Make no mistake: letters of recommendation are important, and how you approach them is critical. Ultimately, you want to know that the people from whom you’re requesting an endorsement harbor no reservations about your ability to succeed. And you want to be sure that they understand exactly what program(s) you’re applying to, what your long-term goals are, and what qualities the program is looking for in a candidate. And, last but not least, you don’t want to annoy these folks and demonstrate an inability to plan ahead by waiting until the last minute to request a letter.
I encourage prospective students to approach the process frankly and honestly. That means asking people directly if they are prepared to write you a positive letter of recommendation. Be open to hearing that someone might not. Their reticence could stem from a variety of concerns (they might, for example, feel that they don’t have enough knowledge of your abilities to write a convincing letter). Whatever the reason, it’s far better to know up front and be able to ask an alternate recommender, rather than receive a rejection from the program of your choice down the road and not know why.
We polled some our current students and asked them what advice they would offer their future colleagues about requesting letters of recommendation. They provided some excellent tips!
Your recommendation letters should come from people who really know you, who can say without a doubt that you are the best. So, first, talk with the people that you have in mind. I have 5 years of professional experience so I chose two recent supervisors and one of my undergraduate professors. Each of these individuals had known me at least three years. Once they agreed, I provided them with a link of the CIPA web site and explained why I wanted to go to Cornell.
-Sandra Mosqueria, Social Policy
People often feel like they need to have letters from important people (ie: the head of an organization –vs- a more lowly supervisor). However, these people rarely have a real connection with you. It is better to request a recommendation letter from someone who has worked closely with you and can fully describe your achievements and capabilities, rather than a generic letter from a recognizable name in your field.
-Roberto Galvan, Economics and Financial Policy
Choose your recommenders very carefully. I’m an international student, but I had studied one semester at Drexel University in Philadelphia. I decided to request letters from two professors there who could elaborate on how my learning style was particularly well-suited to the US education system.
-Vanisha Sharma, International Development Studies
Ask your recommenders early and, if possible, make your request in person, rather than by email. Provide them with a copy of your résumé and/or your CV. If the recommender is a professor, ask earlier in the semester rather than later when their workload is more overwhelming.
-Anlly Palacios, Social Policy
Start early, send your résumé and personal statement to recommenders along with your request, and send hand-written thank you notes after the recommenders have submitted their letters.
-Sharlene Castle, Human Rights and Social Policy
I remember asking a faculty member, a dean with whom I worked outside of class, and a former internship boss for letters of recommendation in order to offer a balanced combination of real world and academic perspective.
-Ranissa Adityavarman, Government, Politics and Policy Studies