The prompt from Columbia SIPA’s application checklist instructs, “Choose recommenders who, individually or in aggregate, will give the best sense of your qualifications for study at SIPA.”
Sounds easy, right? In practice, for a lot of applicants, choosing recommenders can be difficult. You may want to choose a former professor but you’ve been out of school for a long time and haven’t kept in touch. Or you may want to ask your current employer but haven’t yet told him or her you’re applying to graduate school. Or maybe the person you think will give you the best recommendation is someone you worked for years ago and you’re not sure if they even remember you or if it’s ok to choose someone from so long ago.
The good news is that you get THREE, so you have the chance to balance out a wild card. The bottom line is that you want to pick the people who will give you the best recommendation. That doesn’t just mean saying nice things about you–it also matters what they’ll say that’s nice about you, and if you know they’ll be able to personalize it, that’s best. Ideally, you do want one academic and one professional and the third could be either. But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. If you’ve been out of college and in the workforce for some time, if you can get three stellar professional recommendations, not all from the same place, that will serve you just as well. Choose people who can speak to your unique contributions, who can paint a picture of the person SIPA will be getting when they accept you. Think of them as people who can vouch for your future success, demonstrating to the admissions committee that someone is rooting for you, who has reason to believe you’ll be a great fit.
The Letters of Recommendation aren’t what makes or breaks your application. If you have a solid application already, unless a recommender actually says bad things about you, it’s unlikely to make any difference. However, if you’re in the middle of the pack and a recommender really wows the admissions committee with a story of how you single-handedly reshaped the policy debate around X issue, or how in 30 years of teaching, she’s never seen a more promising student who completed Y and Z accomplishments, this could bump you up.
The feather in your cap: If you have a recommender who is well-known, particularly in the field you’re applying in, this is going to give you an edge. If you are applying for the MIA program to focus on international development and you have a recommendation from Jeffrey Sachs, that’s certainly a major boost to your application. That said, don’t worry if you don’t know anyone “on the radar” of the admissions committee. A strong recommendation that paints a picture of you as a smart, hard-working, go-getter who cares deeply about the career you’re pursuing can do the trick just as well.
Avoid people who won’t actually complete the recommendation! If they require three recommenders, that means three recommenders. Don’t get stuck in the trap of not fulfilling this application requirement because your recommender was too busy to remember to do it.
What to do if the recommender asks you to write the letter for them? If you haven’t heard of such a thing, rest assured, it’s actually pretty common. Awkward, yes. Somewhat annoying, yes. But common. If you end up in that situation, it’s actually a great place to be in. Take liberty to write a first draft of it saying what you truly want it to say–sing your praises, truthfully of course–and then pare it down to what sounds reasonable. Ask a friend to edit, especially if you’re prone to self-aggrandisement or to toning down your accomplishments. No need to sell yourself short, but you also don’t want to present to the recommender a letter they’re supposed to have written that sounds too pompous. They’ll need to actually submit the recommendation, so they will be reading through it. If at all possible, indicate to them “Here’s what I’ve written and I’d love it if you have time to add a personal touch at the start and end.”
Finally, do not forget to thank them! Send an email and a written card. I can’t tell you how many people forget to do this and honestly, when I’m then asked by people I’ve recommended a year or two later to do another, I’m much more likely to say yes to someone who took the time to actually appreciate my help. Your recommenders are gold for your future, so treat them well!