Getting Killer Rec Letters

When preparing for your business school letters of recommendation, there are two major questions you’ll need to answer: Who should write your recommendations? And how can you best prepare that person so that he or she writes the best recommendations possible?

Let’s answer each of these questions individually.

Who should write your letters of recommendation?

Ideally you should choose a supervisor or employer who has seen you develop from the “raw” employee that you were when you first started out in the field into the seasoned professional that you have become over the course of a few years. However, if you don’t have a potential recommender with that kind of lengthy perspective, your recommender should still be someone who knows you well and would be pleased to provide a positive recommendation.

People you should not ask to write your b-school recommendations: family members (even if you work in a family business) and friends. Also, do not attempt to pressure or persuade employers or supervisors who hesitate when asked to be your recommender. Let them decline gracefully. You want enthusiastic recommenders. Finally, don’t ask a “higher-up” or VIP who barely knows your name because you think their title will impress. A fancy title combined with a weak or generic letter won’t do your cause any good.

How can you best prepare your recommenders?

You want to make your recommender’s job easy—not only will that encourage your recommender to get the job done in a timely fashion, but it will also confirm a positive impression of you as a responsible and accommodating professional.

Here are some specific steps you can take to help prepare your recommender:

  1. Give your recommender enough time. Emailing your request to your recommender at the last minute will make you appear irresponsible and won’t give your recommender enough time to create a thoughtful recommendation. Give him or her at least a month to write your recommendation. A friendly reminder as the deadline approaches is completely acceptable.
  2. Provide a copy of your essays, if they are ready. You want your recommendation to dovetail with, not conflict with or duplicate, the rest of your application.
  3. Provide a copy of your resume. Your recommender should have accurate, up-to-date information about your education and work experience. You neither want to make him or her do any time-consuming research to learn the details of your past, nor do you want any errors.
  4. Provide a brief summary of achievements as well as an outline of your reasons for wanting to attend School X.
  5. Offer to have a conversation. If you haven’t spoken to your recommender in a while, you may find that an in-person or over-the-phone conversation is in order. Reminding your recommender that you’re not just a success on a paper but a charming, sociable individual is important if this person is going to vouch for you. If possible, arrange to take your recommender out for lunch or coffee so you can talk in person and update him or her about your recent past, your goals, and your reasons for wanting to attend top b-school X.

For more information on obtaining excellent letters of recommendation, please see MBA Letters of Recommendation 101, a collection of resources that will help you collect stellar letters or recommendation.

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted.com, the leading MBA admissions consultancy, and co-author of the new book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

Our Series on the Essentials of an Awesome MBA Application

Part I: The GMAT

Part II: Grade Point Average

Part III: Extracurricular Experience

Part IV: Work Experience

Part V: Leadership

Part VI: MBA Goals

Part VII: The MBA Resume

  • First of all, shifting from one very broad field to another doesn’t say what you want to do. Do you want to do investment advising, corporate finance, investment banking, VC/PE or some other function within the very broad field of finance? Once you determine what you want to do in the universe of finance, think about the skills and qualities required for that career. What do you already have that you can bring to your future profession? How will the MBA program you are applying to fill in your knowledge gaps and prepare you to do the work you want to do. Research specific programs, extra-curricular activities and classes that will help. you.  Then look at aspects of the program that appeal to you that are not directly related to your professional goals. Those are all aspects of fit.

    You may also be interested in “Why MBA?” at http://www.accepted.com/mba/why-mba.aspx .

  • Finmaster7

    Madam, I’m aiming for career shift from engineering to finance. I’m a level 1 candidate in the CFA program and hope to pass the exam this time around.

    How does someone like me demonstrate ‘fit’?

  •  The recommendation questions usually come out when or shortly after the essay questions come out. To my knowledge there is no one place you can find them all. You (and your recommenders) need to go to individual sites to complete them.

    You will need to start a new application to view them, but again, they probably aren’t available yet. And they can change from year to year.

    Best,
    Linda

  • Fit is about more than just work experience, but if we are going to focus on work experience, you will want to show that your work experience when combined with an MBA from this school will prepare you for your next career move. You want to show that your work experience will allow you to contribute in the classroom and is relevant to your future goals.

    Here are a few resources that should help you:

    http://poetsandquants.com/2011/09/17/why-do-you-want-an-mba-now/

    http://blog.accepted.com/2011/11/07/mba-admissions-what-is-fit/

    Best,
    Linda

  • Finmaster7

    Thanks for the reply, madam. I recently read somewhere that one’s work experience must ‘fit’ with one’s story and career goals. How do I make my work-ex ‘fit’?

  • kingfalcon

    Thanks, Linda! A current student a top school recently suggested to me to aggregate all the essay questions to help save my recommenders some time. I can handle that part just fine, but where can I actually find these questions? Do I need to start a new application to view them?

  •  Depends on the school Most want two. Some want three.

  • That is a good and tough question. And the dissatisfying answer is “it depends.” It depends on your relationship with the recommender. If it’s really strong and s/he really wants to help you, you’ll get that one person to write all the recommendations for each school. If you feel you can’t do that to any one individual, then you have to ask (and find) more recommenders. You may also want to ask particular individual for recommendations to particular schools, if those individuals are graduates of those schools and you have a lot of people to choose from. In general, alumni can better address and gear their letters to the issue of fit.

    My sense is that most applicants ask their recommenders to write all necessary recommendations. They don’t divide it up, unless again, there is some kind of alum advantage.

    Best,
    Linda

  • Exceptional achievement and contribution is the biggest enabler.

    At a recent Accepted.com chat (http://www.accepted.com/chat/transcripts/2011/UCLAanderson.aspx ), Dean Ainslie of UCLA Anderson put it so well, ” we are looking for are signs of something exceptional. It’s not as
    though we are hunting for the negatives; we are really hunting for the
    positives. So I’d hate to categorize it and say that we are looking for
    this or we’re looking for that. If we have some sign of exceptional
    leadership, some sign of exceptional intelligence, some sign of
    exceptional business experience, just some sign that you shine in the
    pack – that is what we are looking for. And we really don’t want
    candidates to think we are pigeonholing them into just being capable in
    certain areas. So just show us a sign that you excel. That is probably
    the single, most important thing.”

    For more specific tips on dealing with a lack of extra curriculars, please see http://blog.accepted.com/2011/03/03/mba-admissions-tip-lack-of-extra-curricular-activities/ .

  • kingfalcon

    The one piece of information I’d like to know that’s left out of most pieces about soliciting recommendations is this: how many recommendations is reasonable for an individual recommender? Personally, I’m thinking about applying to 6-8 schools this fall, but I’m not sure how many schools I can/should burden each recommender with. Linda, do you have any thoughts on this?

  • Finmaster7

    Thank you so much for the reply, madam. A few days back, there was an article here in poetsandquants which showed that a low GMAT score was the biggest ‘killer’ of an application.

    Could you please tell me, in your opinion, what is the biggest ‘enabler’ for an application? Something that could somewhat, not in entirety compensate for some other perceived weaker areas.

    I believe I have not-so-good extra curriculars.

  • SD

    How many recommendation letters? By the time I enter an MBA program, I will have two years of experience. Preferred recommenders : employers or teachers?

  • Finmaster7,

    Thanks for your questions.

    1) A killer recommendation will be written by a person who has the qualifications described above. In addition it will A) have specific examples that support the claims the recommender makes about the applicant’s qualifications and character; B) demonstrate fit with the school; C) provide a comparison of the candidate to other applicants and an enthusiastic endorsement of the applicant’s candidacy; D) not shy away from revealing a weakness if one is requested while at the same time discussing how the applicant is improving or working on this weakness.
    2) The medicore or worse recommendation will be vague and general. The writer will know little about the applicant and less about the school or what most MBA applicants typically bring to the table. perhaps the writer will be dutiful, but unenthusiastic. Or, the writer will insist the applicant is perfect, which is obviously ridiculous.
    3) A recommendation will confirm some elements of the application and also present a different perspective on the candidacy. There will inevitably be overlap, but there shouldn’t be complete duplication.

    I hope this helps.

    Linda

  • Finmaster7

    Hi.

    1. What does a killer recommendation consist of? 

    2. What is the difference between a killer recommendation and a not-so-strong recommendation?

    3. How does a recommendation blend with the other aspects of the application?

    Regards,