How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation

If you’re currently a student, then you’re probably split between enjoying your winter break and agonizing about all the school and work applications you have in the mix. (We won’t talk about the spreadsheet currently sitting on my desktop. It’s color-coded to the point where it would blind you).

One thing that really stresses applicants out is making the ask for letters of recommendation. I’ve been doing this for one thing or another for about ten years and I still get squiffy about it. Below are a few tips for making these asks as painless and efficient as possible:

1. Choose your recommenders wisely.
Before you fire off fifty emails, ask yourself the following questions: Do I have a positive relationship with this person? Have I asked about their family/publications/life lately? Are they able to accurately and enthusiastically speak to my qualifications for whatever I am applying? You don’t want to pick the same recommenders for everything. If you’re applying for a summer job painting murals at an art museum, your finance professor should not be your first choice, for example. What’s more, you should try to pick people with whom you have a rapport—nobody likes getting emailed or spoken to only when a person wants something. At the very least, open your email with a salutation and well wishes.

2. Ask WELL in advance!
I personally feel anxious if I ask any less than three weeks in advance for a letter. It is so important to give your recommender enough time to do their letter justice. Believe me, they get read, and admissions committees can always tell if a writer was rushed.

3. Know what you’re applying for—and clue your recommender in.
Don’t annoy your recommender off the bat by linking them to a giant website for the university or organization you’re applying to. Take the time to write a short paragraph describing the program, the position you are hoping to get, when the deadline is, and what you hope they might highlight in their letter.

4. Attach your resume and whatever additional documentation your recommender asks for.
These additional documents may vary. I once had a recommender ask me to write my own draft and have them sign! Even if you feel like the recommender is asking for more than necessary, just remember they’re doing you a favor and forward it all along.

5. Don’t forget the follow-up.
Make sure to send a thank you note or a small gift to everyone who does end up writing you a letter, even if you don’t get accepted to whatever you applied for. This small gesture significantly increases your rapport with the person and increases the chances that they’ll say yes if you need another letter from them down the road. Also, if you do end up getting accepted to something, mention this in your note. There’s no better feeling then knowing you helped someone achieve their goals.

Getting Ahead of the GRE

Around this time, our office gets inundated with questions about the Revised General Test-also known as the “SAT for grad school” or the GRE. Below are a few tips for demystifying this application hurdle:

1. Most graduate programs require the GRE—but it’s worth it to ask about waiver policies. At Rockefeller college, the vast majority of MPA applicants and all PhD applicants are required to submit GRE scores along with their applications for study. However, we do consider applications for GRE waivers if an applicant has five or more years of work experience in a supervisory role, preferably in a quantitative field. Before you look up GRE time slots, email the admissions offices on your short list and ask about their waiver policies.

2. When you email, don’t ask about minimum score requirements—ask about average scores of acceptance. Many schools, in an effort to review applications holistically, do not have a specific minimum score requirement. However this does not give one much to aim for when taking the test. A good policy is to inquire about the average scores of people who are accepted into the program (don’t forget to specify that you want the average scores for writing, quantitative, and verbal). This will give you a solid standard to work with when preparing for the test. And in speaking of preparation…

3. Yes, you do need to study. Many people are so overwhelmed by the testing scope of the GRE that they take a “what I know is what I know” approach. While we understand that being tested on your entire vocabulary and all the math you’ve ever learned is daunting, studying will almost definitely improve your chances of success. What’s more, there are productive, concrete ways to study that do not require reviewing every spelling test and math exam you’ve ever taken. We’re particular fans of the GRE study guides put out by ETS, the testing company that creates and administers the GRE. Getting one of these books is a productive and relatively inexpensive option to brush up, plus they’re chock full of practice tests. 

4. For schools who require the GRE, it isn’t the only thing they look at, but it plays an important role when considering an applicant for admission. We here at Rockefeller have found that your GRE score, especially on the quantitative section, tends to be indicative of your future success in the program. The Master of Public Administration program in particular is heavy in the kind of math the GRE tests for, and so we use your score as a road map for your math competency. 

5. Whatever you do, start early, stay informed and follow up. You would not believe how many applications for GRE waivers we get two days before our application deadline. Still more people submit applications without being aware they have to take the test. If you’re applying for the fall, now is the time to start investigating the GRE requirements of the schools on your short list. If you have to take the test, making a first attempt as early as possible will take some of the pressure off, give you more time to study, and give you time to take it again if your first scores are less than ideal.

We hope these tips make the GRE a little less mysterious and daunting of a prospect. And please, if you feel we’ve forgotten any vital GRE hacks, comment below with your two cents.

Knowing Your Application Strengths and Weaknesses

If you’re considering graduate study in the fall, you’ve probably already started thinking about the application process and where you might like to go. This is often an overwhelming process, especially if you’re in a group of friends who are all applying at the same time. The temptation is to compare yourself to other people, and these comparisons can either bring you down or build up a false sense of confidence.

Just remember, nobody knows you better than you know yourself. Also, you’re probably a stronger candidate than you think you are. Below are a list of common (and less common) application strengths and weaknesses:


  1. A Well Written Personal Statement
    Everyone knows this counts of course. But it is truly rare to find a well written, cogent personal statement free of errors that answers all of the application prompts. Taking the time to make this document polished and communicative of who you are can set you apart big time from the crowd. (Trust me, I read dozens of them a day).
  2. Some Leadership Experience
    A good undergraduate track record is important, but often departments will forgive a less-than-stellar GPA if you can demonstrate considerable leadership experience. If you coach a team sport, are on the board of a school club, or even if you’ve babysat your whole life, these circumstances all speak to your ability to manage others and to work under some kind of pressure—so don’t write them off!
  3. Good Recommendation Letters
    A lot of applicants seem to think that the letters of recommendation are not as important as other facets of the application. This simply isn’t true. If someone who has known you professionally or academically for a significant period of time writes a glowing recommendation, we pay attention. (And similarly if the recommendation is lukewarm, we can tell and we will wonder why). Make sure you have a frank conversation with your potential recommenders before they write for you, so that you have a better idea of where you both stand.


  1. Low Test Scores
    How much test scores matter entirely depends on the program and the school to which you are applying. For Rockefeller though, we generally look at the GRE. For the MPA program. We consider anywhere within the 64th percentile for quantitative and 58th percentile for verbal to be competitive. The average score on the writing section is 4.5. Before you sign up for a million test dates, look up the ranges of generally accepted GRE scores on your short list of schools so that you have a better idea of what to aim for.

    2. Incomplete Materials
    You would be surprised how many applications are delayed or disregarded simply because the applicant did not follow instructions and/or promptly answer follow-up emails about missing materials. This kind of lack of attention to detail speaks volumes about your professional competency and can be an unspoken criteria of admittance, so make sure to read application directions thoroughly and do things right the first time.

  2. Lack of Any Work Experience
    For sure, there are plenty of students who go right from undergraduate to graduate school and may not have begun their careers in earnest. However, looking at work experience is just a more formal way for admissions committees to ascertain whether or not you have any leadership experience. We encourage you to put down all of your work experience even if it’s not related to your field of study, especially if you used these jobs to put yourself through Undergrad. That shows good goal setting and dedication to your education.

We hope this post got you thinking about your own candidacy pluses and minuses. Stay tuned for more articles on how to make your applications the best that they can be.

Do’s and Don’ts of the Grad School Fair (From People Who Know Their Stuff)

It’s that time of year. Apples, colorful leaves, jack-o-lanterns…and Graduate School fairs. Along with your hoodies, all of you seniors are probably starting to feel the warm, slightly claustrophobic pressure of your uncertain future closing in around you. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, and going to graduate school fairs to see what higher education has to offer is a great place to start sorting out your plans.

Below is a list of top “Dos” and “Don’t’s” of the grad school fair as identified by seasoned admissions professionals here at Rockefeller:

Pro Tips

  1. Come to the event looking presentable. It’s a terrible cliché to say “dress for the job you want,” but as long as you do that (and don’t say it), then you’re golden.
  2. Bring a few copies of your resume. Or at the very least, write legibly when filling out information request cards. You would be surprised how much interest goes unanswered due to illegible handwriting.
  3. In speaking of resumes…make sure the copy you’re giving is up to date and approved by someone with an eye for the resume format.
  4. Do a little homework. At the very least, check the registration web page and see which schools are attending. Make a “must visit” page and target those tables so that the fair proper isn’t so overwhelming.
  5. Understand your own interests. It’s good to know the most important criteria for schools you might attend. For example, geographic location, program offerings, or faculty research in a particular area may all be important to you, and you should be able to articulate that during the school search.
  6. Be prepared with questions. Don’t be afraid to talk to the representatives, that’s what we are there for.
  7. Keep an open mind. Remember, the most valuable part of the grad school fair is the opportunity for in-person interaction with admissions staff. You might learn about a program you didn’t know existed, or start considering a school you’ve never heard of, and that’s okay. It might be the best decision you ever make.


  1. Clustering. Don’t treat the grad fair like a bar with your friends on Friday night. Break away from your friend circle and express interest in programs and schools directly to get the most out of your experience.
  2. Inappropriate email addresses. Try to stick with something that is a version of your name. It makes it easier if we have to transcribe it and it looks far more professional. Your email is not the place to be unique or cute.
  3. Pajamas/Sweatpants. Not wanting to wear a full suit is one thing. Showing up looking like you just rolled out of bed is quite another. If formality really makes you uncomfortable, at least consider something with buttons and/or collars.
  4. General cluelessness. If you have no idea what programs you’re interested in, what a school does, or where it is, this does not give a good impression.
  5. An “I’m in it for the stuff” attitude. Walking up to a table and grabbing a pen or a treat without demonstrating any willingness to interact with an admissions officer is just plain bad manners. (And besides, if the treats are good, the school just might be too).

We hope these tips prove helpful to you as you embark on your grad school search. And please, if you feel like we missed any particularly important ones, comment below and make your case.

Why Choose An Out-Of-State School? We Asked Someone Who Made The Move!

Deciding to leave one’s state for school can be a scary decision. This week I sat down with Adelaide Hurlbert, a fellow graduate assistant in my cohort, to pick her brain about why she chose to make the move.

12071674_10153312104438191_1966888450_nAdelaide is originally from Inman, South Carolina. Inman is a small town, and she knew that wherever she ended up going for higher education she wanted that “small town feel.” Adelaide decided to go out of state for her undergraduate degree and chose Ursinus College in Collegeville Pennsylvania because it offered a strong gymnastics program. Even though this was far from South Carolina, she enjoyed her undergraduate experience and the surrounding area.

 “The school itself was so small it felt like its own community, and then Collegeville was another small town.” she said of Ursinus. “It wasn’t a huge culture shock going from one to another.”

Her positive experience branching out for undergrad meant that when she was ready to look for master’s programs, out-of-state schools were on the table. She had majored in Media and Communications at Ursinus and was looking to compliment this skill set with more quantitative and management capacities.

With these goals in mind, she attended a grad school info fair to begin her search, a strategy she highly recommends.

“It’s far less confusing to sit down face to face with someone and discuss my options, rather than sifting through a bunch of overwhelming information on a website.”

We here at Admissions heartily agree, and in fact it was at the Idealist fair in Philadelphia where Adelaide met Kara Pangburn, our Director of Admissions. Kara discussed her educational goals with her one on one, then told her about some brand new program concentrations here at Rockefeller.

“I just felt like when I met Kara, this was it. This was a good match! I just want to go here!”

Of course as most of us know from applying to undergraduate institutions, only one college on the short list becomes where we actually attend. Adelaide finally decided on Rockefeller College because they offered her a competitive funding package and its location in the State Capitol is a great place to locate internships and jobs. She also caught wind of our fantastic career services office, which ultimately set Rockefeller apart from any in-state considerations.

It’s been about 7 weeks since the semester started, and so I felt I had to ask whether or not Rockefeller was meeting her expectations. Adelaide reports that indeed, her graduate education is everything she hoped it would be so far.

“I especially love the small class size,” she highlighted. “U Albany is a big university but Rockefeller is a small, comfortable learning environment. It feels like a small town within a big city and I still have the close knit feel that I appreciated at Ursinis. Also, there’s Dunkin Donuts everywhere. And loads of coffee places!”

Lastly, I asked Adelaide if she had any advice for the grad school search.

I think it’s just as important to visit your grad school campuses as it is to visit your undergraduate campuses. Also, keep an open mind. Don’t limit yourself to one state or think you can’t hack living away from home. It’s not as daunting as it sounds.”

(PS—if anyone feels like taking Adelaide’s advice and visiting Rockefeller College, follow the link below and fill out an online tour request form. We’d love to meet you!)

From Italy To Albany: Why I Chose Rockefeller Over Europe For Higher Education

AndreaAndrea Natali hails from Milan, Italy and completed the MPA in May 2015 through a double-degree program with Bocconi University. He concentrated in Public Economics and Finance and interned at the NYS Assembly in the Education Committee.


Sciences Po in Paris; Hertie School in Berlin; Rockefeller College in Albany. This was the choice I was faced with in December 2013, and I picked Albany. My name is Andrea and I come from Milan, Italy. What is wrong with me? Why on earth would I pick Albany over two major European capitals? Let me give you my 2 cents.

    • The MPA is something different: An MPA is the public counterpart of the MBA. It is a highly professionalized graduate program that provides you with the tools to be effective in the public sector. The quality of instruction is excellent, and many of your classmates are already working in their desired fields. In Italy, the MPA hasn’t really “caught on.” There is no comparable program in my home country, and so Rockefeller’s MPA was an unmatched opportunity.
    • A flexible curriculum that meets diverse needs. Rockefeller’s MPA program offers great flexibility in terms of electives. You can follow the offered concentrations and pick among the selected classes or design a path with your advisor tailored to your needs; coming from Italy, that’s what I found most useful. The traditional concentrations focus on U.S. State and local government, but for someone like me who won’t be remaining in the U.S., this was not ideal. Thanks to the college’s commitment to diversity, I was able to create a more internationally focused concentration relevant to my career goals.
    • The most bang for your buck: Rockefeller College’s MPA is one of the top 20 programs in the country and tuition is relatively inexpensive. The cost of living in Albany is also extremely affordable and this had a huge impact on my decision to study here. You can take public transportation for free as a student and find nice housing close to campus for about $500 that includes all the amenities. The college also offers some support in the housing search for International students. Most importantly, Rockefeller College WILL find you a paid internship and, often, a job. Period. Jennifer Maclaughlin – the director of Career Services – is incredibly talented and passionate at what she does, and she gets results.
    • The Empire State: Albany is strategically located in New York State. You can get to Boston in about three hours with Greyhound, and it’s about $50 for a roundtrip. New York City is easily reachable in 2/3 hours with Megabus (~$30 roundtrip, but if you book in advance you might end up paying $1 per ticket)! Montreal is only a 3-hour drive. So if you like big cities, you’re served. But that’s not all. Upstate New York is beautiful, and you should trust me since I’m Italian. The amount of wilderness I’ve seen in New York is unparalleled. Lake Ontario is not a lake, it’s a frigging ocean. The Adirondacks and the Catskills are great for hiking.
    • There is, unfortunately, a caveat.


Winter is brutal. From mid-December to late March, Albany is probably one of the coldest places you have lived. As you settle in though, you’ll learn the tricks that have helped thousands of students before you survive the season.

Bottom line, Rockefeller is a good investment. Albany is a nice place to live and although the program is challenging, you will emerge well poised to handle a burdensome workload, an internship/job and a social life. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

Making the big decision… It’s not too late to take advantage of opportunities to learn more about Rockefeller!


Congratulations to all of our admitted graduate students! With the April 15th funding deadline just around the corner, we know many of you are trying to gather as much information as you can to help you make your final decision! It’s not too late to take advantage of the following opportunities to learn more about Rockefeller College!

The Rock Mob & Admitted Student Reception

In our recent communications and social media posts, you may have been hearing a lot about the Rock Mob. What’s a Rock Mob? It’s a gathering and photo shoot of 100+ Rockefeller College alumni, current and accepted students and faculty. It was a blast last year, so we’re doing it again this Wednesday, April 8th on the steps of the NYS Capitol! Immediately following the photo shoot, we will be hosting an Admitted Student Reception at the City Beer Hall in downtown Albany. If you are an admitted graduate student who would like to attend, but forgot to RSVP, please email me at and I will make sure to add you to our RSVP list! For more details about the Rock Mob & Admitted Student Reception, please visit:

Connect with alumni in your area

Can’t make it to the Rock Mob but want to talk to an alum about his/her Rockefeller College experience and the great value of a Rockefeller degree? We would be happy to schedule a coffee chat between you and an alum in your area. If you would like to schedule a coffee chat, please contact me at and I will work with Andrea Lomanto, our Director of Alumni Relations, to find an alum who would be willing to meet with you at a local coffeehouse. In the event there is not an alum in your area, we would be happy to schedule a Skype or telephone chat.

Individual Campus Visits

You can schedule an individual visit to campus at any time by filling out a Rockefeller College Campus Visit Request at or by emailing us at

Of course, if you have any questions about our graduate programs, or being a student at Rockefeller, you can email us at


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.