Ask LH: How Can I Find Referees When I Don’t Have Experience?

Ask LH: How Can I Find Referees When I Don’t Have Experience?

Hi Lifehacker, I’m currently completing my university studies and I’ll want to apply for some graduate opportunities, either mid-year or next year. The thing is, I don’t actually have any work experience relevant to the roles I’m looking at — all of my prior jobs were just to “pay the bills”, so to speak. While I have plenty of extra-curricular activities to note on my resume, the main issue is with referees.

With my last paid role being over a year ago and in a sector unrelated to the ones I’d be pursuing, what do you recommend? Is a reference from an academic adviser/supervisor suitable? Perhaps other students who I’ve worked with on the executive for reasonably large university societies? What can I do? Thanks, Reference Shortage

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Dear RS

We wouldn’t worry too much about this. Many other graduates will be in the exact same position, so it’s not like you’re particularly disadvantaged. Plus, an applicant’s referee list is rarely the deciding factor in a hiring decision; especially for junior positions. It usually only makes a difference if the referee decides to completely trash you.

That said, it obviously can’t hurt to beef up your resume with relevant referees (provided you can trust them). The key is finding semi-relevant professionals that are willing to vouch for you. This probably isn’t as difficult as you think.

Your referees don’t necessarily have to be from within the same industry. Rather, they should be able to speak to the quality of your work and to your character. As a general rule, try to concentrate on people who hold a senior position in their line of work and know you reasonably well.

Securing a written reference can also help in certain industries. This also allows you to review their testimonial and ensure everything important is covered. Again, you don’t have to restrict your referees to the relevant industry: instead, get them to highlight skills and strengths that carry across multiple sectors. Being a quick learner, getting along well with others and an impressive punctuality record are just a few factors that could put you in good stead.

When it comes to showing off industry-specific skills, there are more options that relying on referees. One popular approach is to write a blog which can then be included on your resume. At the very least, this will show a real passion for the line work you’re applying for.

If any readers have additional ideas on how to impress prospective employers with limited experience, please let RS know in the comments section below.

See also: Pick A Referee Who Offers A Balanced View | Keep Your Resume Out Of The Circular File By Avoiding These Phrases | This Model Resume Will Help You Score Your Dream Job


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  • Volunteer, be it charities whom need your skills or businesses just so you can shadow someone in your desired career.

  • Like said in the response, HR knows that a graduate has zero experience and doesn’t know shit about the industry. A referee from a Woolworths can still say you were a good honest worker, always on time, respected heirarchy, fit into company culture etc.

    Also a good idea – get one of your best lecturers from uni as your referee. Someone that you chat with a bit, and you do/talk about stuff that expands on what you’re taught. They are good.

  • I’ve always thought referees are the dumbest idea ever

    You don’t get to say anything if your last few workplaces were full of jackasses, cause that’s ‘unprofessional’, but them being incompetent and screwing you over isn’t…

    What is to guarantee that the person on the other end of the phone isn’t your mate pretending to be a coworker or boss of your last workplace?

    And lets say someone’s put you as a reference on their resume, it’s pretty damn annoying to be called up while you’re doing something completely different to remember things about that person’s work ethic months after the fact, you might as well ask what I had for breakfast last week I wouldn’t know, and they’re always going to sugarcoat things, so why bloody bother!

    Ask the right questions, see how they respond
    Give the applicant a mini impromptu test of sorts to really see if they’re the real deal
    See examples of their work, get them to explain what they did, it’ll be obvious if they’re BSing
    Keep a close eye on how they conduct themselves, are they on time, are they messy, do they negotiate well on the phone, do they pay attention to details, it is quite easy to read people’s character
    If they’re clever enough to mask those things, they’re clever enough to cook up references too.

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