Tips for a Killer MBA Recommendation Letter

MBA recommendation letter

It might surprise you that many MBA applicants don’t invest time and attention in their reference letters. Most applicants select their recommenders, direct them to the proper forms, and hope for the best. Such a missed opportunity! Professional recommendations are vital.  The following specific tips will help you secure a killer MBA recommendation letter to the b-school of your dreams.

When SBC clients ask for advice on choosing who should write their recommendations, 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.

Request a free MBA advising session with Stacy Blackman Consulting to learn how we can help with your complete MBA applications. 

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 highlight the applicant from professional, personal, and interpersonal standpoints.

Rather than submitting two highly duplicative recommendations, it can be more powerful to use recommenders who can share different perspectives/examples. It’s a bonus if the recommender(s) know the candidate across multiple areas of their 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 MBA recommendation letter. 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.

For more tips, listen to B-Schooled podcast #127: How to Pick the Right Recommenders

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.”

Stand out.

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.

Hear how SBC consultant Sherry, a former AdCom member at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, advises her clients about obtaining rec letters:

@stacyblackmanconsulting #MBArecommendations #SBCyourfuture ? original sound – Stacy Blackman Consulting

Specifics matter.

Sharing details of how you contributed to projects or giving specific examples of how you interacted 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 tell them that a stellar recommendation letter is integral to your MBA admission chances. Also, make sure you 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, you only need two recommender letters. 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.

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. But we discourage our clients from writing recommender letters for ethical reasons. Besides, their own voice is often identified within the materials.

An SBC consultant recently commented, “The ethical viewpoint is right on track. Admissions officers are very good at detecting different writing styles. If they think the letters are over-coached or has too many different edits (which bring in different styles), then that is a red flag. The admissions officers want the recommenders to write it.”

Request a free MBA advising session with Stacy Blackman Consulting to learn how we can help with your complete MBA applications. Here’s a snapshot of the caliber of expertise on our SBC team.

Here’s a snapshot of the caliber of expertise on our SBC team.

SBC’s star-studded consultant team is unparalleled. Our clients benefit from current intelligence that we receive from the former MBA Admissions Officers from Harvard HBS, Stanford GSB and every elite business program in the US and Europe.  These MBA Admissions Officers have chosen to work exclusively with SBC.

Just two of the many superstars on the SBC team:
Meet Erin, who was Assistant Director of MBA Admissions at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) and Director of MBA Admissions at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

Meet Andrea, who served as the Associate Director of MBA Admissions at Harvard Business School (HBS) for over five years.

Tap into this inside knowledge for your MBA applications by requesting a consultation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


(323) 934-3936

Latest Blog Post

Why You Need a Personal MBA Soundbite

Admissions officers and employers often make up their minds about an applicant during the first few moments of a conversation. That’s why starting on your best foot in a compelling, dynamic, memorable, and authentic ...