Recommendation letters are one of the most important components of any application. It is also the only component of your application that you have little control over. This makes them unnecessarily stressful. I intentionally said “little control” because I want to stress the point that you DO actually have some control over the content, formatting and submission of recommendation letters, and successful applicants often make the best use of this control they possibly can.
There are several posts on this blog, as well as on online forums, regarding what you should do to ensure the letters are the best you can obtain. This includes selecting appropriate recommenders and making sure they are well acquainted with your goals, both academic and professional, especially as they relate to SIPA, and also that your writers stay on track in terms of submission deadlines.
Overall, there are three main things you should focus on as you approach your recommenders and/or guide them through the process of letter writing. Why? Well because your recommenders’ familiarity with writing recommendation letters can vary widely. For example, when I applied to my U.S. undergraduate school, my Romanian professors had never even heard of a “recommendation letter.” Most of them also didn’t speak English. And while the task was considerably easier when I applied to SIPA (because my college professors were familiar with writing recommendation letters and Columbia University), I still prepared a short, concise document to orient their letters, in addition to sending them my resume. The three things I stressed in that document are the same three things every recommender should know, which are:
1. Why you want to apply to SIPA
Make sure you detail your motivation, as well as how your experience fits the school.
2. Which program you are applying to
In general, be as specific as you can, both in your application, and in your guide for their recommendation letters. The better they/you can pinpoint what program/concentration/institute/research area/faculty member you’re interested in working with/in, the more you’ll stand out and the better prepared you will seem. This of course entails that you do your research, and tie your skills/experience to those particular areas of interest you are envisioning.
3. How your skills/experience make you a strong candidate and a positive addition to SIPA
“Ask not what SIPA can do for you, but what you can do for SIPA.” That’s the essence of this point. Remind your recommenders of instances where you demonstrated those skills in situations they witnessed. For one of my recommenders, I inserted a “remember when you asked me to chair that international affairs conference for undergraduates? Well, that conference really inflamed my intellectual appetite for the topic, and it has only intensified in the past few years.”
Additional tip: How to submit your letters
Since recommendations are submitted online, make sure your recommenders check both their inbox and spam folders so that they don’t miss the link we send them. They will use this link to log in to the application system and submit their letter on your behalf. If they have issues with the online submission, they can email the letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. (If they submit the letter through email, they can also attach this optional evaluation sheet, which is already provided if they submit it through the application system.) Please remember that all letters should be on letterhead, signed and in English (or accompanied by certified translations).
Also, note that all documents, except foreign transcripts judged irreplaceable, become the property of Columbia University and cannot be returned. So if you need a copy of your recommendation letter, ask your recommender for one.
As always, let us know if you have any questions!
P.S. Review last year’s blog post, “4 Tips for Letters of Recommendation” for advice on selecting your recommenders.