What makes a good letter of recommendation? Here are some tips for making yours stand out!

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Jimmy Johnston is a first year MPA student, and graduate assistant in the admissions office, at Rockefeller College. He hails from Morrisville, NY.

An application for graduate school has five main components: GPA, GRE scores, Personal Statement, Resume, and letters of recommendation. Today we’re going to cover the letters of recommendation. While you may not have a say over what your recommenders write, I’ll go over a few guidelines to ensure that you get the most benefit out of your letters. For this post, I’m going to focus on 4 points: Who, What, When, and How.

WHO:

For graduate school applications, unless you have been out of school for several years, at least two of your letters should be from academic sources (unless stated otherwise). That means two letters should be from professors (or Teaching Assistants), and one could be from someone who knows you professionally outside the classroom (a boss, internship supervisor, a faculty/staff member who works with you on an extra-curricular activity, etc.). A letter from a high school teacher, family member, neighbor, or friend would generally be seen as inappropriate.


Remember: Relationship > Title

This is very important. Some applicants think that if they get a letter from their elected representative (assemblyman, senator) or another notable member of the community, their letter will somehow hold more weight. This is not true. What’s important is what the recommender has to say about you.
Let’s say that you’re in a 250-person lecture class. You score high marks, but do not interact directly with the professor. For most of the group work and projects, you’re working with a Teaching Assistant. The TA gets to know you and understands your work ethic. The professor knows you scored high marks, but couldn’t put a name to your face. We would much rather see a thoughtful letter of recommendation written by the TA who can speak to your abilities and tell us about you, than a letter from a professor that says “Jimmy scored high marks in my class. I’m sure he will do well in your program.” An average letter that shows you’re “satisfactory” doesn’t really add to your application.

WHAT:

While you don’t get to write the letter, more often than not your recommender will ask you for your thoughts. This is your chance to help guide your recommender to submit the best possible letter.
Your letters of recommendation should show two things:
1. Your academic ability – that you are ready for graduate-level coursework
2. Your fit for program – that you are interested in and would succeed in the given program
A common myth is that a recommender should regurgitate your resume in order to tell us about all of the things you do outside the classroom. This is NOT necessary, as you are submitting a copy of your resume with the application. Your letters of recommendation are supposed to illustrate your academic ability and fit for the program. It is a good idea to let your recommender know why you decided to ask them. For example, if you want your professor to talk about the research project you worked on together, let him/her know that!

WHEN:

Ideally, you should give your recommenders at least a month to produce your letters. Remember, you are not the only person who has asked them to write one, and they are also likely swamped with other responsibilities. It’s good to approach your potential recommender when the deadline is more than a month away to ask if he/she would be willing to write a letter for you. Follow up with them regularly, but understand they have many other commitments. Remember, it’s your responsibility to ensure that they have enough time to write the letter, are aware of the deadline, and are planning to submit on time.

HOW:

When approaching a potential recommender, you should ask: if they feel they would be able to write a satisfying letter of recommendation for you, if they (honestly) have time, and if they would be willing. Let them be honest. If they decline, it’s for the better. It’s best to find out now that they don’t have time or don’t feel that they know you well enough, than to have your application submitted late or have a lousy letter.
If they agree to write recommendation, follow up with them regularly to remind them of the deadline. After they submit your letter, send them a hand-written thank you note, because they took time out of their schedule to help you out. When you are accepted to schools and decide where you are attending, follow up with them to let them know, and thank them again.

So that’s letters of recommendation in a nutshell. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact us at rockadmissions@albany.edu. Thanks for reading our blog, and stay tuned for future posts!

Where to Eat in Albany!

Rob

Robert Ward is a first-year MPA student and graduate assistant at Rockefeller College. He hails from Buffalo, NY.

As a first year MPA student, I can tell you that knowing the best places to grab a bite to eat is very important knowledge. Even graduate students need to take a break from studying sometimes, and knowing the best places to eat during those breaks is key!

First on any students list should be places to grab coffee. You can’t beat Husted Café for convenience, as it is located right in the center of the downtown campus, where most Rockefeller classes are located. However, if you want to stretch your legs in-between classes, Lark Street is a short walk away from the downtown campus and features several great coffee shops. Both Stacks Espresso Bar and The Daily Grind are renowned shops in the area, and deserve a visit among Lark’s almost overwhelming array of independently owned shops and boutiques. If you want to explore the area a bit, Hudson River Coffee House is a cozy hole-in-the wall shop near both the College of Saint Rose and Alumni Quad, both just a few short blocks from the downtown campus. Finally, if your journeys take you to the Uptown Campus be sure to stop in at Uncommon Grounds, whose breakfast bagel sandwiches I’ve only heard great things about.

If you’re feeling a bit hungrier and could use a full meal, you have plenty of options as well. Sovrana Pizza is a short skip and a hop from the downtown campus, and as such is a popular choice. In this author’s humble opinion they have the best pizza in the Capital Region, and the prices are very reasonable. If you want to branch out from pizza, Lark Street is once again a great option. Bombers Burrito Bar is renowned for, you guessed it, their burritos, but their whole menu is guaranteed to leave you satisfied. Right next door to Bombers is Sukhothai, which is a delicious and cheap option if you happen to be into Thai food. Finally, if you’re into Sushi you’re in luck, because the Capital District is abundant in Sushi restaurants. I can personally attest to Sushi Tei’s high quality (located on Western Avenue) and Sushi X has an all-you-can-eat lunch special every weekday (located a short drive away in Latham).

I tried to stick to local places in this post, but of course there are great chain options as well. Chipotle, Five Guys, and DiBellas Subs all have locations close to campus and are college favorites. Widely speaking, this list features only a sliver of the options available to students. Go out and explore what the Capital District has to offer!

Considering going to graduate school out-of-state? Here are 5 pieces of advice from someone who’s been there.

Erin Trowbridge is a second-year MPA student at Rockefeller College.  She hails from Carlsbad, California.

Erin Trowbridge is a second-year MPA student at Rockefeller College. She hails from Carlsbad, California.

I’m going to claim my bias right now- going to Rockefeller was the right choice for me. So if throughout this post it seems a little bit like I’m trying to convince you to go here? It’s because I am. Because Rockefeller is seriously awesome. (And it’s not like I come from a lame state either- I’m from California. Where it’s warm. And sunny. And there are celebrities everywhere. (Seriously, there aren’t)). However, because I feel a special out of state kinship with you already, I also care about you making the right choice for you. And so, I promise that the following will provide you with real advice, and not just Rockefeller Propaganda:

  1. Be financially realistic. Is going out of state affordable? Compare the prices and financial aid you would get in state and out. I know countless people who decided either on an out of state or a private school that regret it because they could’ve gotten the same education at home, and graduated with thousands less in debt. That being said- no matter where you go, you’ll probably be broke. I mean, you’re going to be a grad student. If you’re not broke, you’re doing it wrong. So if going to an out of state college is an experience you really want- just go for it. ESPECIALLY if that out of state college is SUNY Albany, because for real, it’s probably as cheap as your in-state school choice (seriously!).
  1. (and really, this is good advice for anyone deciding where to go) Take inventory of your reasons for going. Is the school at the top of your list simply at the top because it’s more prestigious or does it actually have the program you want? Chances are, once you get there, you won’t be happier or more fulfilled because you can wear the school gear with more pride, you’ll be happier if you’re doing what you love. Look at the course catalog and in the online course search. Do the classes interest you? Think about the school as a whole. Do you want to go to a big school or a small school? A private school or a public school? Is there anything you missed out on in undergrad that you want to make up for in graduate school? For example, I went to a big, prestigious, public, school for undergrad, which was great, but I always felt like a tiny fish in a giant ocean. And super lame metaphors aside, it was always hard for me to get to know teachers, or to be chosen for anything exclusive I applied for, because I was competing with a huge pool of amazing students. So I knew that when applying to grad school I wanted to pick a smaller school (Side note: My MPA core classes here are around 30-35 people. You can decide for yourself whether or not this is small). Undergrad prepared you for this choice. What did you not love about your past school experiences? What do you want in a graduate school? You know yourself better now, pick a school with intention.
  2. Research the city. You’re not just choosing a school, you’re choosing a place to live for the next 2+ years. Do you want to live in a city? A more rural area? Here’s a jumpstart on your Albany research: One of the greatest things about Albany is how close it is to everything. Since moving here, I’ve developed a theory that Albany was built on some sort of triangulated vortex that makes everywhere you would want to go only 3 hours away. Want to go to New York City? 3 hours by bus! Want to get away from the city and go for a hike? The beautiful Adirondacks are 3 hours away (ok, it’s closer to 2, but by the time you stop at Dunkin Donuts, it’ll be closer to 3).Vermont? 3 hours! Boston? THREE. HOURS. (Disclaimer: this could be my California talking. When you come from a state that can take 12 hours minimum to drive from the bottom to the top, 3 hours to go so many different places is a big deal).
  3. Consider the job and internship opportunities. Something I’ve learned in grad school is that your experience here is much more than just academics. You can get so much valuable experience from a job or internship during this time, and it can often lead to job after you graduate. Think about this when you are choosing a school. Are you ready for the Rockefeller pitch? There are a TON of opportunities in Albany. It’s the capitol of New York and that means it has so many resources in terms of nonprofit, and government experiences. And because there are so many colleges here, many of the openings are catered to students. Also, Jennifer Maclaughlin, our Director of Internship and Career Programs, is the best. It is actually a part of her job to help you find a job or internship! What?! (Again, this excitement may be related to the fact that there was no one like that at my undergrad university, but regardless of what resources you had, it’s always nice to have someone on your side).
  4. (Perhaps this one is too obvious, but it must be addressed) Figure out if leaving home is actually something you want to do. Sure, you’re not leaving the country or anything, but don’t let yourself underestimate the commitment involved in studying in a different state. If you get really homesick easily, maybe consider staying close to home, its nothing to be ashamed of. If you’ve never really left, maybe you should. It may be hard, but you’ll gain a lot from it. Personally, I love traveling and learning about new places. And I’ve definitely come to relate my time here to a study abroad experience. People here speak differently, dress differently, eat differently (I’m lookin’ at you, Dunkin Donuts). There is just an entirely different vibe (is that too California of me to say?). While your move may not be as drastic as west coast to east coast, if you can still approach it like a learning experience, you’ll probably get a lot out of going to school in a different state.

What does a lower than average GRE score or GPA mean for your application?

Students often ask what their GRE scores and/or GPAs mean for their applications. If you are asking yourself this question, remember when a program lists averages that does not automatically mean a GRE score or GPA below the average makes you ineligible. For example, the average undergraduate GPA for students admitted to our MPA program is a 3.65; that does not mean if you are slightly below the average you will not be considered for admission. However, the further away from the average you are, the less competitive your application will be. The same goes for GRE scores.

If your GRE scores and/or GPA are significantly below the provided averages, you still have options. If your GRE scores are an issue, we strongly advise students to consider retaking the exam to improve their scores. If you did not do so well the first time around, it would probably be a good idea to purchase a GRE review book or consider taking a GRE prep class. If your GPA is your challenge, review your transcript to identify areas where you struggled and consider retaking some of those courses, especially if they provide knowledge you need for your intended program of study (for prospective MPA students, quantitative courses are a good example). This not only helps improve your application, it will likely contribute to your success as a student if admitted. Another option would be to apply as a non-degree student, which would allow you to take courses in your chosen field. If you do well in those courses, you can apply to your intended master’s program. Taking courses as a non-degree student will allow the admissions committee to see you are able to be successful, at the graduate level, in your intended field of study. If admitted, courses successfully completed as a non-degree student can be applied to master’s level programs at the College.

Of course, if you are concerned about your GRE scores and/or GPA, you should talk to an admissions counselor about your specific situation to help identify the best option(s) for you. Don’t hesitate to contact us at rockadmissions@albany.edu if you have any questions or concerns.

Making the right impression at graduate and professional school fairs.

While the primary purpose of graduate and professional school fairs is to provide information to prospective students, fairs also provide students a wonderful opportunity to leave a lasting, positive, first impression with a school they may eventually attend. Unfortunately, many students fail to take advantage of that opportunity. Remember, graduate and professional school fairs are not simply an opportunity for you to interview potential schools… they are an opportunity for schools to interview you!

Here are some tips to make sure you make the right impression:

  • Find out which colleges/universities will be attending the fair and research the ones you plan to speak with.
  • Dress appropriately! In most cases, this would mean business casual. However, some fairs suggest interview attire. Make sure to check the fair website in advance.
  • Remember, graduate programs are preparing you for life as a professional. So, you want to make sure the interactions you have with admissions representatives are professional! Make an effort to start conversations by introducing yourself and summarizing your academic/career interests.
  • Be prepared to answer questions the admissions representative might ask, for example:
    • Have you thought about which program you are interested in?
    • What are your academic and/or career goals?
    • What experience do you have in your field of interest (this could be academic or professional experience)?
  • If you are returning to school because you wish to change careers, be prepared to explain why.
  • If you have unique experiences (for example, work, internship or research experience) that are relevant to your intended program of study… mention it!
  • Prepare questions to ask the admissions representative. In addition to admissions requirements, you should ask questions about the program. For example, you may wish to inquire about class size, research opportunities, internship opportunities, student services, career services, etc.
  • Consider bringing business cards (there are many online vendors that make business cards) with your email address and area(s) of interest. This will allow admissions representatives to keep in touch with you and share information based on your interests. If you do not have business cards, ask the representative(s) if you can fill out an information request card so you can keep in touch.

Now that you know how to make the most of graduate and professional school fairs, come out to see us on the road! You can find the Rockefeller on the Road schedule at: http://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/ontheroad.shtml.

The Career Advantages of an Internship

An internship is a great way to earn money, try out new professions, but most importantly develop skills that are integral to your career success.  You probably completed an internship during your undergraduate years, whether it was working on a political campaign, at a law office, or in a business setting.  While the average undergraduate student is usually faced with a mountain of paperwork to copy, fax, or file, a graduate level internship is different – it is professional and it will strongly impact your future career.

When advising students on choosing internships, I urge them to look at an internship as more than a paycheck, but as a strategic career move.  After all, over 20% of the Class of 2013 secured a full-time job after completing an internship at that particular site.  An internship can lead to a job offer, either at that same organization, or at another.  A Class of 2014 MPA graduate just scored a full-time research job at The Brookings Institute directly because of the health policy research he conducted at his academic year internship.  Therefore, it’s important to look carefully at all aspects of an internship before accepting an offer.

In the MPA program, I meet with students in their first semester to discuss how they can gain the skills necessary to succeed in their chosen career path, be it through coursework or through internships.  It’s easy to accept an internship in a familiar area of study, lapsing into old habits, but the truly great internships will propel you forward.  For example, if you are interested in nonprofit advocacy, investigate internships at state agencies where you can see policy implementation in action, which will give you insight into how to advocate for new and better policies in the nonprofit setting.  I always recommend finding a “dream job” posting, and comparing it to your current resume – more than likely, you won’t seem qualified.  However, remember that you have 2 years to revamp your resume and obtain the necessary skills and you’ll be surprised at where you end up!  Enlist the help of professors, classmates, family, and of course, your friendly Director of Career Services!

You’re about to be a senior in college! How to use this summer to prepare for graduate school.

It’s your last summer of college! This is the time to make some money, relax by the pool, and hang out with your friends. Right? Well, only partly right.

If you’re planning to apply for graduate school for the Fall 2015 semester, this summer is also the last opportunity to prepare your graduate application before you are burdened with classes, senior thesis, and all of those wonderful internships and extra-curricular activities. Although studying for the GRE and writing personal statements might not be your idea of the perfect way to spend summer vacation, it’s the best way to ensure that you’ll be prepared to submit your graduate applications on time.

My best piece of advice is to set a schedule. If you set aside an hour a day, or a specific block of time each week, that’s dedicated to application prep, you’ll be in great shape. Just like an exercise regimen, it’s good to have a plan. Maybe you take an hour a day, four days per week, to study for the GRE. One of those days could be dedicated to verbal preparation, two days for quantitative practice questions, and the fourth day to do a practice exam. Whatever works for you is fine, but I suggest that you a set a schedule and stick to it!

I hear from lots of applicants that they “get stuck” on their personal statement because they really don’t know where to start. Brainstorming and outlining your personal statement is a great way to spend your summer break. You don’t necessarily have to write a complete statement by the end of August, but narrowing down topics and refining your professional “vision” will make writing the statement so much easier come autumn!

The good news is that most of your application prep can be done poolside or at a vacation location. So throw that GRE prep book into your beach bag, and get started! Trust me; you’ll thank me in November.

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