Your support system
A good cover letter and resume will get you in the door. A good interview will catch the employer's interest. All that's left after that is to let your good references seal the deal!
References are a means of supporting the claims you make in your cover letter, resume and interview, and can also provide insight into the type of worker you are. That means you want to pick people who are able to offer an evaluation of your work ethic and experience.
There are some people who are better suited to act as references than others. If you're just out of school and don't have any working experience in the industry you're looking into, a teacher or instructor would make a good reference. They can discuss your work ethic and the abilities you demonstrated in the classroom, and can evaluate your potential in a working environment.
If you're going to use past work references, you should choose someone who was in a position higher than your own. You can certainly use your coworkers as references, but only as personal references - they cannot adequately gauge your work from a management or supervisory position, and their reviews may be seen as influenced by your relationship.
Aside from coworkers, there are others you can choose as personal references on your resume. These are especially helpful if you have gaps or have little work experience. Personal references can provide valuable details about your personality and your life outside of work. If you're heavily involved in the community or have spent time dedicated to family commitments, those areas can be highlighted along with any important skills you may have developed from them.
There are a few hard and fast rules to keep in mind when choosing and using a reference:
- Always let someone know if you're using them as a reference. If you fail to do this, at the least you'll appear unprofessional, and at the worst the reference will refuse to speak to your potential employer.
- Meet with the person you want to act as a reference. Make sure they have the same opinion of you as you're assuming - you don't want to send potential employers directly to someone who won't speak well of you!
- Keep the reference up to date. If you find a job, let your references know. Since they are involved in the process, and offering a reference will take some of their time, you should keep them in the loop. If you're looking for work again in the future, make sure to let the reference know you're on the market again, and make sure that it's still alright for you to offer their name.