References for High School Students: A Detailed Guide


Getting a job during your high school years used to be a rite of passage. You get your drivers license, earn some money, and explore your newfound independence. But with difficult economic conditions, the minimum wage part-time jobs previously filled by teenagers are seeing increasing competition from full-time employees that don’t need to work their schedule around school hours and curfew.

When employers get pickier, you need to submit an application that stands out from the crowd and one of the best ways to do this is to have solid references.

Who High School Students Should Ask to be their References: Don’t fall into the catch-22 thinking of “I need references from previous bosses, but I’ve never worked so I can’t get references”. Here are 11 references when you are in high school and have no previous work experience.

Friends or Family Who Currently Work for the Company

The best way to get hired is to know somebody who already works there and have them recommend you – more than half of new jobs were found through networking. This is one situation where family members and your network of friends can be a tremendous help in your job search.

Employers trust recommendations from their staff, so if you have a friend or family who already works for the company reach out to them before submitting your application. Many companies use referral bonuses to encourage workers to help hire people they know. Normally the employee will need to submit a form before you apply to get the benefit, but sometimes you just need to list them as a referral on your application.

Have your connection talk to the hiring manager directly about your interest in working there and be flexible. Even if the job posting you saw is full, there may be other opportunities that are not publicly posted.

Expert Tip: Create a LinkedIn profile to find people in your network that are connected to the company you are targeting. Here are the 13 people to connect with on LinkedIn that help you the most.

Bosses From Informal Jobs

Just because you were paid in cash and didn’t pay taxes doesn’t mean you didn’t have a job with a boss. Did you babysit for a family? Mow the grass for someone in your neighborhood? Pet-sit for a friend or walk their dog when they would be home late.

All of these are examples that show how you handled responsibility. Were you dependable and deliver on your commitments? Were you flexible to meet the needs of your boss? Did you show resilience in overcoming challenges when things didn’t go according to plan?

Anyone you’ve done odd-jobs for can be a reference, and if you’ve done the work consistently over several years they make some of the best references.

Athletic Coaches From High School or All-Star Teams

Many athletic programs require significant effort and dedication from their members. Where a high-school team may practice every day for an hour, All-Star teams may have practices 2-3 hour long practices multiple times a week and require significant travel for competitions and tournaments.

Coaches get to know their team members very well, especially how they hold up under the stress and pressure of the season. How do they handle adversity? Are they consistently on-time to practice and prepared to work? Do they put in the effort even when nobody is watching or do they just go through the motions?

Volunteer Coordinators

Volunteer leaders are conscientious and make excellent references, even if you don’t have a close personal relationship with them. Many coordinators will give a solid reference if they know that you volunteered more than just once or twice, even if they don’t really remember you.

Volunteering has an implicit agreement of altruism. Call it selflessness, humanitarianism, or karma, but doing good is its own reward. Just the fact that you were there and they don’t have any negative recollections is enough for them to give a positive reference.

High School Teachers

Most people automatically think of teachers as the best references for high school students and they are a great choice to write recommendation letters for college admissions and scholarships. However, most high school jobs are in fast food and retail and these employers don’t put a high value on references from teachers for the simple reason that they are less relevant.

High school jobs are not usually mentally challenging, businesses want employees that are dependable, on-time, and trustworthy. They need workers that show up for their shifts and don’t try to help themselves (or their friends) to free stuff.

However, because teacher references are so common employers have come to expect them and they won’t hurt you. Unless the teacher gives you rave reviews they will just fade into the background noise of all the other candidates.

Expert Tip: Teachers for classes that teach practical skills make better references than traditional core curriculum classes. Consider teachers from electives like Technology Applications, Journalism, Band/Choir, Fine Arts, Vocational Programs, and Career Education courses.

Extracurricular Activity Leaders

If you participated in any student government, high school clubs, or organizations, ask the leader or advisor to be a reference. Remember, you don’t have to be a standout member of the activity to get a good reference. Most students don’t participate, so simply being part of an extracurricular puts you ahead of the pack.

Just like volunteer activities, activity leaders are enthusiastic about their programs and will give a positive reference by default unless you have given them a strong reason not to support you.

High School Counselors

Many students overlook their guidance counselor when they need references or letters of recommendation, but counselors are directed to advocate for student achievement and opportunities per the ASCA. Additionally, counselors make excellent references because their day to day job is helping students achieve their goals.

Counselors are naturally looking at the strengths of each student in the context of their activities. When an employer contacts a counselor for a reference, the counselor is able to connect the student’s strengths to the business needs of the position and speak in terms that the employer understands.

Expert Tip: Even if you’ve never really spoken to a counselor they can still make a good reference. The fact that you’ve navigated through your high school so far without needing major assistance shows you are a self-starter and independent with confidence in your decisions.

Community Leaders

You don’t have to be highly involved to get a reference from community leaders. If you attend church you can ask the leader that knows you the best. If you participated in any charity events or fundraisers – whether or not you actually donated or raised money – you can contact the coordinator to be a reference.

Of course the more involved you are the more useful the reference will be in your job search. References are much more effective when they can speak with specific examples of their experience with you.

Expert Tip: Before deciding to include political or social activism content, research the values and position of the company so you can decide if it will help or hurt your application.

Summer Activity Organizers

Many parents enroll their kids into summer programs or classes to keep them busy and active (and off their phones) during the summer months. Remember that painting class you took where your portrait looked more like Krusty the Clown than the model? How about that sports clinic or the coding camp you took over the summer? All of them are opportunities to ask for a reference from the instructors.

Classmates From Major School Projects

Normally you should not use a social friend as a reference unless they have worked with you, but many high-school classes include group projects that last for several weeks and count for a significant grade. In this context, you can use one of your team members as a reference because they can speak to your performance – they were effectively your coworker on the project.

Make sure you talk to your friend ahead of time so they why you listed them as a reference. You should have a coaching session and do a mock phone call where you pretend to be the employer. You can’t anticipate every question but have them practice it a few times and make sure they stay on subject with their responses.

Social and Hobby Groups

When you are really interested in a topic your passion comes through and that energy carries a lot of weight, even if it is not directly related to the work functions on the job. You can probably find someone to be a reference for any activity where you interact with other enthusiasts, even when it is an individual activity.

For example, bullet journals and photography are two popular hobbies that are solo by nature. However, if you participate in a club or other group where you show your work, share techniques, discuss products, etc… you can use one of the other active members as a reference.

Neighbors and Family Friends

Everyone in the school system has high school teachers and a counselor they can ask to be a reference, but if you’ve gone through the list and made it to the end with only those two categories then you should consider your neighbors and family friends as possible references rather than leaving a field blank.

To be most effective, you need to find a professional way to describe your relationship to them other than neighbor or family friend. List any work you’ve done for them like babysitting, lawn care, house sitting, pet care, party planner or events coordinator. You can even list them as your mentor if you’ve discussed your education or life goals with them.

It is easy to think of someone as just a friend, but when you stop and think about the details you can usually find examples where they relied on you to be responsible or you depended on them for guidance or advice. Use these examples to frame your relationship for the reference.

Expert Tip: Simply having them be a character reference is not very valuable unless there are specifics they can provide during the reference check. Speak with them and try to come up with examples where you demonstrated one or more of the key characteristics to include in references.

Can I Use Family Members as a Reference? Never use family members as a formal reference on your resume or on a job application. When you have a family member that is networked with your target job then have them reach out through their connections to give you a referral.

Hiring managers expect that family members will be biased and always provide a glowing review – even when it is not warranted. Your application loses credibility and is likely to get discarded at the first review.

Expert Tip: College courses are vastly different than high school classes. We did the research and consulted with university student services experts to demystify the transition. Learn what you need to succeed in College Classes: A Detailed Guide for High School Students.

Dan Sawyer

Founding editor and head writer of ExpertEmployee.com. Dan is a job interview and career expert, with more than 20 years of experience in senior roles at high tech leaders Space Exploration Technologies and Samsung Austin Semiconductor.

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