Archive for recommendation letters

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.

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.]

Help! Your pressing email questions are answered

It’s up to you: will you be a hard-boiled egg, ready to take the heat…or will you crack under the pressure of pending deadlines?

With the January 5, 2015 application cut-off date almost here, we know that you’re probably freaking out about making the admissions deadline. In fact, we know you are because we receive about 50-70 individual emails Every. Single. Day. (But we don’t mind because that’s what we’re here for!) As always, we’re responding to your emails as quickly as we can, but with the holidays here it can take us some time. (In the last week, we’ve received more than 360 emails! Wow!) So please be patient and bear with us as we get all of your questions answered as fast as we can.

As a holiday treat, we’ve answered some of your most-pressing questions below.

Good luck with your application! And happy holidays!

P.S. Whatever you do, DON’T “crack” under the pressure. We know you’ll get your application in on time.

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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.

uploading a recommendation letter

First apologies to all the recommenders who experienced trouble submitting a reference letter on your behalf.  Our application system allows little flexibility to bypass its requirements and thus has created headaches for some.  Hopefully, next year it will be better but for now, it’s what we must endure.

For security purposes, it requires that once the system is initially accessed using the information provided, it will prompt the recommender to create an entirely NEW password in order to enter the system. This is (clearly) not a very intuitive method and unfortunately we have little control over this.   If the recommender uses the original password, s/he will not be able to access the recommendation form.  Also, we recommend using Internet Explorer as the browser; for whatever reason there are less access issues when using IE.

If you or your recommender is unable to receive the technical support needed to get through the system, then please have the reference sent as an email attachment to  We will update the applicant’s file once it’s received and processed.

We apologize for the inconvenience and appreciate your participation during this process!


"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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