Wrangling Great Recommendations

With round two deadlines just around the corner, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. Some might argue that it’s already too late to hit up a busy executive for a recommendation, but if you plan and execute right, the amount of time remaining should be reasonable.

Don’t Overthink

You can find many opinions about how to strategize the recommendations all over the web. I offer three simple words: Don’t overthink it. Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.

A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way.”

Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.

Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:

You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.

And from Harvard Business School…

Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific (good advice for applicants as well as recommenders!). “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,” she explains in her past blog posts. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.”

The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips

1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time

More Excellent Resources Available

Several students and former students have chimed in on the recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process.

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who is on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and currently a JD-MBA student there. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. Good question! His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”

Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.

About the Author...

Betsy Massar

A Harvard Business School MBA, I’m the founder of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm, and author of Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program.

  • Mike L

    Posing a question – I left my first job (3 promotions in 3+ yrs) and since then hopped between 2 places over 2 years. Is it too late to go back to my first job to ask for a letter of rec?

  • Vince Ricci

    Thanks, Gil. You are certainly have lots of info on this process, as well.

  • Gil Levi

    Letter of recommendations are an important part of the application. Here are some of Aringo tips and advice on which recommenders to select:
    – 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 describe the candidate’s background in the exact same industry name mentioned in the career plan are preferred.
    – Recommendations that attest to the candidate’s leadership and management background are preferred.
    – Recent relationships are better than “old” relationships.
    – A lukewarm recommendation or one that reflects little acquaintance will not do the job, no matter who provided it.

    Having said that, an excited recommendation from a big shot which reflects close acquaintance is ideal, and much stronger than an excited recommendation from a junior manager.
    In general, 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.
    A recommendation from the current workplace is often a must. If the candidate can’t bring one, they usually need to add a note explaining why. However, it is not recommended to use more than one recommendation from the same workplace.
    Schools prefer recommendations from a “direct supervisor”. However, they also like recommendations from senior people. Ideally, the recommender will say: “I supervised his work”.

    Hope this helps, take a look here for some MBA recommendation examples: http://www.aringo.com/MBA_recommendation_Examples.htm