Archive for letters of recommendation

How to Ask for a Recommendation Letter

As part of the SIPA application, applicants are required to submit at two letters of recommendation. When it comes to submitting these letters, applicants often ask what makes a “good” letter of recommendation. Who should I ask? How do I approach a potential recommender? Well no more fretting. SIPA Admissions is here to help you answer all those questions with a comprehensive guide to letters of recommendation.

Who should I ask?

The SIPA application is looking for students who show an ability to thrive in a policy grad school and into their future careers. A letter of recommendation is the perfect submission for a person to help create that narrative for an applicant. The letter of recommendation should be completed by someone who knows an applicant’s ability and potential in the work place and academically. That person can be anyone who’s worked with you in a professional manner including former professors, bosses, colleagues, or even people you supervised. We don’t suggest that recommenders be people who know you personally but not professionally.

How should I ask a recommender?

The ask can be the hardest part of the recommendation letter process. During the ask, you want to be able to provide your recommender with as much information needed to write a recommendation letter that shows why you would be a good fit for SIPA and your prospective career. So preparing for the information is just as important as actually asking. This can include information on the SIPA website on the type of student the school is looking for, information on the type of career you will be seeking after SIPA, and much more. It would also be helpful to provide your recommender with a resume when asking them to write a letter so can get the full breadth of who you are as a professional and see parts of your professionalism they may not get the chance to know in the aspect that they work with you.

So you’ve gathered all the information and now it’s time to actually ask your recommender to write a letter for you. When you ask, you can email but it may be better to meet with them in person so you can explain why you are asking them specifically, why you are applying to SIPA, and what you’re hoping to gain from SIPA that can bring you to your future career. No matter the medium of your request, be sure to explain your interest in the program and provide them with copies of useful information.

Reminding a recommender?

If a recommender hasn’t sent in their letter yet and it’s close to the deadline, it is always fine to remind them to send it in. You can send them an email and remind them of the date your application is due. Be sure to explicitly remind them that they have a recommendation letter to send. Feel free to have a few back up options for recommenders if you’re cutting it close on the application deadline.

4 Tips for Letters of Recommendation

Low with Alma Mater One of the most valuable components of your application package are the letters of recommendation. These three letters tell us who you are from the perspectives of the professors, colleagues and supervisors who presumably know you the best. So make sure you chose three recommenders who, either individually or in aggregate, will give us the best sense of your qualifications for study at SIPA. When it comes to selecting these three people, you should:

1. Select Appropriate References SIPA prefers that your three references be a mix of professors, internship supervisors, and former or current employers/colleagues. (We do not recommend using relatives as references.) You should select references who know you and your work well enough to comment on it and should be people who will speak highly of you. When getting a reference from a job or internship, choose someone who was in a position of authority over you and who viewed your work firsthand. Don’t, for example, use the company president as your reference unless that person worked closely with you. (A generic paragraph from the CEO won’t hold more weight than a detailed-page written by a direct supervisor.) Also, do not use co-workers in positions equal to yours as their objectivity may be subject to question and their opinion not as highly valued.

2. Make Sure They Actually Like You OK, this seems obvious, but you’d be surprised at how many letters we receive where the recommender admits in their letter that they have nothing positive to say about the applicant, or they don’t know why the applicant asked them to write a letter on their behalf. So make sure you choose people you actually have a professional relationship with and who actually want to write a letter for you.

3. Remind Your Recommender Who You Are Oftentimes you’ll be reaching out to a professor or former employer you haven’t spoken to in months (or even years). While they may remember your name, they’re not necessarily going to remember everything you accomplished while working with them. So it’s a good idea to give the recommender a written outline highlighting your job duties, classroom projects, accomplishments or skills learned under their leadership. Make sure the outline you provide them is as accurate and specific as possible to help jog their memory. If that doesn’t work, don’t be surprised if you’re asked to draft a letter yourself. It may be a little awkward writing your own recommendation letter, but it’s a great way to take an objective look at your performance. So you should be honest, but definitely not modest!

4. Tell Them About Your Goals, as They Relate to SIPA Don’t forget to explain to your recommender why you’re applying to SIPA and what you hope to accomplish with your degree. Too often we receive generic letters that don’t apply to the course of study you’re applying to, and therefore hold little to no weight. So when outlining your past achievements for the recommender to review, you should also include details that relate directly to the MIA/MPA program.

How to prep your recommenders

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!

Document Tracking and the Deadline

My staff and I know the stress that surrounds the submission of an admission application.   This entry is meant to help applicants understand how our application system works as well as how we update our system and communicate with you.  I hope this will help to ease any concerns you might have during this busy time.  This entry is somewhat long, but if you read it thoroughly it should answer any questions or concerns you might have.

First let me state that 100% of the application process can be completed on the Web – we do not require that a single document be mailed to our office to consider a candidate for admission.  The only documents we might expect to receive by mail are academic transcripts and letters of recommendation.  We encourage applicants to upload copies of transcripts to our system, the personal statement and two résumés are uploaded, and applicants self report test scores in Part 2 of the application.

If letters of recommendation or transcripts are sent by mail, the important thing is the date the documents are received, not the date documents are tracked into the online system.  Our deadline is January 5th so documents sent by mail should be received by this date.  However, it can take 10-15 business days from the time a document is received via mail for us to manually track it in our system.

So do not panic if you have submitted Part 2 and/or mailed something to our office and it does not show as received on January 6th.  It actually may take us up until late January to track all documents sent to our office or uploaded to the system.  Rest assured that we will work with applicants if we believe a good faith effort was made to supply a necessary document by our deadline date.  There is no need to send a document a second time to us unless we reach out to you first (we will do so by email if necessary).  Sending documents a second time typically leads to delays.

Also note that if you do plan on mailing your transcripts, you should upload a single sheet with your name and short statement noting the names of the transcripts that are being mailed (in Part 2 where you are asked to upload your transcripts).

The following are details related to the two parts of the application, along with notes on each required document or piece of information we require and how receipt is tracked.

Part 1

Part 1 of the application is quite simple and only requires an applicant to fill in personal information and answer basic questions along with entering the names of three recommenders, along with whether an applicant expects them to submit their letters online or via mail.

If an applicant indicates that a letter writer initially was going to submit a letter online but then later decides to submit by mail, we do not need to be notified.  When we open the letter we will match it to the online record.

If a recommender submits a letter via our online system, the applicant will receive an email from the system informing him/her that the letter has been uploaded and the status will change to “Submitted.”  If we receive the letter via mail, we will have to manually update the applicant record.  In this case, no email will be sent to the applicant, rather the applicant can log in and check the status on the main page.

The receipt of letters of recommendation should not impact an applicant submitting other documents.  Applicants are encouraged to submit all of the documents and information they are responsible for as soon as possible.  As letters are received they will be tracked into the system and the status updated.

The final step in Part 1 is payment of the $85 application fee.  After paying the fee and submitting Part 1, applicants receive a confirmation email and Part 2 will become visible on the application site.

Part 2

Below are descriptions of all of the documents/information we require in Part 2 of the application.  Please read carefully as we receive many questions about the receipt and tracking of documents in our system.

Transcripts

Transcripts can be uploaded to the application site or mailed to our office.  We do not require official transcripts to consider an applicant for admission and uploading unofficial copies is perfectly acceptable. Do note that all coursework must show the grade received and the grading scale notes should be included with the transcript.

Do note that if transcripts are uploaded to the site they will not automatically be tracked as received.  Rather the status will read as “Not Received.”  Why does this happen?  The reason is that we must print the application and manually check to see if the transcripts are legible and complete.  Thus it can take some time for us to manually change the status to “Received – Not Official” which is acceptable for admission consideration. 

Note that any transcripts uploaded to our system will be tracked as “Received – Not Official.”  If an offer of admission is made and an applicant accepts the offer, we would then require an official copy to be sent via mail by June 15th.

If an applicant does send official transcripts via mail and they are received by the deadline, they will be tracked as “Received – Official” in the system.  Again, the tracking process can take time so we appreciate your patience.

Test Scores

All applicants should self report applicable test scores (GRE, GMAT, TOEFL, IELTS) in Part 2 of the application.  We do not require official test reports to consider an applicant for admission.

While we do encourage applicants to list our test code when taking exams, we do not pay the testing organizations to mail paper reports to our office, rather the score reports are downloaded into a centralized Columbia University computer system.  However, we do not match application records to this centralized system until after admission decisions have been made.

Because of this, every applicant must enter self reported scores in Part 2 of the application.  If self reported scores are not entered, it will slow down our processing of the file.  While we understand that some applicants have requested that official test reports be sent to our office, if you have left the self reported test score section blank, you should log back in and self report your scores before the January 5th deadline.

Just like with transcripts, test scores that are self reported in Part 2 will not automatically be tracked as received.  Upon submission of Part 2 the status will read as “Not Received.”  Again, the reason is that we must print the application and manually check to see if the scores have been entered and printed out correctly.  Thus it can take some time for us to manually change the status to “Received – Not Official” which is acceptable for admission consideration.

If an offer of admission is made, we will then match your admission record to the centralized system the university uses for test score reporting.  If an applicant entered our code we will match the official scores to the application record.  If we run the matching process and the scores are not present, we will notify the applicant that he or she should contact the testing service to ensure that the official scores are sent to us no later than June 15th.  Once official scores are received they would be tracked as “Received – Official.”

Personal Statement and the Two Required Résumé /CV Documents

When you upload these documents to the system they will automatically track as “Received – Official.”  We will still manually review the application and will notify the applicant if there is an issue when these documents print, but this happens so rarely that we are comfortable with tracking as “Received – Official” upon submission of Part 2 of the application.  The status change is automated, but it can take a day for the system to update so do not panic if they are not tracked as “Received – Official” right after submission.

Forwarding the File to the Admissions Committee

Once we have manually checked a file to ensure that all of the required documents have been submitted and are legible, we will send an email to you stating that the application has been forwarded to the Admissions Committee.  Please realize this may take up until late January.  Again, if there is an issue, we will reach out to applicants via the email listed in the application.  When a file is completed has no impact on the admission decision (as long as all of the documents were received by the deadline).

Keeping Up With the Admission/Enrollment Process

Thank you for your attention to this message and we look forward to reading your application.  Decisions will start to go out in early March.  When a decision has been posted, applicants receive an email with instructions to log in to the online application site to view the decision.  Please continue to visit this blog for updates on when decisions will be sent.

I encourage all applicants to thoroughly review this PDF document which describes the admission process from beginning to end, including when decisions are sent, when our Admitted Student Day will take place, and how you can best research financial aid opportunities.

Document Tracking and the Admission Deadline

The most common inquiry we receive before and after the admission deadline is, “I have submitted a document via postal mail or the Web site but it does not show as received when I log in to check the status of my application. Can you please tell me if it is has been received and if my application will be impacted?”

First, let me start by stating the following – it is not important that an application be listed as complete on the application Web site by January 5th, 2009.  It is important that applications be submitted by this date and we hope that all documents are uploaded or received by this date.

Our office is happy to work with applicants to ensure the application is completed, but please understand it does take our office time to process the thousands of documents submitted on the application Web site and sent to our office. The date each document is tracked into the system is not important – it is the receipt date that is important. Here are a few important insights regarding processing.

First, do not be surprised if it takes up to two weeks after the deadline date for documents to appear as received on the application site. It is completely normal for documents to appear as not received on the Web site and this may be the case up to January 19th.

Second, we do not begin to track documents until an application is submitted. It takes us three to five days to set up an application file from the time the application is submitted.  Therefore, if you submitted your application recently and documents were sent some time ago, it will likely take at least two weeks to complete the matching process.

Third, even though you may have sent a document to our office via an express courier and we have signed for it, this does not mean we immediately track it. All documents received are first sorted alphabetically and then enter the matching process.

Fourth, as explained in a recent blog entry, there is always a slight delay in the receipt of postal mail that is not sent to our office directly by an express courier (UPS, FedEx, etc.). This is due to the fact that general mail that is addressed to our office is first sent to a central Columbia post office for sorting. This process can add three to five additional days to the delivery of documents to our office. We are aware of this delay and we account for this when tracking documents. Documents delayed by the internal sorting process are not negatively impacted.

Fifth, if there is an issue beyond your control that has resulted in the late submission of a document to our office, please feel free to send an email to sipa_admission@columbia.edu to let us know the specific details.

Sixth, please do not panic and request that another copy of a document you feel has been sent to us but not tracked be sent again. This will result in even more mail to be sorted when it is likely that we have already received the document, it has just has not been matched to your file.

Finally, if there is an issue regarding document receipt we will be happy to work with you, however we may not know this until up to two weeks after the deadline.  If there is good reason to believe an issue outside of your control has taken place we will do everything in our power to ensure your application is completed and forwarded to the committee for review. Please see our blog entry for information on standardized test score receipt for an example of issues we take into account.

In summary, do not panic if you feel you have done everything required and yet your application status still shows as incomplete. It is normal for this to be case up to two weeks after the deadline date. We appreciate your patience and look forward to reviewing your file.

"The most global public policy school, where an international community of students and faculty address world challenges."

—Merit E. Janow, Dean, SIPA, Professor of Practice, International and Economic Law and International Affairs

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