Recommendation Letter Sample: Good or Bad?

recommendation letter sample mba

Burning Questions Applicants Have About the MBA Recommendation Letter

  • Is it wise to show sample materials to your recommenders?
  • What examples of feedback could I give my recommenders about their materials?
  • Is it okay to write the recommendation letter for my supervisor or ask that someone else do it?
  • Should I get a recommendation letter from a relative, such as through our family business?
  • My boss was just let go this week. His letter is ready to go but hasn’t been submitted yet. What do I do?
  • What does the Harvard HBS recommendation form look like?
  • Can you share a sample letter of recommendation?

The recommendation letter supporting your candidacy is crucial to your MBA application package. As such, applicants should guide their recommenders on optimizing their letters of recommendation (LORs). These LORs should validate the professional strengths that the candidate presents and indicate their potential to become a future leader.

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Recommendation Letter Q&A

Our clients often ask for sample letters if their recommenders are unfamiliar with the process. Let’s get some of your burning LOR questions answered.

Q: Is it wise to show your recommenders sample materials?

A: Not really. We have had clients ask for sample recs, but we usually try to steer them away from samples because it could confine the recommender to what someone else said about a different person.

Erika on our SBC team says, “We ask our clients to have faith that they picked the right recommenders who will really be their cheerleaders and who think highly of them. Just be sure to tell them to use anecdotes and example stories to prove their points — not solely a bunch of adjectives.”

Q: What examples of feedback could I give my recommenders about their materials?

A: At SBC, our consultants won’t tell the recommenders what to write. We can and do review recommender drafts for high-level or directional feedback. The recommender’s unique voice and authenticity must be maintained. Here are consistent themes that we often find in our review of recommender letters:

  • Address a specific skillset
  • Get to the point more quickly
  • Highlight particular strengths that are crucial
  • Reference an example

Q: Is it okay to write the recommendation letter for my supervisor or ask that someone else do it?

A: It would be unethical for anyone other than the stated author to write the recommendation letters. Dawn on our team recently shared with our group, “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.”

Q: Should I get a recommendation letter from a relative, such as through our family business?

A: Most schools specifically advise against using a family member. Therefore, applicants in family-run businesses need to get creative about finding a recommender. Ideally, it should be someone who represents the company but is not under the thumb of a relative/parent.

A client, supplier, or other professional connected with the family business who would have the context and close working relationship could be ideal. If not, we recommend that our clients look for recommenders to other past employers, if possible.

Q: My boss was just let go this week. His recommendation is ready to go but hasn’t been submitted yet. What do I do?

A: You have three options, and we favor the first one:

  1. Have the recommender submit this week as the current supervisor. Then once the client has submitted his application, inform admissions that his recommender is no longer with the company and provide his email address and contact info.
  2. Have the person wait until next week to submit their letter when they are no longer with the company. Have them give their personal contact info.
  3. Don’t use this recommender. We would avoid this option if possible because time is limited to find someone else.

Q: What does the Harvard Business School recommendation form look like?

Here is our last record of the HBS recommendation form:

HBS asks recommenders to rate the applicant’s traits and skills using the following scale: No Information, Area of Concern, Opportunity for Development, Solid/Meets Expectations, Relative Strength/Exceeds Expectations.

Traits and Skills:

  • Awareness of Others
  • Humility
  • Adaptability/Resilience
  • Imagination, Creativity, and Curiosity
  • Initiative
  • Integrity
  • Interpersonal Skills (with subordinates/colleagues)
  • Interpersonal Skills (with superiors)
  • Maturity
  • Self-awareness
  • Self-confidence
  • Teamwork
  • Analytical thinking Skills
  • Listening Skills
  • Quantitative Aptitude Skills
  • Verbal Communication Skills
  • Writing Skills

Please feel free to comment on the ratings you have assigned:

Finally, HBS poses two questions to be answered in a separate document and uploaded to the online recommendation:

Please respond to both questions below in a single document.

1. How do the applicant’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (Recommended: 300 words)

2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Recommended: 250 words)

Q: Can you share a sample recommendation letter?

A: Sure!

What is your relationship with the candidate, and how long have you known them? How would you compare the candidate to others with similar responsibilities within the organization?

Chris has been with Video Laboratory for over three years. He first worked for me six years ago as an intern after his sophomore year in college. As a small organization dedicated to producing original video content for emerging distribution platforms, Chris’s interest in all aspects of video and technology immediately proved an asset. I was pleased when he returned for the following summer.

His work over those two seasons was so impressive that I recruited him to join us when he graduated. Since then, Chris has been with Video Laboratory, formally as Development Director and more informally as my right-hand man.

Chris’s energy, smarts, and organization have been indispensable as a critical member of a small but rapidly growing company. As far back as his second internship with us, before he was even a full-time employee, I already trusted Chris to run projects effectively. As soon as he came on board full-time, I put him in charge of one of our new initiatives for the year, a program to identify young minority filmmaking talent interested in creating Internet content.

I had set a goal to find two to four new talents interested in working with us that summer. Instead, Chris developed half a dozen new artists and devised a revenue system that made the program self-sustaining, allowing us to increase the artists’ budget and pay while already showing a profit for the initiative.

Since then, Chris’s role has been to identify new opportunities for Video Laboratory, both financial and artistic. He has complete autonomy to create teams and initiate new projects that serve this goal. While several other director-level employees joined me around the same time as Chris, he has outperformed both in fiscal and leadership aspects and is effectively second-in-charge in my organization.

Comment on the candidate’s career progression to date. How would you describe their potential for professional growth and development?

Since the day I met Chris as a young undergraduate, his career track has been on a steadily upward path. I have seen him grow from a young man who was occasionally nervous about making a phone call to a vendor into a level-headed leader, tough negotiator, and creative brainstormer.

He has gone from a summer intern to second-in-charge of a forty-person organization, and he has the respect and loyalty of everyone in the company. I imagine that with a business degree under his belt, Chris can become a leader within a much larger organization or found a successful business himself.

Comment on the candidate’s aptitude for strategic thinking, leadership, and/or management.

Even in a creative industry, Chris stands out for his ability to discover and create new opportunities. I have learned over the years to run my ideas I would have once thought impractical or half-baked past Chris first, as he will frequently help me evolve these ideas into something more practical. When that doesn’t suffice, Chris will often keep an idea in the back of his mind, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, and often will come back with a new idea fully ready to execute.

For example, we had talked on and off about how to get more young people on college campuses lacking film programs to get involved in creating their own films. Chris and I had a conversation one day, and I shelved the idea until months later. Chris had done the research, made phone calls, contacted student groups for a pilot program on four campuses in our state, and had a verbal agreement from a popular video website to sponsor an equipment budget for the students. Chris’s determination and initiative created the “Campus Stars” program, which has since expanded several times over.

Along those lines, I now hardly think about Chris’s leadership skills, as he has developed into a natural leader over the last few years. I never questioned putting our new full-time employee running the “Campus Stars” directly under his charge, and the results have been great. I have no doubt Chris will emerge as a well-liked and respected leader wherever he goes.

Describe how the candidate deals with challenges.

It’s rare to see Chris with anything but a smile, and he is a consistently supportive and positive employee and coworker. This quality is rare enough, but Chris carries this same attitude in the face of challenging circumstances and others’ doubts. I have seen Chris take time out of a packed day to ensure a coworker struggling with personal circumstances was ready to take on their work for the day and beyond.

I’ve also had Chris come to me appropriately when an employee was not living up to the necessary standard and implement my suggestions to help the employee’s performance in a neutral, supportive way that kept the focus on the best outcome for the company.

Finally, as an example of Chris’s overall approach, we were coming back from an important meeting just a few months ago. The meeting was with an overseas television network seeking content for a new venture. Over several long sessions, it became clear that Video Laboratory and the network would not agree on the approach or terms, and we went home discouraged.

The instinct for most of us was to spend the trip home brooding over what went wrong. But Chris turned the conversation around by getting everyone to analyze what we were looking for that was not offered. That way, we could look for other partnerships and opportunities to fit our needs better. Chris’s perspective brightened the mood considerably, and Video Laboratory returned the next day with a to-do list instead of a list of grievances.

Is there anything else that you would like us to know about the candidate?

I have nothing but positive things to say about Chris, and I feel he will absorb every bit of information in the Anderson MBA program and emerge as one of the class leaders. However, this leaves out some information about how he got here and what else he does.

When we first met Chris as an intern, he also worked nights and weekends, paying his way through college. Today he balances more-than-full-time work with a busy volunteer schedule on the weekends, and he still finds time to captain his Thursday night rec basketball league. He will bring incredible skills, a great attitude, and genuine leadership to any program.

Please request a free MBA advising session with Stacy Blackman Consulting to learn how we can help with your complete MBA applications. Meet more of the admissions experts on our SBC team.

Q: Can you share a sample side letter?

A: We are very cautious about having our clients submit side letters from a recommender because the applicant mustn’t appear entitled or eager to bend the stated rules. Be sure to carefully evaluate if a side letter is warranted and the tradeoffs of doing so.

What that caveat in place, here is a sample side letter from our archives:

I’m extremely pleased to give Terry Marshall my unqualified endorsement for the Wharton School’s MBA program. I’m writing this letter of reference because, as a Wharton alum, I’m committed to ensuring that the Wharton School is well represented by a diverse and talented student body.

I’ve known Terry for nearly 12 years since we went to boarding school together at Hudson School. At that time, I remember Terry primarily because of his incredible prowess in various sports. He captained the school Boxing, Track & Field, Soccer, and Hockey teams. Additionally, he was a member of the school’s varsity Squash team and participated in various mountaineering expeditions.

What differentiated Terry from other athletes was his phenomenal motivational skills. He had the uncanny ability to lead mediocre teams to outstanding results. Terry did this via his impressive work ethic and deep understanding of his teammates’ individual strengths.

Since graduating from Hudson, I’ve remained in touch with Terry and marveled at his personal and professional transformation. He recently participated in a half marathon and triathlon supporting the Make-A-Wish foundation, and these new pursuits indicate his maturity and dedication.

Terry has maintained strong ties with Hudson for the past ten years. After graduating, he came back and taught for a semester on campus. He helped coach the school soccer team to the district championship at that time.

Terry demonstrates the best qualities of a leader: organizational awareness, grace under fire, empathy, and the ability to get the job done – under the most challenging circumstances. I am confident that Terry Marshall would make a valuable contribution to the Wharton community. Without any hesitation, I offer his candidacy my highest recommendation.

And now…

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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.

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