Dos and Don’ts for Choosing MBA Recommenders

So many people think choosing a well-known or prestigious individual will be the ticket to acceptance at the b-school of their dreams. 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.

Professional recommendations are best

In most situations, current and recent supervisors are the best choices because they can speak to your current skills, values, and work ethic as well as future potential. Also you should choose professional references instead of professors. Schools can see your educational background from transcripts and test scores; for that reason a recommendation from a professor won’t add much to your profile. Supervisors who have worked with you recently can elaborate on the aspects of your character that aren’t seen in resumes, transcripts, and scores.

Take a look at this excerpt from a recent post on the MBA Voices blog at Harvard Business School written by second-year student Ali Hassan, in which he describes how he chose his HBS recommenders while at McKinsey:

“When it came to recommendations, I was seeking two types of people.  First, I wanted someone who had worked very closely with me, and had a micro-level view of my skillset in day-to-day work. That person would be able to provide great insight, and back it up by pointing to specific experiences they’d had with me.
Second, I wanted someone who had a macro-level view of my work performance over time, with different teams, and across various work settings. If the first recommender provided depth, this one provided breadth. He was able to give a more comprehensive, long-term view of consistent patterns of strengths and weaknesses that I had as I worked with different teams, on different projects, and in different industries.”

People who know you well are best

Choose recommenders who know you well and can provide specific examples that speak to your personality, character, and values. Many applicants are tempted to ask their CEO or a famous school alum to write a recommendation.  If the CEO of your company is your direct supervisor and knows you well, then he/she is the right choice.

However do not skip several levels of hierarchy just to have the CEO write your recommendation. In fact, most schools specifically request your current supervisor as a reference, recognizing that this person is the most familiar with you and your work style. If for some reason you cannot have your current supervisor write your recommendation, you can submit a quick note to schools explaining why — eg, you just switched roles and have a new supervisor, you are not comfortable informing your place of work that you are applying to school.

Impress recommenders

Ideally you have already impressed your recommenders over the past few years with your performance. However, you want to be especially aware this spring and summer to demonstrate your leadership, initiative, maturity, and self-awareness. Your recommenders should see that you are ready to take the next step in your career by going to business school.

Build your relationships

Though the deadlines are still many months away, it is important to start thinking now about who your recommenders will be in order to build your relationships with them. Your recommenders should be invested in your future and enthusiastic about helping you reach your goal of getting into business school.

Though you don’t need to tell your recommenders right now that you want them to write a reference, you can take time this spring to make them mentors. Find opportunities to discuss their career path and ask their advice in order to involve them in furthering your career. Then it will seem natural for them to write your recommendations this fall.


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