First, it is your responsibility to select whom to ask for recommendations. Then, you should assist the recommenders in preparing informative and convincing letters of reference for each of your B-school applications.

Colleen Marshall, Associate Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management, City University of New York, explains:

Recommendations are a very important part of the application process, because this is a way for people that know you and that you have relationship with to be on your side and be another advocate for you to get into the programme.

Business schools usually require two letters of reference in support of your application for admission. They bring valuable information to the admissions committees about your potential for success during graduate studies in your chosen area. It is especially important that this feedback comes from academics or professionals who know your actual performance, aspirations and potential.

The focus of recommendations

Admissions committees give clear directions on what the recommenders have to comment on. This is usually a combination of academic potential, certain skills that are relevant to your chosen field of study, personality traits, professional skills and potential for graduate study. Each university/programme has forms (usually online) that recommenders should fill in and submit directly to the admissions office.

In some parts of the recommendation your referees will be asked to rate your qualities on a certain scale. In addition they will be requested to share their comments on the ratings and on some additional questions.

Some of the typical questions that appear in the recommendation forms are:

  • How long have you known the applicant and in what capacity?
  • Please assess the following skills of the applicant (list of skills and a rating card).
  • Which are the applicant’s particular strengths for graduate studies in the chosen field?
  • Which are the applicant’s areas of improvement that he/she can work on while in graduate school?
  • How do you see this applicant’s career progression in the future?

Specific facts and examples of your actions, skills, attitudes, achievements, failures and lessons learnt bring a lot of value to the recommendation and make it really personal.

How to select your recommenders

  • Academic vs. professional

Before you start thinking about who your recommenders should be, check out the requirements of each programme to which you will apply.

Normally, B-schools will require professional recommendations for MBA application.  To be eligible for MBA admission applicants should have at least two or three years of full-time professional experience. This means that the people who can best comment on their current level of skills, their personality and maturity are supervisors, colleagues and business partners. MBA applicants have usually been out of school for a while, so an academic reference will not be very appropriate.

However, some Master’s degree programmes can require one of the recommendations to be from a professor. Most Master’s degree programmes are open to fresh university graduates and it is natural to have an academic letter of reference. Professional recommendations are usually also accepted. Some programmes that are targeted at applicants with relevant work experience can request that one or two of the letters of reference come from your work environment.

Make sure you follow the instructions of the B-schools to which you are applying. If you have any doubts about what type of recommendation you need, feel free to contact the admissions office for advice.

  • Closer vs. higher

The rule of thumb is that your recommendations should be from people who know you best, not from those at the top of the company or the university. Admissions committees want to hear the impressions of your direct supervisors, department managers, business partners, even colleagues. Those are the people who know your daily work, skills, achievements, failures, and your potential for growth. If you have to submit an academic letter of reference, think of a professor who taught you for a long time or who mentored some of your research projects, internships or thesis.

A recommendation from someone at the top of the hierarchy is worthless if this person hardly knows you. Here is a great example from the experience of Colleen Marshall, City University of New York:

One of the best recommendations (for a Master’s programme – ed.) that we have received at the school was from a Dunkin Donuts supervisor. Can be a great way to showcase the applicant’s work ethic, how he was great with people, how he communicated during conflicts, and to be able to do conflict resolution.

  • Match recommenders to the programme

If you are applying to more than one programme you should have different recommenders for each programme. This is important in order to have really relevant recommendations based on the instructions of the university.  A programme in Marketing at one university might ask for one academic and one professional recommendation, while a similar programme at another university might require that both references be academic.

Another reason for having more recommenders can be if you apply to more than two programmes. Remember that each programme has its own requirements and recommendation forms. So, a common general recommendation cannot help you. Writing more than two letters of recommendation for one applicant can be too much to expect from your referees. That is why you should ask someone else to recommend you for the third or fourth programme you are applying to.

Check out also: Who should your Master’s application recommendations come from?

How to help your recommenders

Recommendations should be written by the recommenders, but there is a lot you can do to help them produce a really factual and informative letter.

  • Engage recommenders with your application

You should let your recommenders know to which universities and programmes you are applying. It is very important also to give your motivation for considering graduate school, your career aspirations and why you think the selected programmes are a good next step for you. This will help your referees provide a really focused assessment of the level of your most relevant skills and achievements, your areas of improvement and your potential for success.

  • Give recommenders enough time

Professors and professionals – the people whom you ask for a recommendation – certainly have busy schedules. Filling in a graduate school recommendation form needs preparation and time.  Lynn Astorga, Coordinator of Graduate Student Services at Rutgers University advises:

Writing these letters takes a lot more time, particularly if they are sincere and well thought out. At the end of the day you are asking your recommenders a favour. And certainly you will never want to rush them.

You recommenders will appreciate it if you give them enough time to work on the letters of reference. Also you can avoid last-minute worries if you give your recommenders a deadline that is two weeks before the application deadline for your selected programme.

  • Provide them with relevant facts and figures

This is a really essential part of the preparation for getting great recommendations. Even though you will select people who know you really well, they will not remember all the important facts, figures, dates and stats that will be worthwhile mentioning in the letter of reference.

Make a bullet-point list of your major experiences, achievements, skills, etc. that you had during the time you worked with each of your recommenders.  This summary will be very helpful to give flesh and bones to the letter of reference and make it really informative and unique.

Additionally, you should also provide a detailed copy of your CV. The format is not important, but the content is. Do not worry about a word limit – include all relevant information about your education, work experience, hobbies and social commitments. This will enable your recommender to select what works best as illustrations of his/her statements and assessment in the letter of reference.

Check out: How to Receive Strong Recommendation Letters

Thank your recommenders and keep them posted

Once involved in your graduate school application, recommenders like to know the final outcome. If they supported your application they will be happy about your success. So, feel free to keep them updated on your progress.

Finally, remember to say ‘Thank you’. You will have several opportunities – when they agree to prepare the recommendations, when they submit them to the programmes, once you are invited to an admissions interview, and when you are finally admitted. This is the least that your best advocates deserve.

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