Archive for reference letters

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.]

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.

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

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