Admissions Blog

Recommendation Letters 101

By Office of Admissions
Posted Jan 19 2022

Because of the sheer quantity of applicants and because of the geographic distances from which they apply, SIPA regrettably cannot offer interviews to prospective students. In order to get the most accurate snapshot of a candidate, the admissions committee relies on letters of recommendation from those that can vouch for an applicant’s prior success and if he or she would be an asset to the SIPA community. This entry is focused on many of the questions we receive regarding the submission of letters of recommendation.

Can I submit more than three letters?

No, we will only accept three letters of recommendation. We wish to be fair to all applicants and thus hold everyone to the same standard.

What is the ideal combination of recommendation letters?

There is no ideal combination as it really depends on the applicant. Recommendation letters should come from one of two sources: academic or professional. In other words, from individuals who have supervised you in the classroom or in the workplace. This could include internships, volunteer work, or paid full-time work.  Since SIPA is a professional school, we want to see at least one professional letter of recommendation. The only combination we really do not recommend is three academic letters of recommendation. We want to see that there is someone in the professional world who can comment on the applicant’s ability and qualifications for graduate school. Beyond this advice, any combination will do.  If you have been out of school for several years, please do not feel pressured to go back and get a letter of recommendation from a professor who did not really know you or that you have not been in contact with. We would much rather receive letters from those that know you and that you have been in contact with in some capacity.  It is important for us to hear a number of distinct voices on why we should consider your candidacy. If you had fabulous relationships with a few professors, two letters of recommendation from professors is fine.

Do you have general advice concerning the content of the letters?

Yes! The best letters of recommendation go beyond addressing your character and include specific information on your potential to succeed in our program. This is best accomplished through specific examples of academic or professional competence. When you talk with those writing letters for you, please tell them to include specific examples of your competence. Furthermore: Show, don't tell. It is one thing to say that someone is smart and capable; it is another to provide solid examples of intelligence and ability in the workplace or in the classroom. Be sure that you speak with those writing letters on your behalf and clarify this point. Our job in Admissions is to quantify your ability to do well in our program. A letter that contains examples of work performed will better allow us to identify your ability and potential. The Admissions Committee has to make tough calls and sometimes it can come down to the quality of the content contained in the recommendation letters.

How can those submitting the letters submit them?

When you start your online application you will be asked to enter the names and email addresses of the three individuals you have chosen to submit letters on your behalf. When you submit this information our system automatically sends the person an email with specific details on how to submit their letter.  See this entry for information on where to access the letter of recommendation section of the application. Our preference is that those submitting letters do so through our application site. In the email that is sent when you enter the name of your recommender(s), there are specific instructions for the recommender(s) to follow, where they will be able to upload a copy of the letter. This is the fastest and most convenient way. When a letter is uploaded, it will be matched to your application and you will be able to see that it has been submitted.

Should I wait to submit my application until all of the letters of recommendation have been received?

No. You may submit your application prior to letters of recommendation being received. What matters is that both your application and the letters are submitted by the deadline. 

What if a person wishes to write a letter in a language other than English? Is this okay?

Yes, it is okay if a person writes a letter in a language other than English, however that letter will need to be translated into English, and not by you. Letters of recommendation are confidential and you cannot translate your own letter. If someone wishes to write a letter in another language, ask that they have the letter translated by either an employee they work with or a certified translator. The person who translates the letter should include their name and email address so we can get in touch with him/her if necessary.

I graduated from school a long time ago and absolutely cannot get an academic reference. What should I do?

If you absolutely cannot get an academic reference, then professional letters will suffice.

Unfortunately, my recommenders don't have professional email addresses. What should I do?

They may use a personal email address to submit the letter of recommendation but upon acceptance, there will be a verification process to verify that the recommender that submitted your letter is authentic. This information would include additional email address, phone number, current employment information, etc. The recommender can provide an explanation for this in their letter. 

Final advice for applicants?

Have your recommenders be specific. We want to get as much information on you as possible, because we want more reasons to accept you into our incoming class! A final note is to encourage those submitting letters on your behalf to do so as early as possible. An application that does not have all documents submitted by the deadline does not look professional. We understand that the submission of letters of recommendation is beyond the control of applicants and we are willing to work with applicants when unusual circumstances lead to the late submission of letters, however we do take note when documents come in after the stated deadline.