Asking the Right Person for Business School Letters of Recommendation
Sure your academic record, test scores, resume, and essay responses illustrate your story, but recommendation letters are a major component of your MBA application as they provide a critical, third party lens into your character and professional skills. At time when candidates have unprecedented access to admissions resources and experts, I was recently told by a top 5 MBA Admissions Director that the recommendation letters are the most important part of the application because it is one of the last true unbiased components of the application. Great recommendation letters are the vital puzzle piece that complete the picture of how you are perceived by others to the admissions committee. As the saying goes, perception is reality.
Most MBA programs require just two letters, so choose your recommenders carefully! When faced with the prospect of asking for a letter of recommendation for your MBA application, you may be unsure of where to begin. While you have likely crossed paths with many qualified people who would be willing to write you a letter of recommendation, it’s important to be intentional about who you ask.
A great recommender should be able to do the following things for your application:
- Complement your admissions brand with specific professional and personal stories that demonstrate the key character traits outlined in your application
- Provide a passionate character and professional endorsement
- Offer meaningful insight into your personal character and professional strengths and weaknesses
Why Choosing the Right Recommender is Important
While it is true that exceptional letters of recommendation require more than just the right recommenders, it is important that you carefully select the people who will write them for you.
Recommendations give the admissions committee a third-party perspective on who you are as a candidate, which, if you properly prepared your recommenders, will corroborate how you presented yourself and strengthen your overall application. It’s important for the recommender to provide confirmation of the key character traits you stress throughout your application, essays, and interview.
Conversely, a modest endorsement or contradictory recommender is almost certain to put your application at risk. Admissions committees pay attention to who you choose to write your recommendation letters and use those choices as an example of your professional judgement. They also take things like weak language or short letters as cues that there wasn’t much good to say about you. From the admissions committee’s perspective, if you can’t get two (or three) people to write glowing recommendations about you, it’s clear that you may not have what it takes to be a future business leader.
Thoughtfully selecting your recommenders will not only ensure that your recommendation letters do not harm your candidacy, but significantly boost your candidacy and likelihood of admittance.
Who to Ask for Business School Recommendations
Exceptional letters of recommendation are passionate, heartfelt, and specific. These letters are more likely to come from a recommender who has a personal relationship with the candidate and can speak to who they are as a person, not just how they present themselves professionally. Remember: Your recommenders should be an advocate for your candidacy, not a reporter on your experience.
It is a MUST that you select recommenders that know you well enough to be descriptive and cite specific examples. Trust me, selecting the CEO of your company may seem like a great idea, but I hope your occasional elevator conversations were memorable because choosing a recommender with only a cursory understanding of your role, personality, and performance can derail your recommendations. Don’t be tempted to choose a recommender based on their title.
Rather than chasing after people with big titles who can not speak knowledgeably about your abilities, ask for recommendations from people who have worked with you closely. The admissions committee wants to gain an understanding of your experience in detail and get a clear picture of who you are in a professional setting. In addition, they will be looking to learn more about the personal qualities you describe in your application, so be sure to select recommenders who can speak to them. Choose based on who knows you well enough to be an advocate and take your application to the next level.
Typically, the admissions committee will be looking to hear from meaningful colleagues in your professional life such as your supervisor or current boss. If, for some reason, you won’t be asking this person for a recommendation (perhaps you risk losing your job), it’s important to explain this in your optional essay to prevent any negative speculation.
Lastly, follow these two tips to make sure you cover your bases:
→ Read your application closely.
Your application will state how many recommendations are required. Be sure to follow the deadlines and take note of any specific directions provided about who the school would like to see letters of recommendation from.
→ Keep a ‘B’ list.
Just because you ask someone to write you a letter of recommendation doesn’t mean they will say yes. Writing recommendations takes a fair amount of time and not everyone will be able to commit. Be sure to keep a short list of backup options in case your first picks are unavailable.
→ Find complementary recommenders.
Whenever possible, choose recommenders who can tell a story about your background from different perspectives. A movie wouldn’t be a very good movie with just one camera angle — neither would your application if you provide recommenders that have seen you in the same light. Recommenders can certainly be from the same company, but, if deciding between two equally solid recommenders, look towards the recommender that can provide a unique perspective.