TODAY'S job market is more competitive than ever. A single newspaper advertisement for a job vacancy draws dozens, even hundreds of applications.

To succeed in this climate, job applicants need to ensure that each of their applications meets or exceeds requirements in every respect.

From the initial resum and application letter, through several rounds of interviews to the final negotiations, each step of the job search process needs to be planned and completed with care and professionalism, to secure the job you want.

One area of job search that job seekers often overlook is reference checking by the potential employer or employment agency.

When filling an important position, most companies will make the effort to check your references before making a final commitment. Today, an increasing number of reference enquiries are handled over the telephone, or even in a face-to-face interview.

What your referees say

Have you waited nervously for the affirmative call following the reference checks? Or, have you been to a string of initial interviews that went nowhere?

Whether you get the job or not boils down to what your referees say about you. This can either boost your chances of securing your new job or "torpedo" you out of the running.

When selecting your referees, you will need to have between three and six referees available. Your most recent boss is an obvious candidate, being best acquainted with your recent work.

However, you may also like to call on earlier managers or supervisors, or someone at a higher level. Occasionally, you will be asked to supply the names of one to two peers or associates who worked closely with you, or a character reference from a non-work acquaintance or friend.

Once you have chosen your referees, you may need to prepare them on what to say during a phone enquiry.

What you want is a balanced, fair appraisal from your referee that highlights your strengths. If the enquirer persists on probing for negatives, such as weaknesses or failures, you will want your referee to respond constructively and objectively.

If your current job search is the result of retrenchment, an important aspect to consider is the official statement on your termination. In this situation, the best approach is to negotiate with your former employer on an appropriate statement.

One of the best ways to prime your referees is to propose a broad script that enables the referee to provide responses to typically asked questions. You and your referee should discuss it before settling on a final draft.

To compose a reference statement that truly reflects your professional competence, you will need to undertake an in-depth analysis of your strengths and define your accomplishments.

Here are some suggested topics:

* Credibility.�What is/was your relationship with your proposed referee? If he or she is a former colleague or boss, which is usually the case, include details such as the nature of the reporting relationship and period of time spent working together.

* Accomplishments.�What were some of the things you did well during your period of employment? What major contributions did you make? Looking back, how valuable were you to the company?

* Personal traits.�Comment on your positive traits, especially those that relate to your job. These include management style, degree of rapport with other employees, integrity and personal habits (for example, punctuality).

*�Weaknesses.�Make it clear that there is no need to broach this topic unless the enquirer raises it. If anything has to be said about your shortcomings or areas for development, try to agree on a list of characteristics and your efforts at improvement in this area.

*�Reason for leaving.�As noted above, agree on an official statement. Ensure that this statement is kept simple, direct, positive and plausible.

When to ask

Do not offer references until your potential employer requests for them. Gauge when you may have to deliver your list of referees, based on the seriousness of your negotiations.

At this time, it is critical that you contact each of your chosen referees. You should inform them of the nature of the job you are considering, as well as how you have positioned yourself for the role.

This allows the referee some time to think about what to say to specifically support your marketing efforts. In addition, timely communication with your referees helps to firmly establish their support. Ask them if they are willing to call you after they have received a phone enquiry and relay the conversation to you.

Working with your referees not only supports you in your final negotiations, it is also a good source of information on how you are doing in the race. Remember, the best form of advertising is by word of mouth.