We get recommendation letters from all sorts of interesting people, from elected officials to corporate vice presidents to professors at the top of their field. But just because someone has a fancy title doesn’t mean they’re an expert at writing graduate school recommendations. Do not assume your references don’t need a little a coaching just because they’ve written a letter of recommendation before. Even professors, who are used to being asked to write on their students’ behalf may be unfamiliar with the practical and professional nature of our program. Your recommendations are a valuable way for the admissions committee to get to know you on a deeper level, so it’s important that you help your references put your best foot forward. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of your recommendations.
Choose recommenders who know you and what you’re like in a professional or academic setting. Having a relationship with the President of the World Bank is nice, but unless you worked with him on a day-to-day basis he’s probably not the best person to speak to your work ethic and professional abilities. The admissions committee is less impressed by recommenders with fancy titles and more interested in hearing from someone who can give them a sense of who you are and how you work. For this reason recent or long time immediate supervisors usually work best. We suggest two professional and one academic references. However, since the vast majority of our incoming students have been out of undergrad for several years you may choose three professional references if you feel that’s more appropriate. We are not interested in references from personal friends or family members.
Give your recommenders plenty of time. The earlier in the process you notify your recommenders, the more time they’ll have to give a thoughtful and thorough recommendation. Remember we are not just interested in whether your references believe you would be an asset to our program, but why. Three sentence long recommendations don’t add much to an application, no matter how well-intended they are. So make sure your recommenders are willing and able sit down and put in the time needed to make the case for why you belong at SIPA.
Help your recommenders stay on message. Communicate clearly with your recommenders about why you want to go to graduate school and what you’re hoping to get out of the experience. If possible, share a copy of your personal statement with your recommenders. Talk to them about what you think your strengths are going in and ask them to highlight these characteristics with specific examples from your time working together. If you can think of a time in your academic or professional experience that you believe highlights these attributes, remind your recommenders of that experience. The strongest applications highlight personal and professional values that are consistent throughout the CV, personal statements, and letters of recommendation.
Use your letters to address your weaknesses. In the same way that your recommenders can help highlight your assets, they can also help address any areas of concern. For example, if you are worried about your quantitative background going into the application process ask your recommenders to comment and talk about a time you took the lead on a particularly numbers-heavy project or about your ability to synthesize and analyze data. Your recommenders want to help you and are usually more than happy to oblige.
Let them know what to expect. As with everything, knowledge is power. You can download a copy of the application way of ahead of time to show your references what the recommendation form looks like. Once you’ve put their information in the system, explain that they will get an email prompting them to fill out the letter and follow up to make sure they don’t have any questions. The easier the process is for them, the more effort they’ll be willing to put into it.
Best of luck with your applications! We look forward to reading your recommendations soon!