It might surprise you that many applicants don’t invest time and attention in their reference letters. Most applicants select their references, direct them to the proper forms, and hope for the best. You can influence the quality of your recommendations. When SBC clients ask for advice on choosing who should write their MBA recommendation letter, these are the key elements to keep in mind.
- How strongly does the recommender champion you and your MBA aspirations?
- Does the recommender have at least 3-4 meaty examples to share that demonstrate strong MBA-desirable qualities? Think leadership, interpersonal/communication skills, analytical ability, innovation mindset, team focus, integrity, etc.
- Will the recommender add dimension and valuable insights? Does the recommender have strong written communication skills?
- How open would the recommender be to input from you on the recommendation? Will he/she feel comfortable with receiving a recommender brief and/or potentially sharing a draft with you to review?
- How senior is the recommender, and/or are they an alum of the target school? Generally, these factors are less important relative to the content of the MBA recommendation letter. But they are worth considering, depending on the circumstances.
- Does the recommender meet the specific school’s instructions? Stanford, for example, has removed its peer recommendation option.
Now, who do you choose?
Weigh the pros and cons of the various recommender options and know that a range of perspectives is best. A good set of letters will feature the client from professional, personal, and interpersonal standpoints.
Rather than submitting two highly duplicative recommendations, it can be more powerful to request recommenders who can share different perspectives/examples. It’s a bonus if the recommender(s) know the candidate across multiple areas of his life and can speak positively to them.
Applicants often think they should choose the person in their organization with the loftiest title to write their reference letters. The truth is that a person with a fancy title who doesn’t know the applicant won’t be able to offer specific examples and anecdotes to support even the most generous platitudes. As with the client’s essays, without “reasons to believe,” the claims made in the reference letter, even when true, will be discounted or ignored.
What makes a good MBA recommendation letter?
Professionals are better.
For top MBA programs such as Harvard Business School and the Wharton School, we favor professional recommendations. “They typically prefer two direct supervisors and it can be a risk when you cannot provide one from your current supervisor,” says a former HBS Admissions Officer on the Stacy Blackman Consulting team. “This isn’t always realistic, but it’s the preference. The only exception to this is for the 2+2 program. Here, faculty, advisors, heads of extracurricular programs, etc. are expected for at least one of them.”
Many recommenders—especially those unfamiliar with the MBA application process—think that if they simply sing your praises and repeat how great you are in various different ways, that will be enough. Unfortunately, it’s not. The best way for your recommenders to help you stand out from thousands of other highly qualified applicants is by painting a clear picture of who you are both professionally and personally.
Standing out is especially crucial for traditional applicants from finance and consulting. “Use the MBA recommendation letter to show that an applicant is at the very top of their classes (rockstars!),” says a former Wharton Admissions Officer on the Stacy Blackman Consulting team.
Sharing details of how you contributed to projects or giving specific examples of how you interact with others or went above and beyond (including funny anecdotes or quips that give insight into your personality)—these are the things that make for a great MBA recommendation letter.
How to ask a supervisor for a recommendation.
Take a proactive approach to your reference letters. Sit down with each reference to let them know that a stellar recommendation letter is integral to your MBA admit chances and highlight the key attributes that the recommender should try to address.
Possibilities: creative thinking, determination, focus, intelligence, charisma. Come up with at least one concrete example that you feel illustrates each characteristic. Definitely drive home the importance of going heavy on the examples!
What should applicants do if they’re worried they don’t have enough quality recommenders?
Recommender quality does matter. Typically, only two recommender letters are expected. If the applicant doesn’t have two quality letters, it’s possible the applicant is just overly-worried. Often, the letters can be done in the quality fashion that top MBA programs seek, but the applicant just needs reassurance. If the letters are truly poor quality, we encourage the applicant to cast a wider net for MBA programs. They might also need to reconsider their recommender choice, and/or delay an application season.
A report suggests business schools are clamping down on excessive recommender “coaching.” How far can candidates go in preparing their recommender?
Attributes and examples are entirely appropriate as ways to prepare recommenders. We discourage our clients from writing recommender letters for ethical reasons, and because their own voice is often transparent within the materials.
For more on the MBA recommendation letter topic, check out my prior post for US News & World Report, 5 Don’ts for Managing MBA Recommenders.