What To Do if You Have No References for a Job Application

Updated July 11, 2023

Employers want to get to know you as they consider making you a part of their team. Once you get their attention with your resume, you may need to provide one or multiple references. If you don't have any references for a job application, you can still apply and secure your desired position. Without professional references, you can find alternative contacts who can give positive feedback about you to a potential employer. 

In this article, we explain what to do if you don't have any references to put on a job application and give you suggestions of who you can ask to act as a reference as you prepare to apply for a new position.

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What are references for a job application?

References for a job application are professional and personal contacts who can verify your character, skills and experience. When someone acts as your reference, they provide a recommendation letter or their contact information so hiring managers can ask about your history, qualifications and character.

There is no need to include a reference on your resume. When an employer needs a reference, they will request one or more once they are interested in learning more about you as a potential employee. It's helpful to have a list of references ready to offer the employer as soon as they ask to show your preparedness.

Academic institutions might also require references as you apply to a college or graduate program. They may request different types of references, including both personal and academic contacts.

Related: Types of References and How To Get Them

Why do employers ask for references?

Employers ask for references because they want to gain a larger perspective of who you are and what expertise you bring to the job. They may ask to see references for any of the following reasons:

  • Learn about your character: Providing a reference from someone you've built a relationship with gives employers a new idea of your personality and work ethic.

  • Verify your work history or educational experience: Some employers like to make sure job applicants provide truthful information on a resume and cover letter.

  • Confirm your background: Certain jobs include a more rigorous application process that involves checking with references to prove your identity and qualifications before moving on to the next step in their hiring procedure.

  • Check if you'd be a good fit for their organization: Contacting a reference to learn about your qualifications and personality allows employers to better determine how well you'd fit into their workplace.

Why you may have no references for a job

You may find yourself in a situation where you need to provide references but don't have any professional experience or work contacts. Here are situations when you may have no job references and some ways you can overcome the challenge:

1. You're a recent graduate

Whether you just graduated high school or college, your only work experience might be through a summer job or a part-time job. If you're applying for a position and the employer asks for references, find either an academic contact or close character reference outside of a professional setting.

Ask your favorite teacher or the coach if they will be a reference as you start your first career move. Explain what position you are applying for and why you are excited about the job. They will probably be happy to help you by writing a letter or sharing their contact information with your prospective employer.

Deepti Sharma is a certified career coach with more than 10 years of experience. She provides personalized career guidance to her clients, and she often works with students and recent graduates. Here's some of her advice if you don't have any references:

You can still impress your potential employers even if you don't have any references. Focus on highlighting your strengths and experiences through your resume and cover letter. The trick is to be confident and enthusiastic about your potential.

Deepti Sharma

2. You're self-employed

If you decide to make a change and go back to work in a business you don't own, you may feel challenged to find a professional reference. Use your self-employment to your benefit by asking a trusted client or vendor to speak on your behalf as a reference. It's appropriate to ask someone you've done business with to explain your work ethic and expertise.

3. You aren't part of any clubs or organizations

As long as you can find a trusted contact who will speak positively about your character, you can supply a reference. Even if you've only interacted with someone a few times, they can still act as a reference. Make a list of people you've interacted with besides family. If you decide to choose a close friend, try to pick someone who has seen you in a more serious capacity, such as someone who has worked alongside you in an academic setting.

4. You recently moved to the United States

If you have recently moved to the United States, it may seem difficult to find professional contacts for your first job. However, you can use your former managers or colleagues from your previous location. Ensure that the potential employer can easily reach the references you provide, and they can communicate in English or an appropriate language.

Who to use as a reference for job applications

When prospective employers ask you to provide a reference, choose from professional and personal contacts that can make positive statements about you. It's usually best to avoid using family members who may not have as much familiarity with your academic and professional experience.

Here are ideas for people you can ask to be a reference as you apply for a new job:

Academic references

Academic references are helpful as you begin your career as a high school or college graduate. Use any of the following as a reference when applying for a position or a place in an academic program:

  • Professor

  • Teacher

  • Principal

  • Academic advisor

  • Lab instructor

  • Teacher's assistant

  • School guidance counselor

  • Senior classmate

Character references

A character reference is someone who's interacted with you enough to know your qualities and moral code. When you need a more personal character reference, you can ask one of the following:

  • Coach

  • Neighbor

  • Minister

  • Community leader

  • Volunteer coordinator

  • Parent of a close friend

  • Neighbor who hired you to babysit for their child/children

  • Extracurricular instructors (music teachers, martial arts instructors)

Read more: How To Ask for a Character Reference

Professional references

Once you make connections on the job, you can begin to build a network of professional references. You can use the following contacts as professional references on a job application:

  • Current manager

  • Former manager

  • Team leader

  • Senior coworker

  • Mentor

  • Job coach

  • Hiring manager

If you're searching for a new job and you want to avoid disclosing this to your current employer, it's perfectly acceptable to use previous supervisors or even people you've helped out doing small jobs, like moving furniture or painting a house.

Don't worry if you have no references for a job application. Be innovative. Consider offering to complete a trial period or a project to show them what you've got.

Deepti Sharma

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How to ask someone to be a reference

Consider these steps as you ask someone to act as a reference for a potential job:

1. Make a personal connection

When you ask someone to be a reference, make it as personal as possible. If you can ask them in person, do so. If not, send a thoughtful email or call them to inquire about how they are doing, then ask them if they are able to help you as you pursue the next step in your career.

Related: How To Determine Who To Use as a Reference

2. Be specific and open

Share your goals with your potential reference. Tell them about the position you're applying for and how it fits your experience. Tell them what you think the employer needs to know. Share any concerns you have about why you may not get the position.

3. Renew an old contact

If you need to ask someone from your past who you haven't spoken to in a longer period, contact them first to ask if they will help. When you reconnect, remind the person how you know each other. For example, if you are asking a high school teacher, remind them that you were in their chemistry class in 10th grade and you asked them for help with your award-winning science fair project.

4. Give them tools to verify your success

Once someone agrees to be a reference, send them a brief biography to help them share your history with potential employers. You may also want to send them a copy of your resume.

5. Show gratitude

Thank your reference for agreeing to help you. Share how your relationship with them has impacted your life. Leave your reference with a positive feeling about you before they speak with a prospective employer.

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