Currently viewing the tag: "Recommendations"

What role do recommendations play in a Fletcher application?  Well, from Fletcher’s point of view, a useful recommendation sheds light on a particular phase of an applicant’s background.  For example, the applicant’s transcript tells us that a student was successful as an undergraduate, but a professor’s recommendation can go much farther in telling us about the student’s experience.  From the perspective of you, the applicant, a useful recommendation affirms that you’re terrific, but also adds detail about your academic or professional experience.  Remember that we would like to see at least one letter from someone who can comment on your academic background.  Ideally, one letter will come from a professional contact.  The source of the third letter is up to you, but if you have been working for a while, a second professional recommendation makes the most sense.

Here’s a recipe for arranging supportive recommendations to accompany your application.

1. Choose your recommenders carefully.  If they don’t know you well, they won’t be able to write a good letter.  Ideally, this process will have started way before you find Fletcher’s online application, but if it didn’t, you can still make up for lost time.

2. Once you have selected the people you would like to ask for a recommendation, be sure to ask them directly if they can write a favorable letter.  Some recommenders would rather write the letter than acknowledge to a former student or employee that they don’t have anything (or anything positive) to say.  A useful technique is to invite them to tell you that now is an inconvenient time — suggesting that you understand they’re busy and they shouldn’t feel obliged to write.  This little bit of diplomacy may go a long way in giving those you ask a gentle way to say no.  We hate reading unfavorable letters that the recommenders should have declined to write.  And, of course, some people are truly too busy at a certain time to take on the additional task.  You want to be sure the letter will eventually arrive.  Someone who agrees to write but never gets around to it isn’t much help to you.

3. Related to the above, ask early, to give the recommenders time to write the letter.  You can keep an eye on their progress through the application management system.  It’s up to you to provide the gentle reminders that the recommender may need.

4. When you ask the recommender to write a letter for you, provide as much information as you can.  If it’s a former professor, send along a current résumé and maybe a piece of writing that you did for him/her.  For both academic and professional contacts, in addition to the résumé, you might want to include a draft of your personal statement, so that they will know what you are planning for your future career.  You should also provide a description of Fletcher (graduate professional school of international affairs) so that it’s clear what sort of degree you’re pursuing.

5. If there’s an aspect of your application that needs an explanation that you can’t find a place for, a good option may be to have your recommender provide it.  For example, let’s say that you worked several years for a small organization.  The recommender can tell us more about your employer than you have space for on your résumé.  Another example: let’s say that your academic record was good, but you started off a little wobbly.  Explain the situation to your academic recommender, and have him/her tell us about it.  Your professor will be familiar with your university and can provide insight into your background.

6.  Send a thank you note after the recommender has written the letter.  Send another thank you note after you have received your admissions decisions.  I hope that your attention to Application Boot Camp will bring you great results in the admissions process, but the reality is that you may be admitted to some programs and not admitted to others.  Send the thank you note regardless of how successful you were.  You may need that recommender again.  Whether you do or not, sending the thank you is just plain good manners.

In case it’s still unclear, I’ll close by saying that you’ll never be able to completely control the content of your recommendation letters.  But putting thought into the selection of your recommenders, and effort into informing them about your background and plans, gives you your best chance of ensuring your letters will be supportive and will meet the needs of your application.  Finally, if your recommender is unfamiliar with the process, consider pointing him/her to a previous post that we wrote with recommenders in mind.

The Early Notification deadline was Friday, and we are well into the process of compiling and reviewing applications.  Now that most applicants submit scanned copies of their transcripts, compiling the application generally requires only that we connect test scores and interview reports with the materials that are submitted online.  We should easily keep up with the applications that come through each day and, by the end of this week, everyone should be able to log into GAMS and find good information on what items, if any, are missing.

But this simple description of the process ignores one important part of the application, which is recommendations.  Because most applicants ask their recommenders to submit their letters online, the applications emerge from the system with recommendations included.  On the flip side, if any of your recommenders don’t submit their letters, your application will be stuck in the system, waiting for the letter to be attached.

For EN applicants, that means that your next step is to ensure your recommenders have submitted their letters.  If not, a gentle reminder is warrented.  The EN review period is short, and incomplete applications will be reviewed after January.  That’s not a terrible outcome, but it’s surely not what you intended.

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Swinging back to application-related topics, a prospective student asked me to write about the sort of information that should be provided to a recommender when requesting a letter.  GOOD QUESTION!  Applicants don’t always maximize the value of their recommendations.  For example, the best (i.e. most convincing) person to explain the reasons behind a student’s academic difficulties is a professor, but few applicants ask their professors to provide context on their overall academic record.

This summer, we’ve pulled together some suggestions for recommenders.  Eventually, the list will find a home on the website where recommenders can see it, but today’s post offers a sneak preview of points that could be helpful as you ask professors and supervisors to write for you.

First, though, some suggestions for you, as recommendation requester:

  • Tip #1 is to give the recommender plenty of time/warning to write the recommendation letter.  You can’t expect a high quality letter if you’re making requests two days before the deadline.  (Also be sure to make the deadline clear.)
  • Tip #2 is to share your résumé and your statement of purpose (first application essay) with your recommender.  The statement will tell your recommender what you hope to accomplish at Fletcher, so that the letter can be relevant to your goals.
  • Tip #3 is to provide your recommender with a little information about Fletcher.  Though many letters we receive each year were written by people whose names we see regularly, you shouldn’t assume that someone knows the school.  It’s frustrating for us when we read a letter about an applicant’s potential for law school.

And now, our suggestions for the recommender:

A typical letter of recommendation for a Fletcher application is between one and two pages in length.  A letter that is too short may provide insufficient detail, while a letter that is longer than two pages may be more than needed for the application.  Your letter will be of greatest value if you provide specific and targeted observations, particularly regarding your personal interactions with the applicant.

If you are writing about the applicant’s academic experience:

  • Indication of why a student succeeded (or failed) in a class is helpful. Even if it seems obvious that an “A” grade demonstrates the student’s strength, the context for the grade is useful.  The academic recommendations are among the few qualitative ways we have to understand a student’s academic capacity, and we appreciate understanding how a student excels (not simply that the student did excel).  It can also be useful when recommenders mention what percent of students get an A in the class.
  • Be sure to note it if a student took the time to get to know you outside of class (through research, office hours, etc.).  This is often a helpful indicator of how they will act in graduate school.

If you are writing about the applicant’s professional experience:

  • It is useful to know about the applicant’s progress in and contributions to your organization, rather than simply what position the individual held.
  • If the applicant performed any functions that are relevant to academic work, it is helpful if you bring them to our attention.  Some examples are research, writing, data collection or analysis, or work within a team.
  • An assessment of the applicant’s professional potential also contributes to our evaluation of the application.  As a professional school, we want to know that students will be able to achieve their career goals.
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I’m sure that advice columnists exist in every culture, but a particularly well-known practitioner of the genre in the U.S. is Dear Abby.  Well, the Dear Abby of the Fletcher Admissions intern team is Ariel, who masterfully answers the many emails sent to the Fletcher Admissions address whenever she reports to work in the office.  Today I’m launching “Ariel’s FAQs,” which I hope will be a regular feature.  Ariel is going to send me the questions (and answers) commonly on the mind of applicants for each week.  Here’s the first.

Dear Ariel:  Who should write my recommendation letters? And can I send my recommendation letters by mail?

We suggest that at least one letter come from a faculty member, academic dean, or an advisor familiar with your academic performance.  In addition, at least one letter should come from a professional supervisor, mentor, or colleague. The third recommender is up to you!  Choose someone you think can best speak to your preparedness and suitability for study at The Fletcher School.

We prefer that you use the online recommendation system included with our online application. Please instruct your recommenders to set any spam filters to allow all emails from notification@smtp.embark.com, as this address will be used to communicate with them throughout the recommendation process.

Though we strongly prefer use of the online recommendation system, you may also print recommendation forms from the Supplemental Forms section of the online application and have your recommenders submit their letters in hard copy in a sealed envelope. Because things might get lost or delayed in the mail, we consider the online system the best way to submit your recommendation letters!

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This was my weekend for remembering that the Boston area can have a small-town feel. Everywhere I went, I ran into people:  on Saturday at the winter farmers’ market (one of two in Somerville and Cambridge) and, later, at the movies; on Sunday, when we went to see Red at the SpeakEasy Stage Company and then at dinner, when we met Anne, one of last year’s Januarians, and her family.  But funniest was bumping into both Laurie and Kristen at the mall yesterday, when we were all taking care of a few shopping errands.

Now we’re back to work and compiling applications is the theme of the day.  We’re fortunate to have had a crack team of student interns working through the break, with the satisfying result that we’re up to date on processing mail (until a big bag of envelopes arrives later today).  But just printing the applications that were ready on Sunday took two hours, and we know it will be days before all the materials in the office (the applications and their corresponding transcripts, etc.) will be united in a folder.

But being realistic, I know you’re primarily concerned with the progress your own materials are making.  So here’s a summary of how everything happens.  Note that many of these steps (some done by machine and others by humans) are taking place simultaneously:

1.  You hit the online “submit” button.  Your application was “stamped” with the date and time, and will wait within the Embark system for your registered online recommenders to submit their letters.  If all your recommenders have already submitted their letters, or if you haven’t registered any online recommenders, the application will be ready for us immediately, and we’ll upload it into our internal program.  (If your recommenders haven’t done their part, it’s your responsibility to remind them that the deadline has passed.)

2.  When your application (with online recommendations) is uploaded, you’ll receive an automatically generated email stating that we have received your application, and that you should wait ten business days before contacting the Admissions Office about any missing materials.  (Note that this means that you don’t receive the email if the application is still waiting for recommendations.)  The email also provides you with a username and password to access the Tufts Graduate Application Management System (GAMS).  GAMS is the best way to track your application throughout the process.  We’ll also be posting decision letters to your GAMS account, so hang on to your username and password!

3.   Uploaded applications are printed in batches.  Once we have the paper copy, we’ll create a file folder for you.  (A big moment in the life of your application!)

4.  Meanwhile, Admissions Office staffers will risk paper cuts and worse while they open an endless stream of envelopes holding test scores, transcripts, letters of recommendation from recommenders who weren’t registered online, etc.  We sort and file the mail.  If the application hasn’t yet been uploaded, the paper materials will “wait” for it to emerge from the system.

5.  Once we have your application in a file folder, we dig out the mail that has already been received for you and include it.  Then we manually update your record in the admissions system to show what materials have come in by mail.  You should track your application through GAMS, but we’ll also email you if there’s a document missing.  Emailing a member of the Admissions staff will, at this point in the process, give you only the information you can access yourself through GAMS.  And I want to stress here that the aforementioned ten business days are the period during which the humans will be entering information into GAMS.  Keep on top of things, but remember that the registering of your materials won’t happen immediately.

6.  Your completed application is then given to Committee members to review, and you’ll receive your admission decision in late March.

The bottom line:  Pressing submit is the easy part for you, and receiving online materials is the easy part for us.  The challenge is that most applicants submitted their applications during this past weekend, and it will take us a couple of weeks of mad scrambling to clear the instant backlog and create a thousand-plus application files.

Be sure to stay on top of the status of your application, but try to give us a little time to pull everything together.  By early February (only two weeks away, though we know it can feel like forever), everyone who has submitted all the materials needed for an application should find accurate and reassuring information on GAMS.

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Today I’m going to talk about my daughter Kayla.  At 6:50 this morning, she was galloping happily through the house, having just checked her latest SAT scores online.  This is Kayla’s year to apply to college, and as much as my work helps me guide her through her process, the hyper-competitive field of undergraduate admissions helps me put the Fletcher process in perspective.

So Kayla’s a great kid, and a strong student, which means she hopes to attend one of the many East Coast colleges or universities with insanely low rates of admission.  Once a school is admitting such a tiny portion of its applicants, there’s really no way to feel confident of one’s chances of admission, leading to endless worry for these 17-year-olds.

I see the Fletcher process as very different.  I know that applying to grad school is stressful for many of our applicants, and I don’t want to imply there’s no reason to fret.  Nonetheless, a key difference between us and undergrad admissions, is that Fletcher doesn’t look for reasons to turn away an otherwise qualified applicant.  If you have strong academic potential, professional and international experience that supports your goals, and a clear focus, you’ll be admitted.  I realize there’s still broad room for interpretation of those factors, but the bottom line is that good applicants are admitted.

Most of the schools Kayla is considering accept the Common Application, which includes a form and two essays.  Then most schools have a supplemental application, on which the student can profess love for that particular institution.  As Kayla has struggled with each of her essays, I’ve encouraged her to think about her application as a whole, and to ensure that each of its elements tells the colleges something new about her.  Her main essay is about how she stumbled onto her academic/future-career focus.  It’s written in a straightforward way that seems appropriate to me, but strikes her as dull.  So I encouraged her to write a lively second essay (for which the required topic is the applicant’s most significant extracurricular activity).  The supplemental application on which she has worked this week includes six short essays, and she has written about a different facet of her life in each one (including a paragraph about her insomnia).

Fletcher applicants should take the same approach.  Your application includes a form, a résumé, your transcript(s), test scores, personal statement, supplemental essay (more than one for some of our programs — check the application instructions), and three recommendations.  Were you a fantastic student?  Your transcript and academic recommendation (as well as, probably, your test scores) will tell us about that part of your life.  Thinking about the application as a whole, your remaining recommendations should tell us something new, probably about your professional experience.  (The exception is PhD applicants, who should include two academic recommendations.)  Even if you have two recommendations from the same area (two from your university, or two from the same employer), try to guide the recommenders to reflect on different aspects of your background.

This will be a long nail-biter of a year for Kayla, and I’ll do my best to support her through it.  The Fletcher Admissions staff also aims to support our applicants.  We want each of you to be the best applicant you can be.  Spend some time on the Fletcher website and the Admissions pages.  Learn as much as you can about the School, and consider where your background and our values intersect.  Then, carefully put together your application.  This year, more than most, I’ll be taking the applicant’s view of the process.

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Last spring, Peter received a request from a professor at a college whose alums frequently apply to Fletcher:  What suggestions might the Admissions staff pass along to professors or other writers of academic recommendations?  Believe me, we jumped into action!  It’s impossible to read recommendations without developing opinions on them.  As a recommendation requester, how can you use these suggestions?  I’ll be honest — I’m not sure.  I think it’s going to depend on your connection to/relationship with the recommender.  For example, if there’s an anecdote that you would like shared (tip #9), be sure to mention it to the recommender.  So here, for you to use as seems appropriate, are our recommendations for recommenders:

1.  Be honest with the student if you can’t write a supportive letter.  We always feel bad for applicants who have a particularly negative recommendation, as they will never know, and that just doesn’t seem fair.

2.  Review the applicant’s résumé and discuss his/her objectives and goals, so that the letter can be targeted, instead of generic.  Knowing a tiny bit about Fletcher helps, too.  (For example, despite the formal name of the School, we are not a law school.)

3.  Ask the student if there are aspects of his/her academic background that could use a little explanation.

4.  If your school or program is not well known to the wider world, introduce it.  But don’t use up too much of the letter’s space on the introduction if the result will be that the student is barely described.

5.  Use sparingly comments such as “one of my top five students in 25 years of teaching.”  (Thus, they are taken more seriously when used).  On the other hand, it is useful when recommenders mention what percent of students get an A in the class.  (Reading “Only 10 percent of the class received an A” helps us put grade inflation in perspective.)

6.  Indication of why a student succeeded (or failed) in a class is helpful. Even if it seems obvious that an A demonstrates the student’s strength, it’s helpful to learn why. “Earning an A in this class demonstrates that so and so wrote well/conducted high quality research/solved problems in a creative way/spoke up a lot in class.”  The academic recommendations are one of the few qualitative ways we have to understand a student’s academic capacity, so it is helpful to understand how a student excels (not simply that the student did excel).

7.  Be sure to note it if a student took the time to get to know you outside of class (through research, office hours, etc.).  This is often a helpful indicator of how they will act in graduate school.

8.  A letter shorter than a full page may be too short.  Longer than two pages may be too long.

9.  Anecdotes are nice!  Adds flavor to the letter.

10.  Avoid proofreading errors.  It’s easy for us to read past the problem (calling Richard “Robert,” or mentioning SIPA in a letter for a Fletcher application), but it does make us wonder how much the recommender has tailored the letter to the applicant.

And that’s it:  Our Top 10 List of Recommendation Recommendations.  With thanks to David Chioni Moore for giving us the idea of collecting them.

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Committee on Admissions members read a lot of recommendations.  Really a lot.  Good letters, bad letters, helpful letters, useless letters.  Letters that gush on for ten pages.  Letters that get the applicant’s name wrong.  You name it, we see it.  Every single year.

The Fletcher application asks you to submit three recommendations, at least one of which should be from a professor or other official (such as a dean) familiar with your academic work.  Younger applicants (and PhD program applicants) may want to submit two academic recommendations.  The remaining one (or two — particularly for those with more work experience) should come from someone familiar with your professional work, generally a supervisor.  If you’re not yet ready to reveal your grad school plans at work, a past supervisor is the best substitute.  So long as we see three letters, the choice is yours.

In that context, how can you, the applicant, control this most uncontrollable element of your application?  Perhaps surprisingly, there’s much you can do to ensure that your recommendation letters shine, such as…

Start early! Everyone is busy, and you want to be sure to give your recommender as much time as possible to write your letters.

Choose carefully! Think hard about whom you should ask.  A professor who gave you an A is always a good choice, but the professor who gave you a B, but saw you emerge as a scholar, might be an even better choice.  And whomever you chose, be sure to give them the opportunity to decline to write.  Whether they feel they can’t write a favorable letter, or they simply don’t have the time, your application will suffer if they send in something negative or sloppy.

Be organized! Make sure your recommenders have all the information they need.  Will they be mailing a letter?  Or uploading it to a form?  Make sure you provide the links and envelopes they need.  And remember to be very clear about the deadlines for each of your schools.

Provide info! Your professor or boss can always write a generic letter, but the best recommendations will be tailored around your objectives for grad school and future career.

Send thanks! Yes, writing recommendations is part of a professor’s work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write a sincere note of thanks.  Once you know your results, you should also let the recommenders know — particularly those who routinely write grad school recommendations.  It will help them in their advising.

And here are a couple more suggestions:  If there’s a particular gap or flaw in your undergraduate record that can be explained by your professor, ask your professor to explain it.  Those letters can be so helpful to us!  Yes, you told us why you received poor grades in that semester, but it’s much more convincing when the professor tells us.

Finally, remember to track the progress of your recommendation writers and provide gentle but timely reminders.  Any supportive recommender would prefer to be reminded of the upcoming deadlines than to learn, too late, that the deadlines have passed.

Later in the week, I’ll post some suggestions for your recommenders.  Meanwhile, please use the comments space to share your questions or your tips for lining up strong recommendations.

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I’m going to be out of the office for most of next week, so I thought I’d better post some more Admissions Tips for those of you currently planning applications to meet our October 15 (January enrollment) or November 15 (Early Notification for September enrollment) deadlines.

The first tip for today is: Be aware of the application deadlines! It’s your responsibility to meet the deadlines, and you should not expect deadline extensions. Of course, if there’s a problem with the reporting of your test scores, you should let us know. We will work with you under those circumstances. Similarly, it’s your job to pester your recommenders so that they will meet the deadline, but we know that sometimes they don’t. We’ll accommodate you as best we’re able, but eventually we need to make a decision!

And speaking of recommendations, the second tip for today is: Remember that all recommendations need to be in English! You’re really gambling if you take a chance that a member of the Admissions Committee will understand the particular language in which the recommendation is written.

I hope blog readers find these tips useful. Remember that each time Committee members read applications, we’re taking on a tall stack! You do yourself a favor when you make sure that all information is in the format we expect.

A special note to New Yorkers – I’ll be at the APSIA fair next Wednesday. Hope to see you there!

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