Go ahead, ask him for a letter! [Image source: The Office}
Letters of recommendation, those sneaky devils. Despite being a critical component of the application, a lot of prospective MBAs pay little mind to obtaining their letters of recommendation. As a b-school hopeful, you might be more concerned with taking the GMAT or crafting the perfect application essay. Totally understandable, but I’m here to tell you that your letters of recommendation deserve a bit more attention than you might be giving them.
While you have some measure of control over your performance on the GMAT or GRE, and you have total control over your application essays, when it comes to your recommendation letters, you’re putting your trust in someone else’s ability to vouch for you. But don’t be scared. In this post, I’ll discuss how to choose good recommenders, and how to set yourself up for the best recommendation letters, on your behalf, to the b-schools of your dreams.
Choose a supervisor as one of your recommenders
It’s no surprise that business schools tend to want at least one recommendation from a direct supervisor at your current position, so that they can learn about you in a professional context. Ideally, it’s someone who has worked with you for a few years and can speak to your work, your character, and your development over time on the job. If for whatever reason you don’t believe your direct supervisor will be your best advocate, consider reaching out to someone else who has overseen your work in your current job, or someone who oversaw your work in a different, recent professional context.
Recommenders will often be asked questions about your strengths and weaknesses, especially compared to others working in your position. What matters here is having someone who has seen you from above and can vouch that you are responsible, teachable, and working to grow. While a current direct supervisor is the obvious logical choice, keep in mind that he or she is not the only logical choice for someone to answer these questions about you.
Choose someone who can speak specifically about you
Since team projects abound in b-school, it’s likely your recommender will also be faced with questions about how you work in teams, how you have demonstrated leadership potential, and how you have taken independent initiative and gone above and beyond. Think about people you’ve worked with who can answer these types of questions about you in a specific, meaningful way.
Most applicants to MBA programs are hardworking, ambitious, self-motivated people.
In that respect, you’re just like everyone else applying. And yet you’re nothing like everyone else applying. What makes you unique to a committee are the stories and details recommenders are able to share about you. While it’s great to have your recommenders spend the letters talking about how hard-working, ambitious, and self-motivated you are, remind them to provide specific examples to back up their endorsements of your character and accomplishments.
“Important” people aren’t necessarily good recommenders
Opting for recommenders based on the weight of their titles or their connections to a school is often not the best strategy. Getting a recommendation from the CEO of your company or from an acquaintance who is strongly connected to your dream school can seriously backfire. No matter how “important” these people are, if they don’t know you well, they will write you a generic letter that won’t do you justice on your application.
Here’s an example to put this in context: let’s say I worked in operations at Facebook for a few years, and had a certain famous COO mentor me during my time there. If I were applying to business school, I’d want her to write as someone who knows me and my work (and she just so happens to be Sheryl Sandberg), rather than to write about me as Sheryl Sandberg (who just so happens to know me).
Prioritize recommenders based on the strength of your relationship first and their objective influence second. Someone who knows you well will be able to state your case better than someone “important” who barely knows you, and has no stake in your future.
Choose recommenders who can offer different perspectives
Think of your letters as fraternal twins rather than identical twins, sharing similarities but not the same. Two recommenders who know you in the same context and who value the same characteristics about you are likely to tell the same stories about you. And when an admissions officer has only a short period of time to review your materials, you want to be using every precious second of their attention to give them as complete a picture as possible.
Your second letter could come from a supervisor from another job, or it could be someone you worked with at the same job. It could come from a peer, from someone whom you’ve managed, or even from a satisfied client. Your second letter could also just as well come from someone outside your professional life. As long as it’s someone who knows you well enough to evaluate and write compellingly about your professional potential, you’re in good shape.
Have an in-depth conversation with your recommenders
If you’ve chosen well, your recommenders will be excited to write on your behalf and will want to do the best job possible. After you’ve courted your team, schedule a conversation with each recommender to talk in greater depth about your goals—for your MBA, for your career, and ultimately, for the letter itself.
Different schools have different formats for recommendations. Some schools ask recommenders to rate you on a scale, some ask them to answer a few questions about how you acted in different situations on the job, and others ask for a letter explaining why they believe you’re a fit at the institution. Your recommenders might already be familiar with these formats and with applying for a MBA as a whole, but if not, this conversation is a good time to outline what they should expect as recommenders, and what types of things to write about you.
Especially if you’re coming from a job where it’s less conventional for an employee to go off and get a MBA, it is critical that you give your supervisor a sense of how to approach this kind of letter. While I have no idea what my boss ultimately wrote about me for my letter of recommendation, I doubt he spent it talking about my abilities as a researcher and my proficiency in Chinese—excellent skills for a job in a China-oriented think tank, but not so relevant to the admissions committee.
Help your recommenders help you. Give them all the information they need to help you shine on paper. Be honest and open with them about your reasons for wanting to get a MBA, what you want to do after school, and how you believe this degree will help you get there. Emphasize the importance of their being specific in talking about you and in taking stock of your accomplishments. Have them read drafts of your essays. Have them read this blog post! Do whatever you can to give them the very best shot in pitching your candidacy to the committee—just don’t write the actual letter for them.
Nobody has to help you with this process, but your recommenders kindly joined your (MB)A-team and offered their time, energy, and words to help make your dream come true. Send a note or do something thoughtful for your recommenders to thank them for their help and support. And when you get your good news, count them in for the victory party.
Looking for more help with your applications to business school? Check out these other blog posts written by our business school admissions consultants in Boston and New York: Does success on the GMAT predict success in MBA classes, MBA programs: You Got In! Now What?, and An MBA is Only as Good as Your Plans For It. If you'd like more hands-on support, feel free to reach out to Cambridge Coaching! Our business school admissions coaches will be happy to help.