Why MBAs Are Writing Their Own Recs

by Lauren Everitt on

lettersWhen the letters of recommendation for Christopher arrived in the admissions office of a top-ranked business school, they were just about perfect.

The recommenders raved about the candidate’s leadership abilities and team skills. They praised his initiative, curiosity and motivations. And they did so in unusually detailed anecdotes that allowed the applicant to come alive.

Problem was, his recommenders had never written the highly favorable words. Instead, the letters were crafted by the applicant himself.

Christopher, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, makes no apologies for writing his own recommendations nor does he believe that a school can do much about it.

‘WHO’S GOING TO KNOW?’

“Who’s going to know?” asks Christopher, who recently graduated from one of the top three business schools in the U.S. “With the number of applications coming in, schools aren’t going to compare writing styles between the recommendation letters and the applications. Obviously if they did that, I wouldn’t have been in business school.”

Christopher’s handiwork is not an isolated case. A recently published survey by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) found that 38% of applicants were asked to write their own recommendation letters. Most admission consultants, however, believe the number is much higher–with as many as six of ten letters being written by MBA applicants.

Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck

Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck

Still, even the survey results surprised many admission directors because they believed their schools were getting fairly candid, third party assessments of MBA candidates. “We were aware of the fact that some applicants are asked to write their own recommendations, but I wouldn’t have guessed it would be that high,” says Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “I really rely on the recommendation because I see it as an objective form of information. I don’t have a problem with a student sitting down and talking to a recommender, but I am trying to wrap my head around the authenticity of the recommendations now.”

‘NOBODY IS BEING REALLY TRUTHFUL ABOUT IT’

Authenticity in a recommendation letter, however, may be fairly elusive, according to several MBA applicants and admission consultants. “Business school applicants are often told by recommenders, ‘You write it, and I’ll sign it,’” concedes Adam Hoff, of Amerasia Consulting Group . “Nobody is being really truthful about it. When I first got involved in the business school arena four years ago, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the number of people who were writing their own letters of recommendation and who then brought the letters back to a consultant to help them with it.”

Christopher, who asked that his alma mater not be named because “if they found out, there would be a witch hunt,” explains that his direct supervisor was not fluent in English. “He had no clue how to construct a recommendation letter,” he says in defense of his actions. “Because of that, I wrote the letter in proper English and made it sound like I’m a good employee, which I am. I didn’t embellish, and he was fine with it.”

The employer signed off on the letter. But many recommendations don’t even gain this actual stamp of approval. Some MBAs write, sign and send off their own references. “An MBA’s motive is to get into school, and they don’t want that left to someone’s whimsical evaluation,” Christopher explains. “If you messed up at work the day before, then it’s not going to be good — especially if they mail it themselves, and you don’t know what they’ve said.”

WRITING A RECOMMENDATION LETTER IS ‘LIKE JURY DUTY’ TO MOST BOSSES

In general, of course, getting a strong letter in support of a candidate’s MBA application is a highly collaborative process.  “People don’t like to write recommendations,” says Sanford Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com, a prominent admissions consultant. “It’s kind of like jury duty. No one wants to do it. It’s imposed on you. There is nothing in it for them. Collaboration is the standard. They say, ‘Why don’t you write something up and show it to me. Or give me an outline of what you’ve done.’ My recommendation is to collaborate and to dominate while being diplomatic.”

The extent to which admission consultants advise their clients on recommendation letters may also surprise some school officials. Kreisberg says he pays as much attention to the quality of a recommendation letter as he does to the application essays. “I get to see recommendation letters all the time and 150% of the time I recommend changes,” he maintains. “It’s one of the reasons an applicant should hire me. Recommendations can sink you. It’s super important. I give it as much attention as the essays.”

Sometimes, consultants say, applicants could have a “weak relationship” with a recommender who just wants to rubber stamp a reference written by the applicant. “If the recommender is inflexible on this issue, then we help the client craft the letter,” says Avi Lidgi, founder of Twainstein, a Los Angeles-based admissions consulting firm. “I can tell you , as a result of my experience, that no matter how hard we try to make the letter fair, balanced and flattering, using all the tricks at our disposal to capture the recommender’s voice, in almost all cases it costs the applicant an acceptance. Why? I’m not sure. I can only say that there is just no substitute for a heartfelt letter of endorsement by someone with intimate knowledge of the applicant.”

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  • prusd

    Didn’t Poet and Quants run a story several months ago about how MBA admissions offices are doing a better job of verifying applicants applications once they’re accepted? How can applicants get away with this if admissions offices are cracking down?

  • JohnAByrne

    We want you to contribute your thoughts on this topic: Do you think it’s perfectly ok to write your own recommendation letter if asked to by your recommender? Have you done it?

  • rapph

    No way! An admit can share ideas for the letter with their recommenders, but that’s as far as it can go, as far as I am concerned. If an admit cannot find a recommender who believes in them enough to spend the time writing an authentic letter, than they have a problem!

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    John,

    I see fraudulent letters of recommendation, where an applicant submits a letter of recommendation without the knowledge or consent of the recommender, as an egregious, but to my knowledge much less common, ethical violation. It is definitely NOT OK.

    However when recommenders say “your write it and I’ll sign it,” and applicants draft a letter for the recommder’s signature and the recommender approves the content and signs the letter, the applicant is submitting a less effective recommendation, but IMO that is not an ethical violation . It’s still not OK, but is more a question of inferior effectiveness than ethics in my view.

    Obviously the writing ability of the recommender isn’t being evaluated here. And people draft letters, speeches, and statement for others all the time. Lawyers do so. Administrative assistants do so. Speech writers do so. Ghost-writers write books for authors.

    The problem with “your write it and I’ll sign it,” is that the purpose of a letter of recommendation is to get another perspective on the candidate’s performance. That perspective is missing when the candidate drafts the letter.

    It’s not an ethics violation; it is an effectiveness violation.

    I also believe that the schools have put their heads in the sand about this issue. Until the late 1990′s each recommender wrote one letter and submitted it to all schools. That changed with online applications, which became increasingly common around 2000. In parallel, “you-write-it-I’ll-sign-it” became much more common as the recommendation process became increasingly school-specific and onerous for recommenders.

    I’m not sure schools can entirely put the genie back in the bottle and it isn’t an issue that’s limited to business school, but blaming applicants or essentially criminalizing applicant behavior that the schools have unintentionally encouraged and that is quite common in the business world is not the way to go. I think of it as the Prohibition of MBA admissions.

    Schools should:

    1. Make the process as easy as possible for recommenders.

    2. Stress to recommenders the importance of their perspective in the process.

    3. Get real in weighing the value of letters of recommendation.

    My $.02.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks for your very thoughtful reply Linda.

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    You’re most welcome.

  • abu

    What you are talking about is what we call in the financial audit profession as ‘management override’. When the 2 parties (the applicant and recommender) connive to do this, it will be very difficult for any control mechanism put in place to effectively prevent it from happening. Schools may have to end up re-engineering the whole recommendation process.

  • Zombie MBA

    I don’t see how admissions consultants can possibly justify editing recommendations as if they were application essays. Of course consultants would say they don’t cross an ethical boundary and are simply helping to communicate the candidate’s profile. But they are pushing an ethical boundary, one that other candidates do not test. As a result, candidates who err on the side of ethical caution are at disadvantage in the admissions and scholarship process.

    I’ve just gone through the business school application process. I was lucky to have been accepted to a number of top schools, but have been frustrated by the many ways that students with resources can “game” the system. I found the application process to be hugely wasteful, with multiple barriers of entry, pathway failures, and collectively mad practices – like, for example, looking the other way (because of yield pressures) when applicants fudge information like recs.

    A perception the MBA admissions rules are “flexible” undercuts the overall value of an MBA, as people may view the degree as having less weight than other professional degrees like an MD or JD. Given that business has had a crisis of integrity in the past few years, I think MBA admissions, a point of entry to high-level careers, should have more rigorous standards. Additionally, business schools, which purport to train students to run industries, should lead by example and more effectively manage the admissions process.

    Potentially, rather than having a race to the bottom filled with ethical gray areas exploited by admissions consultants, schools could advertise the steps they take to ensure integrity and fairness in their admissions process. Surely, this would improve the image of the school, the selectivity, and, most likely, the overall quality of the MBA candidates.

  • JohnAByrne

    Very well put. Thanks for your thoughts. Really appreciate your insightful contribution to the discussion.

  • anonymous1234

    I worked with a well-known MBA admissions consulting company on my applications last year. When my consultant asked me “will you be writing your recommendations?” I immediately said “oh they’ll be writing them, of course. They would never ask me to write it, we don’t do that kind of thing [at my company].” Her reply? “Oh, well that might be a problem. About 25% of my clients fall into this category. This actually concerns me more than your low GPA.” Yep, fairly shocking for her to say that 75% of her clients write their own recs! My recommenders did end up writing the recs themselves, but were gracious enough to let me have a peek to see if anything was way off target. And you know what? It worked out just fine. I think it would have been a disaster if I had written my own recs and had to channel different ‘voices’.

    I’m not surprised anymore though that this is so common. After going through the process and meeting many other MBA-hopefuls, I saw many people who would do anything, however ethically dubious, to claim a spot at a top-tier school. I didn’t like those people, and I don’t like the schools that accepted them. I turned down my full-scholarship offer at a top MBA program so I didn’t have to be associated with people I really didn’t respect or relate to.

  • JohnAByrne

    Thanks very much for your very candid remarks. Have other applicants had similar experiences?

  • Jack McDaniel

    I consider myself a fairly honest person. But applying to 6+ schools, I
    needed 4 recommenders (to meet various criteria in different apps) to
    submit letters that answered dozens of various prompts compiling tens of
    thousands of words. Needless to say, this is a hell of an ask
    (especially to make of your boss or former boss). Teo wrote them and
    sent my way to get my thoughts, one wrote and submitted without me ever
    seeing it, and one told me to write it and that he would review before
    submission (which he rarely did). It still hangs over me that I had any
    role in compiling them (will enroll in a top 7 school this fall), but I
    felt strongly that I needed to have two direct supervisors write my recs
    and one just didnt have the time to do all these different versions.

    This article actually makes me feel better that it looks like I am far
    from the only one. But yeah, this happens. And I would guess quite a bit
    just due to the time it takes to write those rec letters.

  • Nels

    Hello John! As far as I have experienced in my company (a top 10 tech firm), we were given options. Some people were laser focused to game the system and getting into the good books of the adcoms by writing their own recommendation letters. Some people wanted to have a fair shot(a few ethical ppl still left in my office), and were not part of the field to write their own recs even though they had ample opportunity to do so in order to get into a top 10 B-school! So, it totally depends on the candidate rather than a company in particular. Also, it may seem off topic, but I really would like to ask you about the smackdowns that you promised earlier :) Duke Vs Darden, UCLA Anderso Vs USC Marshall, Emory vs Kenan-Flagler, Yale Vs Cornell MBA’s etc etc.. Waiting for that very much John! Please keep up the good work!!

  • joward

    Why the shock, people? Business schools stress the importance of stories, detailed answers in the letters. Why should someone who works at a place where his/her bosses are really busy be penalized? Consulting firms have stockpiles of old letters of rec to draw from, and you also run into cultural issues– in many parts of the world they would never share the stories that they share from the US. One more thing– in many parts of the world when they have a silly 0-10 rating system they would never give anyone above a 7 whereas in the US if you have a GPA below 3.0 (the new “c”) then something is seriously wrong. At the end of the day, they do have to sign it and many recommenders do make many changes before they put their name to it.

  • tdk

    I’m afraid I quite strongly disagree. Writing the recommendation yourself is a misrepresentation of reality and a blatant manipulation of a system that is meant to provide ‘objective’ thoughts on the candidate. This generates a massive unfair disadvantage to candidates who choose to maintain ethical high-ground and insist that the recommendations are written by the recommenders (as indicated by the application instructions).

    Students must often sign-off disclaimer forms indicating that they have not ‘seen’ the recommendations (e.g. Columbia), thus that would be a rules-based ethical violation. However, even if rules are technically not broken, breaking the ‘principles’ of the recommendation process and the original intention (objective feedback) in my view qualifies as an ethical violation.

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    Thanks for sharing your point of view.

    I certainly agree with you that if an applicant has to sign indicating they havent seen the letter, then writing it would be a misrepresentation and not OK, in John’s terms. However, that kind of language is the exception not the rule and frankly widespread adoption of such language doesn’t address the issue of the current process being an onerous imposition on recommenders.

    I also want to ask you if you feel it is unethical for someone to draw up a letter for someone’s signature under other circumstances? A lawyer drawing up a letter for example? Or an administrative assistant drafting for his boss? Is it unethical for a PR department to write a press release quoting an official at a school or a company, and after drafting the statement, obtain the speaker’s approval? if you feel those activities are also a misrepresentation, then you are being consistent. If you don’t feel they they are an ethical violation, I don’t see the difference.

    I agree with you that a letter is not serving its intended purpose and is therefore less effective if the recommender doesn’t write it. That other perspective is missing. However, you feel that people who break the rules and write their own are at an advantage. In most cases, having to write you own letters of rec means A) you need to take the time to do the work, and B) your app lacks that other perspective. Both A&B are disadvantages.

    I have rarely, if ever, heard an applicant say “Oh goodie, I get to write my own letter of recommendation!”

    Linda

  • Novanglus

    Nowadays many employees write their own performance evaluations for the boss’s signature, so this isn’t surprising. My supervisor copied the language for my B-school recommendations directly from my last eval, which his predecessor had copied directly from the 360 self-eval I turned in for that period. So I guess I wrote my own recommendation without even intending to.

  • Claudia Feitosa-Santana

    Recommendation Letter is the most effective route to a Dictatorship. Just be an ass kisser. The system of recommendation letter is equal to No Freedom of Speech or no clashing with your Jerk Advisor/Boss. You will need his letter someday.

  • tdk

    To your first paragraph: The fact that the process is an onerous imposition on recommenders does not change that it is an ethical violation to write your own recommendations. It is an onerous imposition for companies not to pollute rivers, that doesn’t mean that doing so is ok is ethically ok (even if there aren’t laws against it). Regarding how wide-spread the disclaimers are, ethical violations do not only have to do with guidelines, rules and laws, but have to do with morals, values and assumptions. If the admissions committee asks you to submit objective recommendations from superiors, and you write them yourself, this is a moral/ethical violation regardless of whether you had to tick a box confirming it or not. Relying on rules and technicalities to determine an ethical stance is pretty much the bottom of the ethical hierarchy. Former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry unfairly gave his unqualified girlfriend a high paying job because it wasn’t “illegal”, but I’m sure you aren’t suprised to hear that most agreed it was “unethical”.

    To your second paragraph: In my view these are fallacious comparisons. The people receiving a letter from a lawyer understand that it is likely not written by the client and most likely do not expect that to be the case (their logo and company name will be on the letter). The same holds for an assistant or a PR department, which exist for that purpose and openly state this, it is not expected or assumed that these things are solely written by the end-user. However, If the quotes in the article above and application instructions are to be believed admissions committees on the other hand fully expect and want recommendations written exclusively by the recommenders. Thus writing them yourself is definitely a mis-representation and thus unethical. The candidate hopes that the adcom will not discover that the writing style is similar and would never in 1,000 openly admit that they wrote it themselves – that should ring obvious ethical alarm bells. You are violating the original intent of the process, and you are lying by omission, allowing people to believe the assumption that the recommender wrote it. As you can see, very very different from a lawyer.

    To your third paragraph: Both your disadvantages A and B are massively trumped by the advantage of being able to manipulate strengths and weaknesses and advertising yourself in a way that will connect with the adcom of a particular university. I think this is pretty clear.

    As to “oh goodie, i get to write my recommendation letter”, I have heard that plenty of times, this gives you an unbelievable advantage! and I can bet that candidates often think “darn, he wants to write the recommendation alone and doesn’t want me to see it before he sends it, this could cost me admission if he isn’t enthusiastic enough or doesn’t mention that my quant skills are great despite my bad GMAT!”

  • http://www.accepted.com Linda Abraham

    I think we are going to have to agree to disagree about why applicants shouldn’t write letters of rec. Unfortunately, I also believe you misunderstand several of my points.

    My point that the process is an onerous imposition on recommenders, which by the way many of the schools are agreeing with, was not an attempt to excuse applicants at all. I was writing about effectiveness and the schools inadvertent role in worsening a situation where they are actually getting less of what they want – the perspective of the recommender.

    If the schools really believe that this is an ethical issue and reflects on the moral backbone of the candidates, they will keep their individual letters and make the process demanding so that they can test applicants’ ethical metal. Most are planning to either make the process easier or pressure recommenders to really fill out the forms, thus putting responsibility for the letters’ contents on the signers, which is where it belongs.

    The questions I asked and the comparisons I made, which you reject, reflect normative business practice. You claim that documents, speeches, and statements in the business world are routinely assumed to be written by someone else and that business school letters of recommendation are the sole exception to this universal practice. Interesting, but the assumption is untrue and the conclusion is absurd.

    Letters, speeches and statement reflect the beliefs of the signor or the presenter, and they are responsible for the content. There is no applicant misrepresentation unless the schools start requiring applicants to sign that they did not write the letters or you are talking about forged letters.

    Your equation of I’ll-write-you-sign-it in letters of recommendation to former Mayor Barry and corruption in political office is debatable, to put it mildly. I personally find it baseless, however you are entitled to your opinion.

    I find it ironic and somewhat sad that you wave the flag of ethical standards well beyond the norms of business, but are surrounded by those who are thrilled to do what you find abhorrent. Again, with almost twenty years in the admissions business, most applicants I encounter are NOT happy when asked to write these letters. And correctly so for just the reasons I outlined.

    Finally, while we will continue to disagree on the reasons for our conclusion, we completely agree on that good old bottom line: Applicants shouldn’t write their own letters of rec.

  • tdk

    Well, I’m not going to respond to your points because re-reading my previous message would basically serve the same purpose. One point though: the Mayor Barry example was an example of how following the ‘rules’ and ‘laws’ does not equate to something being ethical. An action can be unethical despite technically being in compliance with the rules.

    Interesting that you would revert to a personal attack.

    I do not surround myself by people that are thrilled to do what I find abhorrent. Are you assuming everyone at business school is unethical? that everyone is thrilled to break the rules and lie? This is extremely presumptuous and detrimental to the very industry you work in. Simply not true and quite shocking that you would think that.

    The business world is full of unethical behavior, an issue which some business schools are trying to tackle head on. At least I am making an effort to put my view out there and hopefully convince a couple candidates not to begin their careers with unethical behavior. It would be great if people in your position of influence would do the same but alas, it seems this won’t happen anytime soon.

  • FarNorth7

    As a candidate, you are portraying yourself as your recommender in this process. It is an ethics violation – period.

  • orangelives

    I have, unfortunately, done it. And, as mentioned in Linda’s post, not been happy doing it. However, the school insisted on getting a recommendation from a supervisor and the supervisor told me to write it or he couldn’t guarantee that he could submit on time (even with a few months notice). Not something I am terribly proud of, but also unsure of how to escape this.

  • mbatroll

    You are a tool

  • Kate Blanza

    I have several colleagues at HBS who claim to have written their own recommendations and then got it signed by their recommenders. This recommendation problem has become a vicious circle, something that goes beyond deliberate cornering of the issue as an ethics violation. The recommenders, the candidates and in many cases, the admission consultants themselves have created this flux.

  • sadsaturday

    After 3 days of building my confidence to go ask two of my supervisors for these letters, I got a very bored look from them and their acceptance PROVIDED that I write it myself and they review it and make it their own. Now I am looking up articles on how to write a reference letter…for myself. Is it unethical? Yes. Do I have any other choice? No. These people are not professors who more or less are very familiar with reference letters. These people don’t have time, and some of them never wrote a reference letter in their lives….So what are you supposed to do?

  • http://www.masteradmissions.com/ Betsy Massar

    I feel for you, and sorry to see that they are hardly taking your quest seriously. Writing it yourself is unethical and makes it hard for you offer that outsider’s point of view. Here at P&Q I wrote an article that gives some tips and some links that might help you re-approach your recommenders: http://poetsandquants.com/2012/11/21/wrangling-great-recommendations/

    The deal is, if you don’t offer them a package of information that makes it easy for them to write the recommendation, sadly, they won’t step up. But notice they did say “make it their own” — which means they are actually offering to give that 3rd party point of view, and that’s a good thing.

    If you can, I suggest that you put together a template for them — by template, I mean put together a list of stories or vignettes that you think represent your performance and/or growth on the job. And even the learning — where you had to respond to constructive feedback. This outline, or a page or two of bullet points will hopefully be robust enough to make them feel they don’t have to do the thinking from scratch. That’s not unethical. As Derrick Bolton (head of Stanford GSB admissions) says on its website:

    “It is appropriate for you to give your recommender context on what you
    are trying to convey through your application, …to provide some personal and professional background information.

    “You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant
    anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Share those anecdotes with your recommenders. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.” http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/programs/mba/admission/admissions-dean/reference-letters

    I look at this requirement as a project management exercise. There are many things students need to get supervisors to do, such as review presentations, sign off on copy for an RFP, make an introduction to an external source for a project to go forward. This is another one of those tasks. Use your judgment and charm. That’s part of becoming a business leader, isn’t it?

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