How to convert more Applicants into enrolled Students

Best practices for higher ed reference requests

References provide your university chance to verify what a candidate says on their application form and during their interview

References provide a chance to verify the information a candidate provides on the application form and in an interview. They’re your university’s best opportunity to obtain impartial and externally verified information about a candidates’ academic history and professional experience.

There are candidates out there look great on paper but perform poorly during interview, whether due to nerves or a lack of clear expectations. On the other hand, some candidates may interview well but could be relying on embellished or falsified information about their academic performance or career.

There will always be situations where you need third-party verification of a candidate’s information, and references are an invaluable part of the recruitment process. Read on for some tips for requesting references from candidate’s referees.

Avoid generic reference requests

When requesting references, think about what you want to learn about the candidate. If you’re justing asking referees to upload a letter, you’re probably going to get a standard static reference letter and won’t ultimately learn that much about the candidate. This will make your job much harder when comparing candidates.

Design a reference request template

Design a reference request letter specifically tailored to each programme you're recruiting for. Keep in mind exactly what you want to find out about the candidate. Ask specific questions such as:

  • How do you know the applicant?
  • What were the main responsibilities of the candidate when working with you?
  • What are the candidate’s greatest strengths?
  • Do you think the candidate is qualified for this programme?
  • What specific qualities does the candidate have that will make them successful in this programme?
  • What kind of management style did the candidate respond best to?
  • What sort of office environment did the candidate work best in?
  • How well did the candidate handle a specific skill or situation?
  • When did the applicant ever have to ‘sell’ an idea to a co-worker? How did he/she do it?
  • Provide an example of a time when the applicant had to be quick in coming to a decision. What obstacles did the candidate face and how did they attempt to overcome them?

 The questions you ask should prompt the candidate’s referee to talk about the candidate’s actual past experiences and behaviour. Prepare a scoring matrix where the referee can score the applicant in your selected criteria.

The same discrimination laws that apply to interviewing apply to reference checking: don’t ask about marital status, age, disabilities, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics. Make sure all questions relate directly to the candidate’s ability to be successful in the programme which they've applied to.

The hypothetical question

While the majority of the questions should be concrete, it can be a good idea to include one hypothetical question. This could be something along the lines of ‘would you rehire this candidate?’. Posing this question to referees can be useful in encouraging them to honestly evaluate the applicant.

Beware of fake referees

There are a few things you can do to ensure the legitmacy of referees. Only accept reference requests from professional email accounts tied to a verifiable business: you can also ask for the referee’s LinkedIn account to be sure of their professional status.

It’s also a good idea to ask for the referee’s phone number. Always phone them to check their identity, and raise any concerns you may have to see if there’s a simple explanation.


What measures does your university take to ensure top-quality references? Let us know with a comment tweet us with the hashtag #askfullfabric.


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Tania Roquette

I am the Head of Solutions at FULL FABRIC. I am passionate about education and technology.

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