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The How-to's of Recommendations

July 23, 2013

Recommendations letters are often the most challenging aspect of the applications process for many applicants. The dynamics of asking your supervisor for a favor is often tricky, and often asking for a recommendation is an applicant's first disclosure that they are even considering leaving their current job. Add to that the fact that many recommenders have not attended business school themselves, and have not gone through the application process, and it is no surprise that many applicants wait until the last minute to address their recommendation letters. How can you avoid this?

Selecting Your Recommenders

The first step is to strategize early. Compile a list of 4 to 6 people you can potentially ask for recommendations (you can always use a quality backup...I have seen more than one compelling application torpedoed by a recommendation letter). Make sure these recommenders know you well, and can provide specific examples of how you drive to success. Ideally, they can speak to what motivates you, your background, and can extrapolate to how you will do at business school and beyond.

Also, think of your list of recommenders as a team, rather than individuals. If you have quality recommenders who can speak to different skill sets and different phases of your life, it may be worth trading a marginally more successful/senior recommender for someone who can speak to more colorful stories that others cannot, such as choosing a sports coach over a second or third former supervisor. Put another way, if all your recommenders speak to the same jobs, stories, skill sets or experiences, it may not have as powerful an impact on the Admissions Committees as choosing a more diverse group of recommenders.

How to make their job easier?

A few things will help your recommenders navigate the process:

  • An overview of your goals and motivations for an MBA, preferably in written form so that they can easily refer back to the message you want to convey to schools
  • A list of questions that schools are asking recommenders, if appropriate
  • Prepare a summary of projects that you have worked on together, and skills/resuIts from those experiences you want to highlight. Basically, why did you choose them to write a recommendation for you?

Which brings us to...

What if Recommenders Ask You to Write Recommendation?

There are several reasons never to do this, despite the awkwardness it may create.

First, you risk sanctions by the schools. Admissions Committees expect an independent assessment from people you choose as recommenders. Schools have plenty of experience finding letters written by applicants (remember, they read more applications in a day than you will write in a lifetime), and being exposed will disqualify all your hard work in preparing the application.

More importantly, doing so robs you of an independent perspective when preparing your application. While you may not get to read their letters, having conversations with your recommenders and communicating your goals and plans will provide valuable feedback on messages that might resonate with the Admissions Committee. I have had many successful clients whose essays were re-written after engaging recommenders.

Remember, getting admitted may seem like a finish line, but it is really the first of many starting points to the rest of your life. True success in life involves taking risks, trying new things, and even pushing yourself to have uncomfortable conversations with people you trust to make sure you are finding a path forward that is right for you. Writing your own recommendations is a short cut that robs you of an opportunity to do any of these things, and only increases the chances of you ending up in the wrong school for you. Given the investment involved, you deserve better!

Additional Sources of Information

The Master Admissions blog has a good summary here of what MBA Admissions officials have publicly discussed looking for in recommendations letters. Admissions officials are usually honest about what they are looking for (it isn’t in their interest to solicit unappealing applications that create more work for them), so it is worth a read.