When applying for admission to MBA and Master’s degree programmes, candidates need to provide two (sometime three) letters of recommendation in support of their application. In many cultures, applicants’ natural choice will be to request recommendations from the highest person in the hierarchy, because they anticipate this gives more weight to the recommendation. However, this is not the case.
Many business schools explicitly say that the letters of recommendation should be provided by those people who know you best professionally and who can comment on your potential for graduate management studies and development as a manager and business leader. Recommenders should provide supporting evidence about the skills they comment on. In addition, recommenders need to be able to name skills or knowledge which you need to improve on (in business school) in order to fulfil your potential and reach your career goals.
It is great if one of your recommenders is an MBA/Master’s degree holder, because he or she will be able to comment exactly on those things that business schools need to know. However, if you have to choose between someone who knows you really well professionally and someone with an MBA who barely knows you, definitely select the former.
A recommendation coming from an alumnus of the business school to which you are applying may have additional weight. Again though, bear in mind that the leading criterion for selecting your recommenders is that they must have deep knowledge of your professional performance, skills and potential.
There are also other factors which you must consider when making up your mind whom to ask for letters of reference. Business schools rely on letters of reference being authentic. So ask someone who will agree to write the recommendation, not ask you to write it for their signature. Most of the people who are asked to be recommenders are busy professionals and you are asking them to commit precious time to preparing the letter of reference. You can of course facilitate them in preparing the recommendation, without writing it yourself. For how to do that – read more here.
Normally, one applies to more than one business school. If this is the case, select a recommender who will be willing to write more than one letter of reference. It is not possible to submit the same letter of reference to several schools or to have a “general” or “common” recommendation. So, your recommender should be committed and available to prepare several letters (maybe not at the same time). Business schools have different forms for the letters of reference and may ask different questions to which your recommender should be ready to reply in detail and giving examples from your performance.
Your recommenders should be aware of your plans for graduate business studies and know your career goals. Sometimes, this may be a delicate situation because you may not feel comfortable announcing to your supervisor that you may be leaving your job to do a full-time two-year, even a one-year MBA. “What if I am not admitted?! Will my boss consider me a failure? Will I be thought of as someone who is not loyal and not committed to the job? Will my boss look at me as a competitor or a threat knowing that I want to grow on the job?" So you must have a person who supports your goals and your desire to grow professionally.
Your recommenders should be able to provide evidence supporting their evaluation of your skills and potential. They must be able to quote projects, situations, numbers, etc. Of course you can facilitate their job (read more here). Business schools may contact the recommenders for additional information and details. So your recommenders must be readily available to communicate to the business schools and to keep a copy of the letter of reference they sent to the business school(s) in support of your application.
Most of the suggestions in this article are applicable for both MBA and Master’s degree applicants. For the Master’s programmes, however, one or all of the recommendations must be academic, not professional. In this case, again they should come from someone who is really well aware of your skills and level of knowledge and your desire to go deeper into that subject area through Master’s studies. At least one of the recommendations should come from someone in the subject area you are applying for.
The key to a good letter of recommendation is that it comes from someone who knows your skills and potential and who really supports your desire to grow further through graduate studies.