Why MBAs Are Writing Their Own Recs

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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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Air Time - Comments
  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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.

  • mbatroll

    You are a tool

  • 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.

  • FarNorth7

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

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