How to plan for your recommendation letters

The letters of recommendation from the right people address your potential and strengthen your application, thus boosting your chance of getting into good programs. However, the process of getting the good letters could be also stressful. So here are some tips I would love to share for recommendation letters.

1. Select people who know you the best and truly wish you success
SIPA prefers that your three references be a mix of academic and professional contacts. You should select people who know you and your work well enough to comment on it and will speak highly of you. It is recommended that when getting a reference from a job, choose someone who was in a position of authority over you and who viewed your work firsthand.

2. Be strategic if you are away from school for a long time or you don’t have professional experience
For me, I worked for about five years before coming to SIPA. So I thought it is better for me to get all the three letters from my professional contacts. Thus, I got two letters from my supervisors in two companies which I worked for, and one from a director in a media company where I volunteered for a long time after college. I thought this was the best possible combination that I could have at that time, rather than reaching out to my undergraduate professors. If you don’t have professional experience but have relevant internship experience, it may be a good idea to ask for a letter from your supervisor in an organization where you did an internship. Keep in mind the Admissions Office recommends anyone out of school less than three years (possibly five) obtain at least one academic reference.

3. Provide your recommenders as much information as possible
The best letters don’t come for free. You should do your best to ensure you have the best possible letters by providing your recommenders with as much information as you can. If it’s your professor, send along a current resume and a piece of writing or assignment that you did in the professor’s class. For both academic and professional contacts, I recommend you include a draft of your personal statement, so that they will know what you are planning for your future career.  You should also provide a description of SIPA so that they get a better sense of what kind of degree you’re pursuing. I would also recommend you encourage them to reference SIPA and your degree program by name to give the letter another level of specificity for the admissions committee.

4. Ask them early and keep good manners throughout the process
Most recommenders are busy people so ask them early to give them enough time to write a letter. Some people might argue that no matter how early you ask, they will start writing nearly toward the deadlines. Even though it is true, it is better to inform them that you need a letter beforehand. Keep in mind that it is also different from asking a letter five days before the deadline versus one month before the deadline. In addition, it is a good idea to send a thank you note after the recommender has written the letter. When you are informed of the admissions decision, don’t forget to send another batch of thank you notes, regardless of whether you get into the programs or not. You may need them again!

It is true that you will never be able to have a complete control over the content of your recommendation letters.  But by carefully selecting your recommenders, and making effort to inform them about your background and plans, you will ensure supportive letters that will meet the needs of your application.

[Photo courtesy of Rena Sung | After I got accepted, I flew to Singapore where he is based on to say thank you. The photo was taken at a restaurant with my recommender and another supervisor.]