Who gets to be the lucky person to write me a letter of recommendation?
October 13, 2009 12:02 AM   Subscribe

I'm applying to graduate school and need 3 letters of recommendations. However, I am having trouble deciding the right people to ask. HALP.

I'm applying to MPA/MPP programs for the Fall of 2010. My work and academic careers have not been ideal and now I'm not sure what to do. Here's my situation:

I got my BA in May 2007 with pretty good grades (I got nearly all A's in my political science courses, which I majored in). Even though I did well, I was the type to do my work and leave class -- I never spent time talking to professors at all. It's now been 2.5 years since graduation and I feel uncomfortable asking any of my old professors for letters of recommendations. Also, I no longer live near my school so I'd have to do this all through phone or email. If I go this route, I'll be contacting my polisci seminar professor. I got an A in the class and an A on my thesis paper.

As an undergrad, I spent a summer interning at my local Congressman's office and my local state Senator's office (both in the same summer, part time with each). This was in the summer of 2006 which means that it has been a while. The only saving grace is that I used one of my internship supervisors as a reference to get my current AmeriCorps gig last year so I've had some communication there.

After graduating, I didn't really know what I wanted to do so I spent a little over a year working in unrelated fields. I did some private tutoring and freelance design to keep busy. Even though I did good work and have maintained some connections with my clients, I feel that the work is so unrelated and short-lived (most of my freelance work was 3-6 month gigs and my tutoring jobs lasted about 9 months) that they might not be great to use for applications.

The only place I am confident in getting letters of recommendations from is the place that I am working at now: I am an AmeriCorps VISTA at a nonprofit doing work I enjoy. I know a few higher-ups in my workplace that would probably write me letters. I am tempted to get more than one person from my organization to write me a recommendation but I would imagine that isn't the best idea ever.

Finally, I am in a cohort with other VISTAs (we are all in different workplaces and meet twice a month for trainings) and the supervisor of that program would write me a letter, as well. I worry that getting a letter from my work supervisor and my VISTA supervisor would be confusing and detrimental.

So to summarize my questions:
Which 3 people do I ask for letters of recommendations?
Is it worth asking professors from undergrad who I never really spoke to (but got A's in the class)?
Is it worth asking people I interned for in 2006?
Is it worth asking clients that I did work for in unrelated fields?
Is getting a letter from more than one person in a workplace weird?
If I get a letter from my work supervisor and a letter from my VISTA supervisor, will that be seen as negative (since most people won't know the difference)?

As you can see, I am in need of guidance.
posted by carpyful to Education (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about poly sci masters, as my only experience is with engineering PhDs where the objective of the admissions process is to ensure that the candidate can produce useful research. However, in that setting, recommendations from anyone but faculty are worth very little.

The issues we saw with recommendations were
a) Calibration: Sure, the recommender says amazing things, but without context, it's hard to tell what "awesome worker" means. With faculty, the committee probably knows the writer's style and if not, they can still get an idea. Even still, we sometimes received candidates who were clearly the best person to emerge from a particular small university in 20 years and it was still very hard to calibrate this against a "top 5% but not top 1%" from Stanford.
b) Knowing what to look for: Recommendations from non-faculty were also hard to judge because the recommender may not know what to look for. In CS, the usual problem was that people in industry would rave about how great of a job someone did on a mundane-sounding project and that yielded no useful information from the 'can he do research?' perspective.
c) Devoid of info: "This person did well in my class and got an A, the 2nd highest score on the final.... bleh ... bleh ... bleh" -- clearly, the author isn't saying much that the transcript doesn't cover.

You may be in a different boat, since the questions the admission committee is trying to answer may not be 'research?' but rather 'generally smart and competent?' or possibly even 'cares about issues?' The VISTA supervisor would probably be OK; it would be best if you can find someone who both knows you reasonably well and is quite high up in the food chain. I wouldn't ask clients in unrelated fields.

So your trade-off is multiple people from work vs. old profs who don't know you. If you were applying to my program, it would be hard to give a good answer since both options would be quite problematic. I would *really* try thinking of some faculty you may have impressed with a term paper or what and then trying to get a letter from him/her.
posted by bsdfish at 2:53 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Can you call the admissions offices at a couple of the universities you're applying to and ask? You don't have to give your name. They won't judge you for asking. There are many, many applicants in this same position every year.

To your point about professors from undergrad: they get this all the time. Seriously. You send them an e-mail with a couple attachments (your current resume, your best paper from the class you took with them), and in the body of the e-mail you tell them who you are, when you took their class, do a little sucking up, do a little update on what you're doing (currently a VISTA, looking to apply to MPA/MPP programs, what you plan to do with that degree), and you ask them if they'd be willing to write a positive letter of rec for you. Either they'll say yes or they won't, but they won't be shocked and offended that you've asked.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:02 AM on October 13, 2009

I was sort of a "go to class do well go home don't talk" person in undergrad, and only had two professors I could clearly go to for letters of recommendation. What I ended up doing for a third letter was contacting one of my other professors (who had only the vaguest idea who I was) and giving him a portfolio of what I considered my best work. Seemed to go alright, given that I got into schools.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 6:07 AM on October 13, 2009

There is some excellent advice here, here, here, here, and here.

Is it worth asking professors from undergrad who I never really spoke to (but got A's in the class)?

bsdfish gives some great advice about the nature of reference letters - having a letter isn't enough, it needs to stand out from the generic "so-and-so was a good student" types and convince them you're worth their time. I wouldn't ask for letters from somebody in an unrelated field. The MA program I just finished pretty much insisted that the three letters be from faculty.

I always assume that people won't remember me, so it's always a pleasant surprise when they do! Start making contacts in your former department - 2.5 years is not a long time in terms of these things. One of my grad school reference letters came from a professor who had not taught me in a couple of years and asked to see the papers I had written in her class (thankfully I still had them!)
posted by futureisunwritten at 6:41 AM on October 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

If the professors are a big deal, throw in them but interns and clients are worth more than a teacher. Grades are one thing, personality, crisis management, communication skills---they don't show up in grades.
posted by stormpooper at 8:20 AM on October 13, 2009

Talk to people in your field. Advice about how to get into MS programs in hard sciences is not going to help you. "Grad school" isn't a monolithic thing with a single set of admissions criteria.

You want to go to school to study public policy or public administration. What do you actually want to do? Those two fields are somewhat different, so you should decide which one you want to pursue before deciding how to best showcase your strengths to an admissions committee. MPA programs are looking for people who are good managers, strategic thinkers, and strong leaders. Think of it as the MBA of the government/nonprofit world (though actually, if you want a career as a nonprofit/government manager, you might actually want to get an MBA. I've been told that it's a more worthwhile experience and that it's often better respected by potential employers). MPP programs want people who have a strong interest in one or more policy issues, are great writers and communicators, and can apply what they know to solving real-world problems. Decide which of these you want.

OK, with all of that as backdrop, think about which aspects of your talent and experience each of your potential recommenders is likely to speak to. Your professors can talk about the papers you've written, your interest in their subjects, and your academic work. Your supervisors may be able to speak to your leadership in the workplace, your problem-solving skills, and your passion for the work you do. Don't choose people based on their job titles or the roles they've played in your life. Choose people based on what they can say about the roles you have played under their guidance, and choose the people who can talk about the things you want to highlight for the degree you want and the career you ultimately hope to have.
posted by decathecting at 8:44 AM on October 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

We could be twins. I had to register just to answer your question as I was just accepted into my MPA program. I was a poli sci major, did Americorps, 2-3 years since graduation, etc. I also felt awkward about relying on past probably forgotten professors for strong recomendations.

What I ended up doing was taking some post bac. grad classes (with that sweet ed award), used a fresh prof and two very different supervisors from work as recomendations. I don't think there's anything wrong with two recs from the same place, after all that's what you have been up to recently. I would definitley make sure to flesh out your personal statement and resume with your other experiences. It sounds like you have a competitive application; VISTA is great for MPA programs. Feel free to memail me if you have any questions. Good luck!
posted by goodnight moon at 10:36 AM on October 13, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice thus far.

At this point, I'm leaning towards getting a recommendation from my work supervisor, my VISTA supervisor, and then hopefully a college professor. I feel like having an academic perspective is important since my two others are work related.

Also, there is a grad school fair coming up in a week and some of the programs I'm applying to will be there so I'll be able to ask a few questions while there.

As a follow-up question, if I am able to get the three recommendations I want, which two would be best for the apps that only accept two recommendations?

And please feel free to keep answering the original questions and/or berating my current choices.

Thanks again!
posted by carpyful at 12:14 AM on October 14, 2009

« Older Am I being rational?   |   Tripping on Calvinist guilt Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.