References are people who can and will provide an unbiased assessment of your values, temperament, and judgement, based on their past interactions with you.
What values, temperament and judgement are reflected by these situations?
A student, preparing for an interview, asked other students what interview questions the employer tended to ask, then consulted me for advice. “They are going to ask me what my goals are. What should I say?”
Another student was applying for graduate admission. I gave him an outline of my ongoing research and asked him to indicate potential thesis topics he could see himself doing that would move the research program forward. He responded that he was a hard worker and quick learner who would do whatever he was asked to do, and would be forever grateful for my esteemed supervision.
Potential graduate supervisors and employers want to avoid recruiting people like this.
Graduate programs and employers use references’ impressions to decide how a person will fit in their program or workplace
Isn’t this discrimination?
Discrimination means to tell items apart. One person is being chosen from 5, 10, 100, or 999 candidates. Every job hiring and graduate student recruitment involves “discrimination”.
Unless the decision process involves some intentional or systemic discrimination against a protected group, it is not only inherent, but it is essential. It is perfectly acceptable and even essential to discriminate against people with poor judgement, for example.
Furthermore, an unsuccessful candidate may have been “better” in some way than the successful candidate. There are many dimensions of comparison and the chosen candidate may be better on the most important dimension. Also, there is no requirement that the “best” candidate be selected. The employer or program may be trying to create a well-balanced team and may only be concerned that the chosen candidate is good enough and has skills that complement rather than duplicate the other members of the team.