The recommendation letter forms an integral part of your MBA application package and can make—or break—your chances of admission. Most schools request two letters of support, and one should come from a supervisor if possible. Your second letter can come from a professional contact who can speak to your strengths and weaknesses, such as a past supervisor or client.
Ideally, the MBA recommendation letter provides the admissions committee with a fresh perspective on your skill sets. Above all, your recommenders should enhance your application by offering new and valuable insights into you as a person.
That’s why it’s so important to choose people who have worked closely with you and can provide specific and relevant examples of your work. Instead of submitting two highly duplicative recommendations, it’s more powerful to have recommenders who can share some different perspectives on your candidacy.
Curious about a side letter? A client recently asked, “what do SBC’s HBS experts say about having an alumnus/na submit a supplemental/alumni recommendation on behalf of a candidate?”
A former HBS Admissions Officer on the SBC team addressed this hot topic of side letters. She commented, “They really do discourage it. However, if the alumnus is influential, it can be helpful.”
As we recently shared with Find MBA, applicants unwittingly sabotage their efforts when they select bigwig recommenders with impressive titles, hoping to impress the adcomm. This tactic almost always backfires.
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. In fact, the most effective endorsements come from people who can highlight your professional, personal and interpersonal skills.
In addition, you should pick recommenders who will champion your qualities of leadership, analytical ability, communication skills, and integrity. These are traits MBA admissions committees want to see in applicants.
A Winning Recommendation Letter Requires Guidance
Consider providing your recommender with a packet of materials to help him/her have a better idea of why business school is the next step for you. This could include an updated resume, your application essay responses, and information about the program you hope to attend.
In today’s busy world, where everyone is multi-tasking and over-scheduled, it’s not uncommon for a recommender to suggest that you write your own letter. Do not ever do this! If they don’t have time to write a proper recommendation, find someone who is more enthusiastic about championing your business school dreams.
Besides being unethical, your application reviewer can usually recognize your writing style from your essays. This is a massive red flag about your integrity and will likely lead to an automatic ding. That said, you can still play a large role in positively influencing the final product.
What Should a Recommendation Letter Emphasize?
Sit down with each recommender and let them know the key attributes you’d like them to include. This could mean emphasizing your charisma, intelligence, determination, or creative thinking.
Next, make your recommender’s life easier by providing them with at least one concrete example to illustrate each characteristic. Sharing details of how you contributed to projects, or giving specific examples of how you interact with others, or went above and beyond — these are the things that make for a great recommendation letter.
Most schools ask recommenders about your weaknesses or areas of development. Make your self-awareness a strength. Give the recommender a growth area for you as well as examples of how you are working on it. A recent performance evaluation is a good place to start.
Also, address how getting your MBA will help you further develop in this area. Then the recommender can speak to your maturity and awareness. This shows schools you intend to hit the ground running and improve through their program.
The goal of managing your recommenders is to make it as easy as possible for them to write glowing letters. That’s why a recommender package is a win-win for all. Your recommenders will appreciate your assistance and thoroughness, and produce a better recommendation on your behalf.