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How to Choose Your Recommenders

This article will give you the key information and practical guidance you need to choose the perfect recommenders. Below, we'll cover:

Why Grad Recommendations Are Different

You probably remember gathering letters of recommendation for your undergrad applications, and the good advice you got then still applies now. Letters of recommendation (recs for short) are meant to support your candidacy and corroborate what you’ve already put to paper in your essays and short answers.

But recommendations take on a whole new significance in grad school, because a graduate degree is a professional degree. This means that a grad school recommendation has to do more than complement the rest of your application; it has to compellingly illustrate your ability to excel in a professional setting.

For this reason, recommendations from bosses and colleagues are typical. However, the right recommender for you will depend on the type of degree you’re pursuing and how much work experience you have. If you’re applying for an MBA, it’s likely that you’ll need two or three professional recommendations, most likely from your current and former supervisors. But, if you don’t have much work experience or you’re coming right out of school, you might lean on a trusted professor instead. Note: we don’t recommend MBA’s for applicants with less than two years of work experience. If this is you, take a look at our video on grad school timing.

If you’re looking to attend law school or pursue a PhD, on the other hand, recs from professors are far more common. A more academic program might ask for one professional and one academic recommendation. In addition to a professor, the lead researcher of a project you’ve worked on or the manager of a non-profit at which you regularly volunteer could also be appropriate recommenders.

Rules for Selecting Recommenders

When the type of recommendation isn’t specified, it’s best to match your recommenders to the prompt given. For example, instead of asking for an academic or professional recommendation, a school might ask your recommender to write about a time when you failed. If you have a compelling story about a time when you failed at first but eventually succeeded, you should choose a recommender who was around you at that time.

Regardless of the degree you want or the recommendation prompts you receive, there are two rules of thumb you should always follow when choosing your recommenders.

Only consider recommenders who know you well

This first rule may seem obvious: don’t ask for recommendations from people who don’t know you. But depending on how many schools you apply to and how many recs they each require, the burden on you and your recommenders could become quite heavy. This significant “recommendation load” might tempt you to ask for recs from more…extraneous references. Resist the urge.

There are only two possible outcomes when you ask an acquaintance, or even worse a stranger, for a letter of recommendation. On one hand, they might simply say no, in which case you’ve wasted your time. On the other hand, if they feel compelled to accept your request out of politeness, they will probably write you a lackluster rec. Needless to say, neither of those are a win for you.

So, what does it mean to have an existing relationship with a recommender? To say you have an existing relationship with a recommender, at least one of the following requirements should be met.

First, you’ve known them at least a year. This is a good guideline for recommenders in a business setting, but can also apply to academic and extracurricular recommenders. The idea behind this guideline is that someone who’s known you for more than a year has seen your ups and downs, and they know you well (which is key for a solid recommendation).

Second, if your recommender is a professor, you should’ve done more than sit quietly in the back of their class. To say you have an existing relationship with a professor, you should be involved with them beyond the standard scope of their class. This could mean that you were a TA for them, that you were a student leader in a club they sponsored, or that you performed research alongside them. The only exception to this guideline is if the class was very small and you got to know the professor personally.

Recommenders who know you well are more likely to agree to write you a rec, and they’re also more likely to do a great job. Exceptional letters of recommendation are passionate, heartfelt, and specific. Each recommendation you submit should speak powerfully in support of your candidacy, and not simply list your experiences and accomplishments.

To meet this admittedly high standard, you need to focus on the depth and quality of your relationship with a potential recommender, rather than their writing prowess or title. It is far better to have a convincing letter from a low-ranking employee than it is to have a bland endorsement from the CEO you only met once, in an elevator, when she was in a hurry. Let go of any star-studded recommendation aspirations and focus on those who know you best. 

Only consider recommenders who will write you a great recommendation

The second rule of thumb for selecting recommenders, after the know-you-well criteria, is that you should only consider recommenders who will write you a great (not just good) recommendation.

No one aims for mediocre recommendations. But sometimes, applicants end up with one. How can you know in advance whether someone is going to write you a great recommendation or a poor one? In a sense, you can’t. But here are some red flags to look for: 

  • Your recommender took an unexpectedly long time to respond to your request
  • You have a lingering feeling that your recommender agreed to your request begrudgingly
  • You’ve had a long but lukewarm relationship with your recommender and you’re not sure they’ll have any standout stories to tell about you
  • Your recommender has been overly critical in the past and you think they might use the recommendation as a chance to give you one last poor performance review
The basic method for ensuring great recommendations is as follows:
  1. Make a list of all your possible recommenders
  2. Remove all recommenders who don’t fit into an acceptable category 
  3. Remove all recommenders with red flags
  4. Remove anyone else you still have doubts about
  5. Divide your recommendation load among the remaining contenders

In a perfect world, only your very best recommenders would make the cut, and each recommender would have to write no more than six recs. But life doesn’t always go to plan. Any one of your desired recommenders, even those who know you well and would write you a great letter of recommendation, might be too busy to do you the favor. Recommenders always have the option to decline your request, so keep that in mind when you ask for their help.

Beyond securing passionate recommendations, there is another reason why choosing a few, high-quality recommenders is better than choosing many middling ones, and that is reduced variability. The more recommenders you have, the harder it is to regulate your brand message and the more likely it is that one recommender or another will say something off-brand. Furthermore, the less familiar a recommender is with you and your background (these are typically your alternate recommenders), the less naturally familiar they will be with your brand. For advice on how to ensure your recommenders express your brand, see Communicating with Your Recommenders.

Types of Recommendations

The most common recommendation is the one you get from your boss. Usually this person has worked with you closely and has a strong sense of your professional character, which makes them a great recommender. However, there are some instances when you shouldn’t use them… 

What if it’s not the right time to ask my boss? 

If you recently got a new job or a promotion, you might not want to tell your supervisor that you’re leaving for grad school until you get in. If you’ve been at your current company for a long time, but your boss is unlikely to be supportive, you might also want to keep your decision under wraps. If this is the case, using a previous employer in place of your current one is a good strategy.

What if my boss isn’t qualified to write me a recommendation?

Sometimes, your boss isn’t the right person for the job. For example, if your company has a flat structure or recently experienced a reorganization effort, your boss may not be the person who knows you best. The easiest way to overcome this obstacle is to put them in contact with the person you work with most. The authority that comes from a supervisor recommendation matched with the insights of a close coworker can be a powerful combination. If you have a day-to-day manager who knows more about you than your on-paper boss, then using them as a recommender might also be a good strategy.

What’s most important for these strategies is that you choose a recommender who can speak to the skills and traits that a traditional boss would, so your application doesn’t have a big hole in it where your professional character should be. Then, prevent negative speculation by using your optional essay (if you’re given one) to explain exactly why your boss isn’t one of your recommenders.

What if I’ve worked with someone but not for them?

This is what’s known as a peer recommendation. The ideal peer recommendation comes from someone who had some kind of hierarchical relationship with you (e.g., they were the leader of a project you worked on, they oversaw an event you organized, etc.). However, there are times when you have no supervisor and you truly are working peer-to-peer. In these cases, it’s important to highlight the working relationship. That is, you want your relevant professional attributes to be what shines through in this recommendation. If your peer recommendation talks about how you and your best friend had a lot of fun starting a band, it’s not a recommendation. If it discusses how you crafted a brand from scratch, negotiated gigs, and organized a tour schedule, all while highlighting your creative, analytical, and social skills... well that’s a recommendation.

Can a professor write me a recommendation?

The next most common recommendation is an academic or extracurricular recommendation. An academic recommendation from a faculty member who knows you well and with whom you’ve worked closely is appropriate under three circumstances:
  1. You are pursuing a more academic degree (e.g., JD, PhD)
  2. You have less than 2 years of work experience (and you’re applying to business school)
  3. You have an especially compelling reason (e.g., you’ve worked directly with your professor outside of the classroom in a research, teaching, or consulting capacity)

What about an extracurricular recommendation?

An extracurricular recommendation, regardless of your desired degree, is rarely recommended because a graduate degree is a professional degree, as mentioned earlier. Your hobbies, however close to your heart, should not appear in your recommendations unless they were specifically asked for or allowed. Your resume is a better place to highlight those interests and accomplishments. That said, there are a few exceptions to this rule:

  • You’re coming directly out of school: If you’re a freshly-minted college grad in your early 20’s, admissions representatives will expect that you have little to no real work experience. See if you can get a recommendation from an internship supervisor (which would mirror the boss-employee relationship they’re looking for), a professor you’ve worked with, or a club leader who supervised you.
  • Your involvement in the extracurricular activity is equivalent to that of a real job: If you are an active board member on a committee or have a significant leadership role in a volunteer organization, your level of engagement may be high enough to justify a related recommendation. Still, it’s best if this extracurricular recommendation comes from someone who worked above you (e.g., the president on a board where you served as secretary or the vice president of a club where you acted as the new student liaison).

What if I work in the family business?

You should never use a family member as a recommender. Each letter of recommendation should serve as an objective, external, third-party assessment of your candidacy. Selecting a family member as a recommender puts their recommendation’s objectivity into question and undermines the entire purpose of petitioning a recommendation in the first place. Usually, this is an easy mistake to avoid. But if your dad is your boss… things get complicated. Recommenders to use instead of Dad Boss might include clients, coworkers, or employees that work at the same level as your family member (i.e., above you) but aren’t related to you.

What if I’m an entrepreneur?

If you own a business where you’re the head honcho, you can’t exactly get a recommendation from your boss (unless you write it yourself, which you absolutely should not do). So what can you do instead? Focus on potential recommenders who can speak to your character as well as your skillset. You can turn to happy clients for recommendations so long as you worked with them directly. You can also turn to cofounders, individual investors, and even banks. The bank official who approved your loan knows your pitch and your business. If they’ve seen you and your business grow over time as well, all the better! Lastly, anyone related to the business who knows you well and has seen how your operate could be a great recommender.

What about a personal recommendation?

A personal recommendation is a recommendation that comes from someone you know rather than someone you work with. A rec like this, from a close friend or neighbor, for example, is almost the same as one from a family member: no good. But there is one way to make it work. In order for a personal recommendation to appear credible, it must fit into one of the above categories. If a close friend also happens to be a former boss or a professor, they’re still in the running to be one of your recommenders.

But how should you address this duality in the recommendation itself? Simply lead with the professional and follow up with the personal. While a close personal relationship with a recommender that goes beyond the professional sphere may help your candidacy (e.g., they know you better, they have more detailed examples to cite, they’re highly motivated to help you), this isn’t something they should lead with in their letter of recommendation. Once a recommender has established your professional brand within the recommendation, they can feel free to highlight the key character traits that appear in your personal relationship as well.

What about a self-recommendation?

No. There really is no such thing as a self-recommendation. No matter how sparse your potential recommender list begins to look, do not write a rec for yourself. We are addressing this question not because the answer is complex (it’s actually quite simple: just don’t do it) but because it comes up when we speak with applicants. Your essays are your self-recommendation, and if you can’t get what you want to say across in the two or three essay opportunities you’re given, a self-recommendation isn’t going to help you. If you’re struggling to write a compelling essay for yourself, see The Essay-Writing Process. And if you’re at a complete loss, you can talk with an Admit.me expert

MBA Recommenders Grad Article

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