Top 10 Application Tips #2 – Recommendation Letters

This is the second entry in our “Top 10″ list to assist you with understanding the process of submitting your admission application to SIPA.  This entry is focused on many of the questions we receive regarding the submission of letters of recommendation.

Question:  Can I submit more than three letters?

Answer: No, we will only accept three letters of recommendation.  We wish to be fair to all applicants and thus hold everyone to the same standard.

Question:  What is the ideal combination of recommendation letters?

Answer: There is no real ideal combination, it really depends on the applicant; however let me elaborate a bit on the subject.  Recommendation letters should come from one of two sources: academic or professional. In other words, from individuals who have supervised you in the classroom or in the work place. “Work place” is a broad term.

The work place could include internships, volunteer work, or paid full-time work. Sometimes unpaid work is much more in alignment with an applicant’s goals and if you are choosing to do something and not get paid for it, this shows a great deal of dedication and commitment.

Since SIPA is a professional school it makes sense that we would like to see at least one professional letter of recommendation. The only combination we really do not recommend is three academic letters of recommendation. An applicant that submits three academic letters is basically telling us that there is no one from the professional world that can comment on their ability and qualifications for graduate school.

Beyond this advice, any combination will do. If you have been out of school for several years, do not feel compelled to go back and get a letter of recommendation from a professor who did not really know you or that you have not been in contact with. We would much rather receive letters from those that know you and that you have been in contact with in some capacity. If you had fabulous relationships with a few professors two letters of recommendation from professors is fine.

Question:  Do you have general advice concerning the content of the letters?

Answer: Yes!  The best letters of recommendation go beyond addressing your character and include specific information on your potential to succeed in our program. This is best accomplished through specific examples. When you talk with those writing letters for you, please tell them to include examples of your competence.

It is one thing to say that someone is smart and capable; it is another to provide solid examples of intelligence and ability in the work place or in the classroom. Be sure that you speak with those writing letters on your behalf and clarify this point.

If you put yourself in my shoes, my job as the Director of Admission is to quantify your ability to do well in our program.  A letter that contains examples of work performed will better allow me to identify your ability and potential.  The Admissions Committee has to make tough calls (admission is a competition after all) and sometimes it can come down to the quality of the content contained in the recommendation letters.

Question:  How can those submitting the letters submit them?

Answer: When you start your online application you will be asked to enter the names and emails addresses of the three individuals you have chosen to submit letters on your behalf.  When you submit this information our system automatically sends the person an email with specific details on how to submit their letter.

Our preference is that those submitting letters do so through our application site.  In the email that is sent, there are specific instructions for the recommender to follow.  They will visit a web site and upload a copy of the letter.  This is the fastest and most convenient way.  We are not into ceremony – pretty letterhead and a “wet” signature are of no consequence in our decision making.

When a letter is uploaded, it will be matched to your application and you will be able to see that it has been submitted.  Thus this method is also nice for you, because if your recommender submits the letter via the web site, you will know in real time (if you log into your application) if it has been received.

Yes, recommenders can mail letters to us, but this slows the process down.  If a letter is delivered to our office we generally do not seek to match it to a file until after the deadline (January 5th) passes.  Thus there will be a little bit of tension on your part.  You will think, “Have all of my letters arrived?”  Unfortunately we cannot dedicate the time to tracking letters prior to the submission of an admission application.  If a letter is mailed, it can be sent to the following address:

Office of Admissions and Financial Aid
Columbia University – SIPA
420 West 118th Street – 4th Floor Room 408
New York, NY  10027

As far as to whom to address the letter to, it does not really matter.  Popular choices include The Admission Committee, To Whom it May Concern, or Matt Clemons.

Question:  Should I wait to submit my application until all of the letters of recommendation have been received?

Answer: No.  Applicants should not be concerned if an application is submitted before a letter or letters of recommendation have been received.  What ultimately matters is that both your application and the letters are submitted by the deadline of January 5th at midnight EST.

So, do not worry if letters of recommendation have yet to be submitted when submitting your application, you may submit your application prior to letters of recommendation being received.

Question:  What if a person wishes to write a letter in a language other than English?  Is this okay?

Answer: Yes, it is okay if a person writes a letter in a language other than English, however that letter will need to be translated into English, and not by you.   Letters of recommendation are confidential and you cannot translate your own letter.

If someone wishes to write a letter in another language, ask that they have the letter translated by either an employee they work with or a certified translator.  The person who translates the letter should include their name and email address so we can get in touch with him/her if necessary.


A final note is to encourage those submitting letters on your behalf to do so as early as possible.  An application that does not have all documents submitted by the deadline does not look professional.  We understand that the submission of letters of recommendation is beyond the control of applicants and we are willing to work with applicants when unusual circumstances lead to the late submission of letters, however we do take note when documents come in after the stated deadline.