Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Letters of recommendation

You've looked long and hard at your motivations and started writing your statement of purpose. You've asked for your transcripts. The standardized tests are taken care of. What's left?

Let's see, the letters of recommendation, of course. No problem, this must be the easy part, right?


Evaluations are written by others in your favor. It's tempting to think that because you do not write them, they are the easiest part of an application. Don't give in to the temptation.

Letters of recommendation can have a major impact on your chances of admission. The strongest applications include letters that provide a convincing and articulate case in your favor. If your application lacks such letters, it will suffer in comparison with others.

Even if you do not write the letters, you can influence their outcome. Here are a few tips that might help:

- Choose the recommenders (aka referees) carefully. We would much rather have a letter from an associate professor who knows you and your work well than from the dean of faculty or a Nobel Prize winner if they do not know you well. Choose people who have observed how you perform and who understand what makes you special. And who write convincingly.

- Help the referees. It's best if they understand what you have done since studying under or working with them; why you are applying to SAIS Bologna; what you hope to accomplish while at SAIS, and what your career aspirations are. Share your CV and statement of purpose, even if only in draft form, with them so they can speak with some knowledge of your own aspirations.

- Consider a good mix of referees. You will ask some professors to write in your favor -- it's crucial that we have an idea of your academic performance and potential. If you've been working for some time since finishing your undergraduate studies, you may ask a supervisor at a job you have held. You may have devoted considerable time and effort to an activity outside of the classroom -- a sport, a musical instrument, volunteer work.

In each case you will have worked with people who have observed how you can contribute and what your strengths and weaknesses are, especially if they have watched you perform under pressure. Again, they know what makes you special.

- Keep on top of the referees. It's not very fair to ask referees to produce letters in a day or two -- they will need more time than that. Some may be keen to help you but also be very busy with other responsibilities. Be sure to spell out to them very clearly what the process is -- when the letters are due, how they are sent, how you can help. It's not unusual to send them a polite reminder if some time has passed since the referee agreed to write but nothing has been received yet.

For more details on letters of recommendation, you can read the application instructions and also the confidential evaluation form. As you'll see, we ask that the referees:
  • write on official stationary or include the university or department stamp or seal;
  • sign the letter, the confidential evaluation form and the envelope containing the form and the letter, along the envelope's seal;
  • send the sealed and signed envelope to you, who will submit all letters together; or the referees can send the sealed envelope directly to us at the address on the evaluation form.

We get lots of questions about letters of recommendation. If you have questions, don't hesitate to contact us. The letters are an important part of your application, and we want to help.

Before signing off, let me thank you for waiting for this update. The Bologna Center is closed until Thursday, January 6, but I thought it was time to get the blog juices flowing again, especially as many of you are working on your applications ahead of the February 1 deadline for the 2011-12 year.

We've had some lovely days lately in Bologna. Here's an image from the web cam on the terrace of our building, taken this evening.