Recommendations: Don’t Just “Hand Off,” Strategize and Manage the Process

By Jeremy Dann
Some applicants view their recommendations as a part of the business school application process that can be put on auto-pilot. But make no mistake: even this part of your file will require a significant investment of time and attention.

Start to think NOW about a short list of candidates who you think would be capable, diligent and organized recommendation writers (remember, these folks will have deadlines to hit, too!). This list should be composed of people from your current job, previous employers, “extracurricular” activities and university. They should be from various levels of organizations. Some might possess a “name” or boast an impressive title, while others will be peers who have collaborated closely with you. Over the next several weeks, try to get some “quality time” with these people””potentially even re-establishing ties with someone from a previous job or an old college prof””in order to feel out who would be most jazzed about writing a rec. Believe me, the recommender’s attitude and commitment level is key.

Aim for a good “spread” among your recommenders, so they can write about you from various angles. Getting the partner from the “pharma cost-cutting consulting project” and also the partner from the “chemical cost-cutting consulting project” might not produce the recs that show the full range of your character and capabilities.

In general, I believe you should give these folks about six weeks of advance warning before the deadline and provide them any forms and prep materials three to four weeks before the date you would like the recommendation submitted.

This is no mere “hand-off” of a few Xeroxed forms, as some folks might believe. This is a task for which you should budget a few hours. All applicants need to figure out what their recs should say and how they should complement the points they themselves bring up in their essays. Even a recommender with the best intentions might end up writing a weak appraisal if it does not dovetail with the “Brand You” that is woven into your essays. For instance, a recommendation that emphasizes your data-gathering and quantitative analysis skills doesn’t do much for you if you tried to establish your “brand” around creativity and dynamic leadership.

Provide your recommenders with a list of anecdotes that will jog their memories. Very specific anecdotes, like “Remember the time on the XYZ negotiation where you said the deal structure I proposed saved the company $10 million?” Some of these anecdotes or “microexamples” can be things you yourself raise in the essays, while others might be fresh material that only the recommender employs. Stacy wrote a great post during last year’s application season about recs: check it out.

We’ll revisit this topic in coming weeks to talk about managing recommenders. Please let us know if you have any questions.

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