Harvard Business School’s Recommendation Questions

If you’re an MBA applicant to Harvard Business School, what does the admissions staff expect from the three recommenders it requires as part of your application?

For the 2012-2013 application season, HBS suggests that two out of the three recommendations come from your professional life (Harvard’s 2+2 applicants only need two recommenders). “Ideally, one of those should come from a current or recent supervisor,” advises Harvard on its website. “We completely understand that this is not always possible. Use your best judgment. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them! This should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.”


Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm, puts it this way: “If you have a choice between Bill Gates, who is willing to write you a letter because your father is a friend of a friend, and your direct supervisor with whom you work day in and day out, choose your direct supervisor.”

The single biggest mistake recommenders make? They’re positive and bland. Dee Leopold, HBS managing director of admissions and financial aid, says that “many recommendations are well written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples of how your wonderful qualities play out in real life. What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.”

HBS recommenders are asked to fill out a personal qualities and skills grid that the school keeps under wraps (it is somewhat similar to Stanford’s grid which can be seen here). The recommendation form includes four essay questions “along with other types of questions” the school also does not disclose.

The four key questions:

1)   Please comment on the context of your interaction with the applicant. If applicable, briefly describe the applicant’s role in your organization. (250 words)

2)   How does the candidate’s performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (250 words)

3)   Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)

4)   Please make additional statements about the applicant’s performance, potential, or personal qualities you believe would be helpful to the MBA Admissions Board. (250 words)

  • Gil Levi

    Choosing the right recommenders is a very important part in your application process. In our experience at Aringo, schools are looking for recommenders who know the candidate very well, on the basis of an experience that is: As long as possible, as intense as possible, and experience that is preferably work-related.
    The level of excitement that the recommender demonstrates, and the reasons for this excitement (supporting examples), are most important.
    The longer and more intense the acquaintance is, the better.
    Recommendations that attest to the candidate’s leadership and management background are preferred.
    Recommendations from very big shots (e.g. government ministers, famous people) are great if the context is of mutual activity (preferably direct/indirect supervisor) and the content reflects acquaintance and excitement. If not, they don’t necessarily help and may even hurt. If a senior person that was not the direct boss can say something like “I supervised his work directly and indirectly and we worked intensively together during these X years” it may be better to take that person because he is more senior than the direct supervisor.
    See additional recommendations tips here: http://www.aringo.com/Recommendations.htm