Burning Questions Applicants Have About MBA Recommendation Letters
- Is it wise to show sample materials to your recommenders?
- What are examples of feedback I could give to my recommenders about their materials?
- Is it ok 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?
As MBA deadlines approach, applicants seek to support their recommenders with advice on how to optimize their letters of recommendation (LORs). Letters of recommendation, LORs, should be a validation of the professional strengths that the candidate is presenting and an indication of the potential of the candidate to become a future leader.
Our clients often ask for examples of anonymized recommendation materials for recommenders unfamiliar with the process.
Q: Is it wise to show your recommenders sample materials?
A: Not really. We have had clients ask for sample recs, and 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 shared, “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 are examples of feedback I could give to 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 ok 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.”
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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 at 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:
- Have the recommender submit this week as the current supervisor. Then once the client has submitted his application, inform admissions that his rec is no longer with the company and provide his email address and contact info.
- Have the rec wait until next week to submit his letter when he is no longer with the company. Have him give his personal contact info.
- Not use this recommender. We would avoid this route if at all 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
- Imagination, Creativity, and Curiosity
- Interpersonal Skills (with subordinates/colleagues)
- Interpersonal Skills (with superiors)
- 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?
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 to be an asset, and 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 aimed at identifying 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 will be able to 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.
As an example, we had talked on and off about how to get more young people on college campuses lacking film programs a way to get involved in creating their own films. Chris and I had a conversation one day, and I had 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 on his face, 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 make sure 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 that was looking for content for a new venture. Over several long sessions, it became clear that Video Laboratory and the network were not going to 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 that would better fit our needs. 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 true leadership to any program.
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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.
In the meantime, here is a sample side letter from our archives:
I am extremely pleased to give Terry Marshall my unqualified endorsement for the Wharton School’s Masters of Business Administration program. I am writing this letter of reference in support of Terry Marshall because I am very committed to helping ensure that the Wharton School is well represented by a diverse, talented, and superior student body. Terry Marshall would be a stellar addition to the incoming class of 2007. I am also comfortable penning this letter because I can speak to Terry’s record of community and personal achievements over the approximately 12 years that I have known him.
I have known Terry Marshall since early 1990, when we went to boarding school together at the 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.
As such, he epitomized the quintessential athlete at Hudson. However, what differentiated Terry from others of that genre, were his deep sense of humility and phenomenal motivational skills. Indeed, Terry had the proven and uncanny ability to lead mediocre teams to outstanding results. His presence on the field always helped galvanize his teammates to perform at a far superior level. He did this via his impressive work ethic and his deep understanding of the individual strengths of teammates, which enabled him to help individuals put in star performances.
The other area where Terry left a lasting impression was his dedication to social and charitable causes. Even when in high school, Terry tirelessly worked in social and educational causes. He was part of a small team that visited various villages on the weekends, where they assisted young children with their studies.
Since graduating from Hudson, I have remained in touch with Terry and marveled at his personal and professional transformation. He has blazed an amazing career path for himself, venturing into financial services, management consulting, and now spearheading a startup firm. Despite all these successes, Terry Marshall has remained humble and focused on growing himself through involvement in various pursuits. He recently participated in a half Marathon, and a Triathlon in support of the Make A Wish foundation, and these new pursuits are indicative of his maturity and dedication.
During the past ten years, Terry has also constantly maintained strong ties with Hudson. My own family is very actively involved with alumni association activities at the Hudson School. Over the years, we have watched Terry’s active contributions to our alma mater with pride. Terry came back to school after finishing at Hudson and taught for a semester on campus. At that time, he helped coach the school Soccer team to the district championship.
Since then too, Terry has constantly mentored fellow students from Hudson. He advised many students in their applications to colleges in the US and helped two students secure admission to Kenyon College, his undergraduate institution. Furthermore, I know of several other former school friends at NYU and at Georgetown, who Terry has counseled in course selections and career choices.
Terry demonstrates all the best qualities of a leader: organizational awareness, grace under fire, proactive and empathetic leadership, and the ability to get the job done – under the most challenging circumstances. I have known Terry for over ten years, and now since my time at the Wharton School, I also understand the school’s culture. I am confident that Terry Marshall would make a valuable contribution to the Wharton class of 2007 and indeed to the school in years to come. And so, it is without any hesitation that I offer his candidacy my highest recommendation.
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