The website for the Princeton Woodrow Wilson School’s application instructs: The electronic application asks for three academic letters of recommendation. However, while one should be from a professor or professional who can comment on your ability to contribute to a rigorous academic program, the two remaining references should come from individuals who have supervised your work in a professional capacity and can comment on your commitment to public service. Reference writers may need to be educated about the MPP degree program and should comment on its suitability for career development. Be sure that the writers understand your reasons for applying to the Woodrow Wilson School, as well as your goals and strengths. Source.
Understand the recommender categories:
Note the part I bolded above giving specifications for categories of recommenders, a bit different that some other more open-ended instructions for other schools. Make sure you follow these instructions and especially if you think you may have a hard time filling one of these categories, for example, if you’ve been out of school for a while or don’t have a good relationship with your current employer, you’ll want to start on this early. Ask your recommenders early enough that if they say no or just don’t hear back from them, you have enough time to ask alternates from your B list. It’s always a good idea to make sure your recommenders know the program you’re applying to, know some background on why you want to join the program, and what you believe you’ll bring. It’s even more important in the WWS application where they clearly state that they expect the reference letters to reflect a clear understanding of your reasons for the applying and your goals and strengths. Do not assume your recommenders remember anything about you. Even if they do, it’s your job to remind them and highlight what you’d like them to emphasize. This not only helps you because it gets you a more targeted letter, but it makes the job of your recommenders easier.
Help your recommenders help you:
This brings me to my next point. Make it as easy as possible for your recommenders. They are much more likely to write a good letter if they aren’t rushed and annoyed because they had to track down information such as the dates you worked for them or what courses you took with them. You also want to be very clear about how they’ll submit their letter, so do your research on what they’ll be prompted for with an application link or how a letter is submitted and to whom, and then communicate this clearly to your recommender once they’ve agreed. I’ve written many letters of recommendation and I can guarantee I wrote better, more compelling letters when I could spend the little time I had focusing on the content instead of background details or figuring out how to submit.
Stuck on the instruction making sure one recommender comments on your commitment to public service? Really, any recommender who knows at least a bit about your background can probably speak to this, since if you’re a strong candidate for the program, I presume you have some experience relating to public service, whether it be volunteer projects, academic study or professional experience. It’s your job to connect the dots and make clear to your recommender what you’d like her to mention. You don’t want a professor who had you in a math class to talk about how you volunteered at a homeless shelter (unless that math professor also worked with you at the shelter!) so think about recommenders who have more direct knowledge of your aspirations in the public arena or specific experiences you’ve had to test and develop these aspirations. It can’t hurt if more than one of your recommenders touch on the public service element, just make sure at least one does.
Set clear deadlines and follow up:
Finally, make sure you are clear on the deadline, and if it’s approaching and your recommenders haven’t submitted their letters, practice the art of the gentle nudge. I deployed appropriately, it’s helpful to recommenders for whom let’s be honest, this letter is not their main priority, and it shows you’re on top of it while also giving you an extra chance to appreciate them. One such nudge might read,
Dear Professor X, Thank you again for your willingness to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf to the Woodrow Wilson School. I know you are very busy and I appreciate you taking the time. I wanted to remind you that the deadline is next Tuesday at midnight, and please let me know if I can provide you with any other information to facilitate the process. As a reminder, I took two of your courses, “Introduction to Blah Blah” in 2011 and “Philosophy of Blah” in 2013, completing my final project on the topic of “Blah Blah Blah”, and I am planning to use this degree in Public Policy to A, B and C. Thank you in advance for your support, YOUR NAME You’ll find the words that work for you in your voice, but remember to thank them again, remind them of the deadline, and provide a few sentences of guidance. Best to send this as a response to your earlier email sent that hopefully gave more information as an introduction about the program, your goals, etc. so the recommender has it all in one place.
Last but not least, say “Thank you!”
Once your recommender has submitted, make sure to send a thank you email and a hand-written thank you card. Especially for more “old school” professors or employers, the hand-written snail mail card is crucial but do it for everyone just to be safe. You’re only setting yourself up for success in the future by keeping your recommenders happy!