Job Search Advice

How to Get Referrals When Applying to Tech Jobs and Internships

Referrals are a great way to get a warm introduction to a tech company. Keep reading for our tips on how to get a referral when applying for a job or internship in tech!

Michael Yan
Published: (Updated: ) - 6 min read
Michael Yan is the co-founder & CEO of Simplify. Previously a software engineer at Meta, Michael dropped out of Stanford to found Simplify. He is a part-time career coach & Y Combinator alum.

Photo by Rock Staar / Unsplash

In the competitive world of tech, having a great resume and cover letter isn’t always enough. If you’re looking for ways to stand out as an applicant, it may be time to secure a referral. Read more to find out why referrals are so important and some of the best ways to get one!

Why Referrals are Important

Funny enough, the job hiring process is a lot like dating. People are always more comfortable going on a date with someone if they’ve been set up by a common connection. It makes both parties feel safer and as such, there’s an increased chance of a second date compared to if they were total strangers. There’s no guarantee of things turning into a relationship, but the door of possibility is a little wider.

In a sea of applicants, a referral is a way for a company to contextualize you. If one of their employees can vouch for you, even in a small way, it takes you from being yet another strange face to someone who can be trusted. Referrals can either be informal endorsements, perhaps from a friend who knows someone at the company you’re applying to, or part of a formal referral program.

Referrals are so useful to companies that some even offer financial incentives to their employees for referring candidates that go on to be hired. Not only are they seen as an effective way for businesses to fill positions, but referrals often result in hiring people who suit the culture of a company well and thus, are likely to stay on. It’s important to take note of this side of the hiring process so that you as an applicant can use it to your own advantage.

At its most fundamental, a referral is a green flag of credibility for the person looking at your application. It’s unlikely to be enough to get you a job offer on the spot, but it could get you that second date :)

Interested in improving your resume? Read our blog post on some great tech side projects that will make it easier for you to get a referral!

How to Get a Referral

Again, like dating, when it comes to getting a referral for that tech job, you cannot be afraid to put yourself out there. You have to be willing to use every resource at your disposal:

Personal and Academic Network

Let’s start with your personal network: friends, family, neighbors, and long-lost relatives on Facebook. These are often the most useful connections you can have when trying to get a referral. Heard about a cousin who got a great tech job? Call them. Ask who they know and follow that trail until it takes you to the promised land.

When your mom says she knows someone who knows someone in tech, try not to switch off. Ask questions. And when you get that annoying alumni email from your old college, resist sending it to spam. Reaching out to old college contacts and going to alumni events can be a great way to network and find people who can connect you to jobs and referrals alike.

It may seem a little cringe, but even just letting everyone in your life where you’d ideally like to work can open doors. Tell your grandma and or your barista. The thing about job referrals is that they tend to come from the unlikeliest sources but even a tangential connection to a tech company can get you a foot in the door.

Reach out on LinkedIn (and other platforms)

Reaching out cold to someone may feel like the most terrifying thing in the world but it’s a genuinely effective approach to getting referrals. If you want to be strategic about it, start at the LinkedIn page for the company you’re applying for and note who else is connected to it. You may even find you went to the same college as someone working there.

Use the "People" tab to find connections that work at the company!

Even if there isn’t already a connection, you can make one. Be proactive. Do the digging and find any excuse, a shared school, town, or first name, to reach out to someone at the company via LinkedIn. They’ll have to accept your connection request first but if they do, send them a message. It doesn’t need to be a paragraph, in fact it’s better if it’s not. You just need a few sentences saying who you are, which roles you think you’d be a good fit for at the company, and then finally, ask if they’d be willing to give you a referral.

As we said, some companies incentivize referrals so you may well find that unlike with dating, the near stranger you just messaged has a financial motivation to not ghost you. Depending on the company you’re applying for, sometimes Twitter and Instagram can also be great places to reach out to people.

This may seem obvious but remember that the purpose of seeking a referral is to ensure that you seem credible. How you approach people adds to this. Be professional and make sure that when the person you reached out to clicks on your profile, LinkedIn or otherwise, it shows the credibility you’re wanting to communicate.

Speak to Your Recruiter

If the job you’re applying for was brought to you by a recruiter, ask if they can introduce you to an engineer at the company. Recruiters tend to be well-connected and most importantly, invested in getting you matched with a job. That’s the perfect combination when you’re looking for a referral.

Here's an email I sent to a recruiter after a talk!

Attend Career Fairs

Do not overlook the networking possibilities of an old-school job fair, especially in tech. It’s one of the most useful ways for you to put names and faces to the people in charge of hiring for your ideal jobs. A simple connection with a company’s recruitment representative could mean the difference between your resume going from the “pass” to the “maybe” pile.

I (Michael) got fast-tracked to an interview with Microsoft simply because I had a great conversation with the recruiter at my school's career fair!

It's not just recruitment officers at career fairs though, some tech companies will send their engineers out to meet with people too. Asking for a referral on the spot probably won’t be appropriate but it does give you an excuse to reach out later and ask for one.

Final Note: Don’t Be Shy!

Asking for a referral can be quite a vulnerable experience. It requires you to put into words what it is you want and why you think you deserve it. The value that referral can add to your application is worth all the awkwardness though.

People admire a little gutsiness. Even the act of reaching out to someone for a referral can be impressive enough that they recommend you for a job. If you’re struggling to find a way to stand out for your dream tech job or internship, a referral could be the very thing that gives your application the credibility it needs to get noticed. Don’t let fear stop you from getting that.

Here’s a quick recap on getting that referral, before you start flexing your DM skills on LinkedIn:

  1. Find someone who works at the company you’re applying to. You don’t need to know them directly but there needs to be some kind of connection.
  2. Be clear about which roles you’re interested in and why you think you’d be a good fit. You need to convince the person that you’re worth vouching for.
  3. Hope for the best, and don't be intimidated by rejection!

Best of luck with the hiring process!

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