadership training or advice from a seasoned professional, you can also include them as a reference. Even if it was an informal relationship, they can help to shed light on unique skills and knowledge you have.

A family member or friend who you’ve worked for

You can also consider reaching out to a family member or friend that you’ve worked for. Even if it’s in a completely different field than the job you’re applying for, they might be the best people to speak about your abilities and skills. Some employers may be a little hesitant about reaching out to a reference that's related to you. However, some will be curious to see the work that you’ve done in the skills you picked up along the way.

A former colleague or classmate

You may consider reaching out to a peer to ask for a reference. Although they may not be seen as authoritative as a former employer, a colleague or classmate can help shed light on personal details and provide you with a character reference. They may also provide an employer with an honest assessment of your growth.

Tips to consider when you’re asking for references

Now that you’ve scoured through all of your professional and personal contacts and have a list of people to contact, you’ll need to reach out to them and ask for permission to use them. There are a few other things to keep in mind when you are reaching out to somebody for a reference.

Ask for permission

Never include somebody on your resume reference section who you haven’t asked for permission to use as a reference. Even if you reached out to them years ago for a reference for a separate position, let them know recently that you’re looking for a new job and that you’d like a reference. The worst thing you can do is to include somebody as a reference you haven’t contacted. They might give you a bad reference because you never asked them.

Prepare your reference

Now, I’m not suggesting that you ask your reference to lie or bend the truth. Instead, share some details on the job that you’re applying for, and give your reference ideas of things that you’ve done in the past with them so you can jog their memory and give them exactly what they need to provide you with a great reference.

Ask for contact information

One of the easiest mistakes to make when including somebody as a reference is to pass on old, not up-to-date contact information for reference to a potential hiring manager. A recruiter may become frustrated If they try to reach a former boss, but nobody returns their calls. You may be asked to get another reference or update the contact information, and this can make you look unprepared and unorganized.

Assess your references

While you’re speaking to a potential reference, be sure to assess whether they will be able to provide you with a valuable reference. For example, if you are speaking to a former boss who completely forgot about you or your role within their company, you may reconsider using them as a reference. If you can’t jog their memory, then get rid of them as a reference.

Scour your LinkedIn and social media for other references

 If you’ve made a list of references and are still falling short of the minimum three professional references, you may choose to look through your social media or LinkedIn. You may reach out to a former employer or a coworker who you used to work for. You don’t always have to use current employers as a reference.

Consider asking for reference letters

A reference letter, or letter of recommendation as it is commonly known, is a brief letter that highlights a candidate's skills, abilities, and experience. A letter of recommendation can also showcase an applicant’s career growth and goals.

If you reach out to a potential reference and they don’t seem super keen on giving you one, you could ask for a reference letter instead.

One benefit of asking for a letter of recommendation is that you’re able to see exactly what your references are putting down about you. Essentially, there are no surprises with the letter of recommendation. These are also documents that you can keep for years and reuse them again and again.

If you’ve been terminated from a job for a valid reason, like being laid off, ask your employer for a reference letter as part of your severance package.

Example email of a job applicant with no references

Subject: Reference Inquiry for Dianne Vandersaar  — Director of Human Resources

Dear Mr. McCormick,

I hope this message finds you well. I wanted to express my sincere interest in the Director of Human Resources position at ABC Consulting and my eagerness to move forward in the hiring process. I am confident that my skills and experience align well with the role, and I am enthusiastic about the opportunity to contribute to your team.

I understand that reference checks are a standard part of the hiring process, and I want to be transparent with you about my current situation. As I am currently in a transition period and have not been in a traditional work environment recently, I don't have direct supervisors or colleagues who can serve as references.

However, I have taken proactive steps to ensure that you have a comprehensive understanding of my qualifications and potential contributions to your team. Instead of traditional professional references, I have included on my resume contact information for individuals who can speak to various aspects of my character, work ethic, and skills.

These references include a professional mentor who has guided my career development, a community leader from a volunteer project where I actively contributed, a colleague from a collaborative project, a personal development coach who has been instrumental in my growth, and a family friend who is well-acquainted with my professional attributes.

I believe that these individuals can provide valuable insights into my abilities and character, offering a well-rounded perspective despite the absence of traditional workplace references. I have informed them about your potential inquiry and have confidence in their ability to provide you with a comprehensive view of my qualifications.

If you have any specific preferences regarding the reference-check process or if there are additional materials you would like me to provide, please don't hesitate to let me know. I am committed to ensuring a smooth and transparent hiring process, and I appreciate your understanding in this matter.

Thank you for considering my application. I look forward to the opportunity to discuss how my skills and experiences align with the needs of your team.


Dianne Vandersaar


What does this example do well?

It can be really difficult to admit to a potential hiring manager you don’t have any current references. The author of this example clearly and professionally states that they haven’t been in a traditional work experience in the past few years. However, they also share some older references to speak about their abilities and character. This can help an employer gain a better understanding of the applicant, and this explanation goes a long way toward building trust with an employer.

If you’re interested in learning all the finer nuances of crafting a letter to a recruiter speak with acareer counselor from Enhancv. They’ll point you in the right direction with how to ace your next interview and are also experts in resume writing and can help you to better understand the interview process.

Key takeaways

  • If you’ve been between work or are entering a new field, then you may not be able to list a current employer as a reference.
  • Instead, you can reach out to a favorite university professor, a family member you’ve worked with or for, or even a volunteer coordinator for an organization you volunteered for.
  • Reach out to your references, asking them for permission and giving them more information about the job you’re applying for.
  • Consider asking for reference letters from potential references who may not feel comfortable or have the time to speak to someone on the phone.
  • Be upfront with a recruiter if you don’t have any current references, as an employer will respect your honesty and candor.
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Dave Van Kooten
Is a human resource expert that helps passionate jobseekers to put their best foot forward to prepare for an interview. He believes that success can be achieved through going out of your comfort zone.
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