An agency recruiter called me last week seeking a reference for a former colleague. I get a lot of reference checking calls, but this time I was surprised.

I hadn’t heard from the applicant in more than a few of years. I honestly didn’t know where she was currently working, nor if she even stayed in the field. So, I’m sure the recruiter detected the “news to me” tone in my voice. I made it through the recruiter’s basic questions but kept thinking that my responses could have been far stronger if the applicant simply let me know that I might be called for a reference.

To ensure you get the best possible references, here are my five guideposts for a successful job reference:

Create Short List of References. When asked for references, you want to immediately get them to the recruiter or firm. Do your homework—identify best possible references and note what each of them might be able to underscore about your strengths in key aspects of the prospective job

Heads Up to References. When you start your job search, reach out to three individuals who you feel will best speak to your experience, talent and personality. Ask if they might be willing to serve as a reference if an opportunity arises in the future. Confirm their titles, preferred phone numbers and email addresses.

Background References. If an interview goes well and the employer asks for references, quickly notify your references. Briefly give insights about the job but outline the key points the employer appears to be seeking and remind your references of the specific things you’ve done. This is invaluable. As much as references might want to help you, you can’t expect them to recall key aspects of your past work. Recruiters love hearing specific examples. They often share those specific stories as validation of the hiring manager’s desire to make a job offer. This might be a good time to also mention that you should stay in touch with people who might eventually serve as references. Keep them informed of career progression and moves. Don’t just contact them when you need their help.

Put it in Writing. After a few days, people only remember 10-20% of what they hear, so jot down your key points in a quick email to your references. This provides ready talking points when they talk with the recruiter. If the reference is needed in written form, offer to write some thoughts that might help get your reference started. Often, those written points help form the structure for the best possible reference—plus it helps ensure that the letter will be completed in a timelier manner.

Follow Up. Thank your references whether you get the job or not. In my recent case, I heard from the employer—not the employee—that she landed the job. Ouch. Such bad etiquette might affect the next reference she requests.