“All applicants are required to submit two letters of recommendation. Recommendations should be written by individuals who are well placed to discuss an applicant’s qualifications for graduate study and a career in international affairs. Applicants may submit an additional reference if it reflects an aspect of their professional or academic background not covered in the first two references. Please note that Johns Hopkins SAIS will accept letters of recommendation only through our online application system or in hard copy directly from the recommender; recommendations submitted via email or fax will not be accepted.”
You want to focus on two things here. You need to get two (or if needed, three) “well placed” people to commit to recommending you, to discuss your qualifications for graduate study, and your career in international affairs. You need to ensure those people will either send a hard copy of or complete the recommendation letter through an online application system. The online system is much easier unless the recommender is not tech savvy enough (i.e. a now-elderly former professor); a higher bar is set for the hard copy-ers since there are more moving parts. The more lead-time you give your recommender, the better. I’ve been asked to be a recommender for former supervisees and I can tell you that those who didn’t give me at least a month (or better yet, two!) got less glowing recommendations. (I don’t think I’ve actually forgotten to write a recommendation because the time was too close, but I’m sure others have.) What’s the point of the recommendations? You generally want your application to speak for itself without the recommendation letters and the letters to just confirm that you are a stellar candidate. However, a strong recommendation can make that extra difference if you’re in the middle of the pack and the letter truly impresses the admissions committee. Maybe you have a former boss who can talk about how you built a program from the ground up or how you started as an intern and worked your way up to Assistant Director through hard work and creative thinking. Bonus points and things that can’t hurt: Do you have a potential recommender who is well-known in the field you’re applying in? It may sound obnoxious, but a letter from a known entity will definitely boost your chances. That said, 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. What should you do if the recommender asks you to write your own recommendation letter on their behalf? It’s actually pretty common, though awkward and often annoying. If one of your recommenders asks this of you, and you feel certain you want to stick with this person, use it as an opportunity to write what you hope they would write in a perfect world. Don’t tone down the praise, but also be honest. Have someone else read it over and if you know you’re prone to talking yourself up, ask them to look out for that. If you know you’re prone to toning down your accomplishments, ask them to keep an eye out for what can be talked up. Your recommender will need to actually submit the recommendation, so keep in mind that they will read it over. Encourage your recommender to add a personal touch to what you’ve written if possible. Finally, don’t forget to thank your recommenders! Rule of thumb is to go for a bit of overkill – send an email and a written card. You want to be able to call on these recommenders again in the future, so treat them well!