Sea‐level rise (SLR) projections by Earth System Models (ESMs) depend on ice sheet surface mass balances. Accurate, global atmosphere reanalyses would be ideal for providing equilibrated ice sheet model initial conditions in fully coupled ESM simulations. Here we present the first evaluation of 1980–1990 global reanalysis precipitation over Greenland and Antarctica that uses independent observations of net accumulation rates derived from shallow ice cores. Precipitation distributions from both the European Centre for Medium‐Range Weather Forecast's Reanalysis (ERA5) and the Modern‐Era Retrospective Analysis for Research and Applications (MERRA‐2) are highly correlated with contemporaneous co‐located net accumulation rates from Greenland (r2 > 0.95) and West Antarctica (r2 > 0.7). Three other commonly used reanalyses (WFDE5, CRUNCEP, and GSWP3) exhibit significantly weaker correlations on one or both ice sheets. Our findings imply that ESMs should use ERA5 or MERRA‐2 in data‐forced simulations to validate ice sheet model dynamics and precondition firn for SLR projections.