Personal Endorsements Boost MBA Applicants’ Chances, Cornell Researchers Find

MBA recommendationsAs you think about every possible way to strengthen your MBA application, you might be considering asking an influential person in your life to submit a supplemental recommendation. A supplemental recommendation is typically an informal letter, email or call from a mentor of yours who is associated with your target school.

In our experience here at SBC, this strategy rarely hurts, and, according to empirical studies conducted by researchers at Cornell University, “Personal endorsements give applicants a leg up on the competition, both in getting interviewed and admitted, according to their study of applicants to a university MBA program.”

In “Best in Class: The Returns on Application Endorsements in Higher Education,” published in Administrative Science Quarterly, Ben A. Rissing, assistant professor of organizational behavior in Cornell’s ILR School, and his co-author, Emilio J. Castilla of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that endorsed applicants were interviewed about 82 percent of the time, while those without endorsements scored an interview only 34 percent of the time.

Among those who interviewed, endorsed applicants received offers to join the program 64 percent of the time, while those without endorsements got offers only 52 percent of the time. “These are big differences,” Rissing said.

Endorsed applicants also tend to support the university at higher rates by taking on leadership roles as students and giving more generous monetary donations as alumni. However, colleges and companies may be missing out on valuable talent if they accept only endorsed applicants, the researchers note.

First-generation students, immigrants, and students without financial resources might not yet have contacts who are willing or able endorse them, Rissing said. “There are smart, qualified and community-minded individuals in all of these groups. Is their potential lack of awareness of these endorsement channels going to limit their opportunities?” he said. “Decision-makers must be attentive to the reality that access to these types of social connections, such as endorsements, are not ubiquitous.”

An SBC Client Case Study

Our client Jerry was applying to a highly competitive selection of schools—HBS, Wharton and Stanford. With an impressive resume and significant career progression at an energy firm, Jerry had several influential mentors. In fact, Jerry had a mentor who had attended each of his target MBA schools.

Jerry’s three mentors had the following circumstances:

1. Lisa: A Harvard MBA with ten years of post MBA experience at Jerry’s firm, Lisa was his former supervisor and knew his work extremely well. Lisa was a volunteer with her local HBS alumni group and retained some relationships at the school.
2. Seth: The SVP of Jerry’s department was a Stanford grad with sixteen years of post-MBA experience. He donated a significant amount of money to the school and his daughter was currently a freshman at the university.
3. Vipul: A graduate of the Wharton EMBA program, Vipul had gotten to know the director of admissions at Wharton fairly well, and had close ties to professors and the local alumni group.

We knew that Wharton was the most receptive to community endorsements of the three schools, and decided to ask Vipul to write a letter and submit it through those official channels. Seth’s deep connections to Stanford could be an asset to Jerry’s application, but we decided to ask him to call a former professor and talk to him about Jerry. Finally, because HBS requires three recommendations and Lisa wasn’t sure how to put in an informal endorsement, Jerry asked her to write his third HBS reference letter.

Jerry was admitted to Wharton and HBS, and though we couldn’t determine whether the supplemental recommendation made a significant difference in his application, Jerry approached the idea strategically and was ultimately successful.

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