The "references" section of a job application is often skimmed over by job seekers who are eager to relay the finer details of their past job descriptions. But recent research shows applicants shouldn't be so hasty: Your references can make or break your ability to get the gig. According to a 2012 CareerBuilder survey, 80 percent of hiring managers confirmed that they check references before extending a job offer. And hiring managers reported in an Addison Group survey that references are nearly as important as a resume when considering a candidate. In fact, twice as many hiring managers emphasize references as cover letters.

But the time to get your references ready is long before the hiring manager asks for names and numbers, says Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, a career coach and cofounder of SixFigureStart. She walks us through what to do before, during, and after you apply for a job to make sure your references sing your praises.

1. BEFORE YOU APPLY: MAKE YOUR PICKS.

“Identify potential references way before you even have an interview,” says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. If you’re on the job hunt, reach out to coworkers, previous managers, mentors, and clients who have worked with you closely. “You should be 100 percent confident that they will give you a good reference when asked to, so don’t ask people if you’ve had a substantial disagreement with them or you’re unsure about what they’ll say,” she says.

The CareerBuilder survey found that 62 percent of execs had received negative information when reaching out to a reference. “Rather than asking ‘Would you serve as a reference for me?’ ask: ‘Would you be able to give me a positive reference?’” says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. Any sign of hesitation means you might want to consider other options.

Before you hand your list of references over to HR, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio also recommends asking your potential picks to write you a LinkedIn recommendation. Reading their comments will give you an immediate sense of what qualities each person is likely to speak to and how effusive they are. And LinkedIn recommendations can also better your odds of getting seen by a hiring manager in the first place: Passive recruitment is on the rise, with 84 percent of organizations now using social media to search for candidates who haven’t actively applied for a position. Public, well-polished recommendations can help you catch the eye of a hiring manager.

2. DURING THE APPLICATION PROCESS: REACH OUT.

You might be tempted to share the full job description with each reference or to go into deep notes about how the actual interview went—but resist, says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. “People are busy and don’t want this level of detail,” she says. But do send each reference a short note, thanking them again for agreeing to be a reference and giving them a heads up that they can expect a call or email for a particular position.

And go ahead and jog the person’s memory about a specific project or accomplishment that they might want to focus on, Thanasoulis-Cerrachio says. At first blush it may sound pushy or tacky, but your references will appreciate that they don’t have to prep for the call, and the examples they give will show off the skills the hiring manager is after.

For example, you could send an email that says: “Thanks, Jane, for agreeing to serve as my reference. I appreciate it very much! By way of background, this position requires especially strong leadership and communication skills. Would you mind giving them the example of when I led the cross-function team of 12 in four countries to create and deliver the new intranet site for our department?”

3. AFTER THE HIRING DECISION IS MADE: FOLLOW UP.

Is there anything more awkward than circling back with a reference to say that you didn’t get the gig? Sure: never following up after that person took the time to endorse you. “You should absolutely let your reference know the outcome,” says Thanasoulis-Cerrachio. That doesn’t have to mean a play-by-play or a lengthy list of reasons you got passed over or decided not to accept a position. Just a simple outcome is fine, along with another thanks for helping you with the reference.

“Whether you got the job or not, they know you’re always focused on your career and it makes you look professional and considerate,” she says. Not bad traits, considering you’ll likely be getting in touch for another reference at some point in the future.