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Getting good letters of recommendation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 25 July, 2013, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 07 July, 2014, 5:30pm

Of all the components of your application to business school, the letters of recommendation are the item that requires input from an outside source. Their importance should therefore not be underestimated, as this is the chance for the admissions committee to assess how you are viewed by others, not just how you see yourself.

In consequence the recommendations should be written by individuals who know you, and can attest to your abilities, experience and professionalism. This typically means that at least one letter should come from your immediate supervisor, the person you work with on a daily basis. Of course if you are not yet ready to tell your company that you want to head back to business school, you might want to identify a client or supplier with whom you have had a close working relationship. Schools will understand if asking your current employer will jeopardise your current job situation, but it might be a good idea to include a sentence about this decision in your optional essay so that they don't have to second-guess the situation. Nevertheless, by asking your immediate supervisor you are also making a clear statement to the school about just how committed you are to the MBA project.

At Fortuna Admissions we spend a considerable amount of time talking through the different recommender options an applicant might have, and also look to see how the specific examples they can give of your qualities and achievements reinforce the content of your own essays. Because recommenders do not face word limits, they can address additional strengths and accomplishments. But don't leave anything to chance. Make sure they know why you are applying to business school and what you want to get from it. Ask them to include anecdotes, quantifiable results or particular details that might be enlightening to the Admissions Committee. The more specific your recommenders can be, providing concrete examples of your abilities, contributions and achievements, the better the Admissions Committee will be able to understand you.

Be clear about how many recommendations are required. Stanford GSB, for example, asks for three letters, one of which should come from a peer. Many schools, however, require two recommendations, including Harvard Business School, which recently reduced their requirement. HBS suggests that recommendations come from individuals who know the candidate well and can attest to the person’s leadership abilities.

The careful selection of your recommender also implies their level of support and belief in you. A half-hearted letter, or worse still, a critical assessment can be hard to overcome. So follow your instincts – if you think the recommendation might be less than positive, then you are probably right, and should look elsewhere for support. Celebrity endorsements or a vague letter from the managing director, who is clearly unfamiliar with your roles and responsibilities, should also be avoided. Admissions officers see thousands of letters, so aim for the right balance of critique, positive feedback and authenticity to ensure your recommendation letters add value to your application.

Another common mistake is the absence of a recommendation from someone who has worked with you in the past two years. Going back too far in time to find your recommenders can raise questions about your current situation. It is also clear from the questions asked by business schools that it is better not to approach a professor from college for one of your recommendations. Though well-placed to describe academic achievements and class participation, they would struggle to describe your potential for senior management. If you in a doctoral programme, however, your academic supervisor would be a natural choice.

Other alternative recommenders could include clients and suppliers. Given that they are expected to describe the circumstances under which you have worked together, make sure you choose a professional contact with whom you have a substantial working relationship rather than brief contact.

In some cases your recommender may have been to business school, and is both well-versed in the need for a detailed letter and well-placed to identify the qualities required of a successful student at the school. But we encourage you not to ask a colleague or friend of a friend just because they attended the business school you are applying to. The lack of a strong working relationship and meaningful content will do you more harm than good.

And if the recommender suggests that you write your own recommendation letter that they will merely sign, it is not only difficult to find a different voice that you own, but this also defeats the purpose of the criteria to be evaluated. So give the recommender plenty of time, perhaps taking them to lunch to explain your project and reminding them of certain characteristics or achievements that they might refer to. We like to work with applicants to draw up a summary document which will contain bullet points of your strengths (with examples from the workplace), areas of improvement (again with examples from the workplace), and any overall comments that you think would be helpful for your recommender to know. You should also provide an updated rėsumė. These tools will help them when they sit down to answer the questions on your behalf, so they are not left scratching their heads trying to come up with an example of how well you manage teams you work with.

You should then follow up in the following weeks to make sure they meet the school deadline, and keep them up to date on your progress – whether you secured an interview or have visited the campus, etc. And of course, let your recommenders know what the final outcome is, either in person or perhaps with a handwritten note of thanks.

About the author

Michel Belden is former Wharton Associate Director of MBA Admissions and expert coach at Fortuna Admissions.

Fortuna Admissions is an MBA coaching dream team of former business school professionals from top-tier institutions, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, IE Business School, NYU Stern and UC Berkeley Haas.