I got a call yesterday from an employer looking for a reference for a student, and I was totally caught off guard because the student hadn't told me about it. First of all, I couldn't recall who the student was right on the spot since I work with thousands of students, and this particular student had a very common last name. Luckily, after a few minutes of awkward silence on the phone, I searched my memory and was able to remember him. But then I had to quickly scramble to remember what I knew about him. I asked the recruiter if he would mind if I took a minute to look up my counseling notes in our student database, and he agreed. After a few more minutes, I was finally able to provide a reference to the recruiter. But was it the best reference I could have given him? Probably not. Plus now the recruiter knew that the student hadn't contacted me beforehand, which could create an unprofessional impression.
All of this could have been avoided if only the student had given me a heads up that the employer would be calling me for a reference, what position he was interviewing for, what the employer was looking for in a candidate and what he wanted me to emphasize about him in the reference. That way, I could have strategically developed a targeted reference for him that would have been much better than my ad hoc, top of mind response and would have increased his chances of landing the job.
Moral of story: Let your references know each and every time you are using them as a reference for a job so that they won't be caught off guard like I was and will be able to provide you with the glowing reference you deserve.