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Photo of a young professional holds piece of paper with text "References"

By Tim Tyrell-Smith

Do college graduates really need references? Without real work experience, can’t they just get by with good grades and relevant on-campus activity?

Well, yes, they do. And no, they can’t.

We are in a new social networking world, of course. But your world is likely different compared to the person reviewing your resume. While you might be huge on Facebook, the world you’re entering often isn’t. It might even look down on your overly social habits.

So you need real references from real people. People who know something about you and your background, beyond your favorite band, movie, or app.

Since this may be your first need for an official reference, here’s your crash course:

Start on LinkedIn. LinkedIn is often called the business network for professionals. But it’s getting more social, as it should. Start here by asking contacts to provide you a LinkedIn recommendation. Once connected with a former professor, employer (internship or on-campus job), or administrator, send them a recommendation request.

Recommendations should be specific. Anyone can write a generic recommendation, but it’s the ones with details that interest hiring managers. Those details should include specific contributions you made while employed or otherwise involved with the campus organization, as well as the benefits received by an organization. This way, a hiring manager can see you making those same contributions to their organization.

Don’t wait to ask. The sooner the better. Ask while the active relationship is still recent, while they are still committed to you, and while your contributions are fresh in their mind. Months later, it might be more difficult to get their time to write a recommendation—even a short one.

Get personal references, too. References can bring credibility. So look for established professionals who know you personally, who watched you grow up and have a perspective on you from experience. This could be a family friend, coach, or tutor.

Choose your references smartly. References should be willing, able, and relevant. So choose job references with an eye to how they can help. Unfortunately, not everyone wants to write them. Your first choices might not have the time or don’t feel you worked together closely or for a long enough period to write a solid reference. And sometimes certain references are just not relevant for a job applicant (a swim coach, for example, can’t vouch for your writing skills).

Stay in touch. If you get a good reference from someone, make an effort to stay in contact. It says you respect the relationship, and it allows you to keep them actively in your corner if you need them to answer a call from a potential employer. Send them a monthly update on your job search and remind them of your specific job-search objectives, including target companies. Ask your references how they’d like to hear from you. It could be e-mail, text, a direct message on Twitter, or a wall post on Facebook.

Be sure they are prepared. Yes, you have to prep your work references. This means in anticipation of a call from a hiring manager to one of your references, you need to do a number of important tasks. First, let your reference know a call is coming. Second, tell them who’s calling and for what position. Third, offer some suggested talking points that are related to the job and specifics that explain why they should hire you.

Follow up. After each call they take on your behalf and after the interview process ends at each company, follow up. Ask for their feedback on the call and on how well you prepared them for it. Say a big thank you no matter the result and ask them if they’d be willing to take another call if necessary. It’s always helpful to know the true willingness of a reference.

Remember, references are valuable. They need proper care and feeding. You need them healthy and happy.

Tim Tyrell-Smith is founder of Tim's Strategy, a site that helps professionals succeed in job search, career and life strategy. Follow Tim on Twitter, @TimsStrategy, and learn about his two popular job-search books.

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