As a Program Assistant at SIPA Admissions, I’ve noticed several concerns regarding recommenders for the MIA/MPA application. Below are answers to some common questions I’ve come across:
What if I only have academic recommenders? Only professional ones?
Generally, we recommend one academic and one professional recommendation with an optional third letter. Your letters of recommendation should come from people who can attest to your academic abilities, leadership skills, and/or character in a professional or academic context. They should know you personally and be able to speak to how SIPA fits into the trajectory of your career. The best recommendations contribute to the narrative of your entire application (see below).
Some applicants with greater professional experience might have more recommendations from professional contacts rather than academic ones; applicants with greater academic background might have more recommendations from academia. Recommendations from varied perspectives gives the Admissions Committee a glimpse into your different facets and strengths.
Is it better to have my recommender come from someone who is higher up in my organization?
Oftentimes applicants wonder if a recommendation letter from the CEO or Executive Director of the organization they worked for makes for a stronger recommendation. Regardless of title, we want to reiterate that recommenders should be able to attest to your abilities, skills and character. If your direct supervisor who knows you more personally can better speak to your skills and experiences, a recommendation from him/her will be stronger. Don’t become obsessed over the idea of titles!
Can I use a recommender who is retired, or no longer working at the organization?
Generally, you can use a recommender who worked with you at one point. Those who have moved on from their organization should have a professional email or be able to verify who they are – check with Admissions on this!
Final advice on recommendations and the narrative of your application
Your recommendation, just like your entire application, should construct/contribute to a coherent narrative for the admissions committee. Show us rather than tell us about your experiences – when asking for your recommendation, remind them of specific projects or tasks you worked on so that they can illustrate your skills (rather than list your characteristics/skills). If your recommender can tell a story, this illuminates a new aspect of your experience that your resume might not be able to capture.