UM Ross Admissions Director on Choosing Recommenders

A few weeks ago, I provided a Tuesday Tips video on selecting the right recommender. So many people think choosing a well-known or prestigious individual will be the ticket to acceptance at the b-school of their dreams. As I said then, the key when selecting recommenders is to think about about their placement in your life; can they write about you thoughtfully and with enough insight so that the admissions committee can get an authentic feel for you as a person, as well as your skills and capabilities? Truly, the prestige of the recommender is not important.

Soojin Kwon Koh, the director of admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, offers additional advice on choosing your recommenders in the latest Ross MBA Newsletter. The key to selecting your recommenders, says Soojin, is picking someone who knows you well, values your work, is committed to your success, and is willing to take the time to write a detailed recommendation that is supported by examples.

Here are the four things to focus on when choosing recommenders:

  1. Choose substance over title: In other words, don’t ask your CEO, unless you’ve worked directly with him or her for a significant amount of time. Instead, focus on finding someone who knows you and your professional strengths and weaknesses. The admissions committee would rather receive a recommendation letter from a mid-level manager that has depth, substance, and supportive examples than a generic recommendation from someone higher up in your organization.
  2. Go with professional relationships: Whenever possible, seek out recommendations from direct supervisors rather than professors, peers, or family friends. If that’s not possible, ask a work mentor, an unofficial supervisor, or a client. Some candidates work for a family business, are entrepreneurs, or find themselves between jobs. In lieu of a direct supervisor, Soojin suggests asking an investor or a major client who has worked with you for a period of time, or perhaps a previous employer.
  3. Make it easy for your recommenders: Give your recommenders context on why you want an MBA. Remind them of the projects you worked on together, and provide a copy of a recent performance review. While the letter must be written in each recommender’s own words, those words will come easier once you’ve provided context and reference information. But don’t prepare your recommenders so extensively that their letters repeat what you’ve discussed in your essays. You also want to ensure that the two recommendation letters don’t sound virtually identical; this would make AdCom question the authorship of the letter.
  4. Provide ample lead time: Remember that all parts of your application must be submitted by the application deadline, including the recommendation letters. Since it is more difficult to control the timeline of a third party, give your recommenders plenty of lead time. It can be helpful to build in a buffer for yourself by providing them with a deadline well in advance of the actual application deadline. At a minimum, request the letter four weeks prior to the application deadline.

I urge you not to underestimate the importance of your recommenders, as some top schools have said the letters of recommendation are the most important aspect of the application. This third-party input and perspective on you as an individual is invaluable when schools are making their admit decisions, so take your recommendations seriously, choose wisely, manage carefully and make sure they are as professionally executed as every other aspect of your application.

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