The Ins And Outs Of Recommendation Letters

Because of the sheer quantity of applicants and because of the geographic distances from which they apply, SIPA regrettably cannot offer interviews to prospective students. In order to get the most accurate snapshot of a candidate, the admissions committee relies on letters of recommendation from those that can vouch for an applicant’s prior success and if he or she would be an asset to the SIPA community.

In the past, there has been some confusion about these letters. Who should they be from? What should they say? How well does the writer have to know me? This post will attempt to dispel some of the myths behind the recommendation letter and what we are looking for.

How many letters of recommendation do you need?

We want three recommendation letters from each applicant, no more, no less. Please follow this guideline, as it is important for us to hear a number of distinct voices on why we should consider your candidacy.

Who should these letters be from?

We ask that each applicant submit one reference from someone who knows him or her in an academic setting (your undergraduate English professor, your economics TA, your thesis adviser). We also ask that each applicant submit one reference from someone who knows him or her in a professional setting (your supervisor at work, your colleague with whom you spent late nights finishing a half-year project). The third letter can be from a recommender of your choice, but please avoid family members or friends who have not worked with you in a professional setting [or your local congressperson who only knows you live in his/her district].

I could get my colleague to write the recommendation, or I could get my supervisor (or the CEO of my company) to write it. Who should I choose?

This is up to the applicant, but the golden rule is to choose the one who knows you better. Who can speak more convincingly on how you benefited the company? The answer to this question is always the right person to choose. Remember, we are trying to build a community at SIPA and we are trying to learn as much about you as possible. If the choice is between the Senator or his volunteer director with whom you worked all summer, opt for the volunteer director.

What should my recommenders discuss in the letter?

There are many topics we would like to see touched upon in the letter of recommendation. We want to learn more about the applicant’s ability to communicate and his or her writing and quantitative skills, critical thinking ability. We also want to know why he or she ultimately benefited the organization. Our main objective is to see if the candidate has the skills to succeed inside a SIPA classroom and will become an asset to our community. The recommender should keep this in mind when crafting the letter!

Which professor should I choose to write my recommendation letter?

Choose someone that knows you well and can speak to the skills mentioned above. It’s probably not a good idea to choose a professor whose class you got an “A” in but doesn’t know your first name. We would much rather see a recommendation from a professor who maybe gave you a B or B+, but knows you well and can speak to your skill set and your work ethic. Ask yourself this: which professor can speak highly of you and knows you well?

I don’t have any work experience. Who should I ask for the professional recommendation?

If you have no professional experience, you should ask someone who can speak to your abilities outside the classroom and in a work setting. Have you had an internship? Have you volunteered? Ask your supervisors from these experiences to write this recommendation for you. This will straddle academic and professional.  And as we mentioned before, try to ensure that this person can speak highly of you and knows you well. You can pair this recommendation with the two strong academic references that you will receive.

I graduated from school a long time ago and absolutely cannot get an academic reference. What should I do?

If you absolutely cannot get an academic reference, then three professional will suffice.

Do you have any last words of advice for applicants?

Have your recommenders be specific. We want to get as much information on you as possible, because we want more reasons to accept you into our incoming class!