MBA recommendations count

Some business school admissions committee members have revealed that they consider the letters of recommendation in the MBA application incredibly important to their decision-making process — possibly the most important aspect. This surprises many applicants who don’t take the recommendation letters seriously because they do not personally complete them. These applicants fail to see one of the key reasons why recommendations are extremely important. Recommendations can provide a glimpse into your management skills. If you cannot ensure that your letter of recommendation is appropriate, professional and on time, what does that say about your managerial potential?

The best recommenders

Selecting the right people to draft your letters of recommendation is essential. The admissions committee can learn a lot about you just by observing who you select to write a letter on your behalf. When selecting someone to write your letter, choose people with whom you work closely and who know you well. The person’s job title is not as important as how well they know you, and the single best person to ask for your initial letter of recommendation is the manager to whom you report directly.

Check out: MBA Recommenders are Your Best Advocates

In fact, many schools actually require you to ask your direct supervisor to write your primary letter of recommendation. Choose people who like you, and who think you are good at what you do. If a potential reference seems less than enthusiastic in any way, keep looking. That person’s ambivalence is likely to come through in the letter.

In some cases, however, choosing your current supervisor is not possible. Go back to the pool of options and select the next best person. You may choose someone from a prior job, or someone with whom you have worked closely but do not report to. If you select two references from the same company, make sure that they can provide different perspectives on you. For example, one can be your manager, and the other can be someone with whom you worked cross functionally.

I often hear questions regarding the benefit of selecting MBAs to write your letters or, even better, alumni of your target schools. All things being equal, it is helpful if your recommender has an MBA. It means that they understand the process and it may also validate them in the eyes of your target school. Consider this a “nice to have” but don’t select an MBA at the expense of the number-one rule: selecting someone who knows you well.

A note specifically for those applying directly from college: You may think that your former Economics professor is a great person to write a letter because they think highly of your academic ability. However, a professor usually cannot answer questions about interacting with peers, leadership abilities, career goals, areas needing improvement, and more. It’s truly essential that the people writing your reference have clear insight into the information that the business schools seek. In these cases, it is better to find a recommender from an extra-curricular setting, such as one of your volunteer commitments.

Once you have selected your recommender, ask for their feedback to get a feel for whether the person is supportive of the MBA degree in general before asking for his or her help. Begin these discussions well in advance of applying, so that there are no surprises. When you are ready to actually ask the individual to write a letter on your behalf, request a brief meeting to discuss your own MBA plans privately. Ask if the referee feels he or she could write a positive and supportive letter on your behalf.

Assist your recommenders

Next, you should outline all logistics and deadlines for your recommender. Make sure that he or she is fully aware of the time commitment and schedule required. You should give referees at least 1-2 months’ notice. Supply your recommender with a two-page document that contains only the most essential information. Then let them know that you can provide any other materials that they might find helpful. Preparing your “recommender document” will also help you with your own essays, so it is a valuable exercise in and of itself.

Decide on four or five key characteristics you would like your recommender to emphasise throughout the letter, such as leadership, teamwork, creative thinking, determination, focus, intelligence, charisma, or integrity. Then, provide at least one concrete anecdote that you feel illustrates each characteristic. Appropriate examples and details make convincing MBA recommendations.

For example: “Initiative – Last year, when I learned that international sales were declining, I took it upon myself to research the competitive landscape and learned of two recent market entrants. I then offered to lead a team to analyse these new competitors and develop a strategy for regaining our market share. Our team of five analysts proposed a solution after one week of work. The solution was implemented and within six months, we had regained 50% of lost market share.”

Manage the process and the relationship

Once you hand over the package and instructions to your recommender, you only need to stay on top of the process and make sure that your referees do not miss the deadline.

Finally, you will want to express your thanks when someone does you a favour. Once everything is settled, write your referee a thank-you note, or send a bottle of wine or other small gift. Nothing elaborate is needed; just be sure to show your appreciation that they found time in their busy schedule to recommend you and support your plans to pursue an MBA.

Essential Dos and Don’ts for ensuring great MBA recommendations

  1. Do not prepare a common letter for all schools. Recommendations should be school-specific, answering each individual question on the form in detail.
  2. Referees may be tempted to ask the candidate to write their own letters. In addition to being unethical, this is not a good idea as schools can recognise that the letters are in the same style as the essays.
  3. If there is a grid that asks the referee to rank the candidate on a number of dimensions, it is not necessary to indicate that the candidate is in the top group in every category. It is important that the ratings be credible.
  4. Most schools request some background information about the recommender in order to establish a context. Information about the recommender may build credibility.
  5. An honest assessment of the candidate’s weaknesses is as important as a review of strengths. Indicating where the candidate can improve will build legitimacy for the rest of the recommendation.
  6. Unless claims are backed up by specific examples, they are not convincing. Give strong examples that reinforce the traits you are describing.
  7. Recommendations should highlight how the applicant is different from others with similar CVs/résumés.
  8. Recommendations should discuss personal attributes that are not easily described in essays, such as integrity, respect, or sense of humour.

This article is original content produced by Advent Group and included in the 2016-2017 annual Access MBA, EMBA and Masters Guide under the title “Highly Recommended”. The digital guide file will soon be available for download.


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