How To Solve The MBA Rec Letter Sham

taking notesWe are deep into the Round Two MBA admissions process and many applicants will be working feverishly into the holiday period to finish those last essays, resumes and yes, letters of recommendation.  Not long ago, I was very surprised to read that a prominent a business school dmissions director had no clue that many MBAs have actually written their own reference letters.

Talk to leading admissions consultants and we will all report that even clients with impressively solid personal character are often put into this unavoidable situation. As Woody Allen declared in his 1970s film Bananas, “it’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” It is indeed a sham to ask applicants to get as many as five to eight different letters from extremely busy bosses. So admissions officers, give a holiday gift to next year’s MBA hopefuls: Solve this problem.

Overall, I would estimate that 25-30% of my clients are asked to write drafts themselves by their chosen references. I run a boutique shop, so my sample size may not be fully representative, but even this rate of questionable behavior amongst applicants is reason enough to make effective changes. International applicants are often asked to draft their letters because overseas superiors are not used to the American style of excessive feedback, and they may feel uncomfortable and intimidated with the requirements. Industries like accounting, engineering and science research don’t employ as many MBAs, and so these bosses tend to have less “feel” for the process.


These writers, fairly or not, often believe they are not going to do a solid job or simply don’t understand how important it is to get a dynamic reference. And yes, at times bosses who have been less recent tend to opt out of the actual writing. Even some applicants coming from the MBA concentrated finance industry are told by their superiors that the burden is just too great, so “please write it and I will sign it.”  I’ve even seen clients getting into the coveted Harvard Business School 2+2 program having to deal with this predicament of “to write or not to write” as 21-year-olds.

So, as my HBS professors used to say, what is the POA (plan of action)?  Some have called for a common recommendation form, and this is a no brainer. Although I can guess that some schools will say that they simply must extract specific information that is more relevant to “their culture” and unique selection process, an impartial analysis of most rec forms shows they directionally have the very same prompts. All MBA programs are trying to understand the context of the relationship, the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, impact on the firm, communication and interpersonal skills, and the applicant’s fit for senior management. But the schools will ask all this in a slightly unique way, with different enough requirements to necessitate original drafts.

Why not have one required reference, and the second one be optional? UCLA has gone to one rec and I assume they made the change with all this in mind. It is often with a second reference where the applicant is calling upon a less than optimal choice to help. And at times this person only agrees with the stipulation that he or she not have to write it.


Why not also have a video option that could be done once and sent around to the different schools? This may reduce the workload and increase the comfort of some tech savvy references. Of course, many may not want to be on camera, but applicants are also increasingly being asked to present themselves with short video requirements. At least adcoms can be sure that the rec was done ethically.

Why not also share actual reference samples so writers can get more comfortable with the quality expectations? This may decrease anxiety and yield more true drafts.

Well, it’s too late for the adcoms to give these types of holiday gifts this year to all of you MBA applicants, but I will share a few ideas with applicants that may help. First, prepare a word doc for your writers with reference deadlines, examples of leadership accomplishments, a potential weakness to cover (that is not too damaging nor too immaterial), strengths backed up with examples. In other words, help jog their memories and provide some potential content. Provide this preparatory document weeks ahead of the deadlines and not days. Second, ask your MBA friends or admissions consultants for an actual sample to share with your writers. This can increase the likelihood that you won’t get stuck writing the rec yourself. And believe me, I can generally tell when a client has gone at it alone.

Of course, if all else fails, try another mockery of a sham. Tell your references that you’ve heard a rumor that adcoms are using pattern recognition software to discern if the essay writer also wrote the recs. This will surely guilt your references into writing all seven recommendations. All joking aside, if MBA programs really did use this type of software, what they learn could be a real shocker.

Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

Alex Leventhal is the founder of Prep MBA, an admissions consulting firm. Leventhal, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1998, had worked as a management consultant and held various vice president of marketing positions working for such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Siebel Systems. He has been an MBA admissions consultant since 2005.

  • anonymous4

    no ad com would ever entertain video references. they probably spend <2minutes scanning a LOR. with a video they would never spend the time to watch it! and no recommender could get across all of their points in <2min anyway. this is an impractical idea.

  • Alex Leventhal

    Thanks. I’m not sure I follow how there being a common set of questions would inhibit the writer from crafting a great rec? And yes, the real number may be larger. One of the reasons why it is possible my number is lower is that I help clients push back softly on writers to get them to understand the problems they are creating by not participating. I don’t believe that applicants will write, on average, as good a letter anyway as a senior manager.

  • guest

    Good points. However I am not totally behind a common app for LORS, simply because of some schools’ decision to shorten the number and length of the essays: a good and carefully crafted LOR can do wonders to present a more holistic vision of an applicant. And that, ironically, feeds into the dynamic of writing your own letter. Actually, I’m surprised that only 25-30% of your clients are asked to write the letter. I’ve been in this biz for 15 years and my number is far, far, FAR higher.

  • Alex Leventhal

    Thanks for the support Deborah, and I agree with you that there can be great value to a second rec.
    Alex Leventhal
    Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

  • Deborah-Knox

    Hi Alex,
    Thanks for writing this piece. I often find my clients in the same jam, and I’ll wonder how out of touch some of the admissions committee professionals are when they insist on having recommenders write the recommendations. It is unfortunate that so many people are too busy to sit down to write a solid recommendation, but this has been becoming more common. And many applicants are not in a position to go to someone else, e.g., they’ve had only one job with one supervisor for their entire post-undergrad career to date. I do think it is worth requiring more than one recommendation as it can add dimensionality to a candidate’s profile, but I am with you on moving toward some sort of “common rec.” It has been a relief to clients applying to both Stanford and HBS that the two schools have posed the same questions to recommenders in recent years. I have also increasingly been having clients prepare their recommenders, supplying concrete examples and measures of impact that will support any superlatives their recommenders may decide to use in describing them. That way they have them at their fingertips.
    Deborah Knox
    Insight Admissions

  • Anonymous

    To add some context, I am currently applying to top 20 schools. I think this is actually quite simple. If someone tells you to write it, so they can sign it – don’t use that recommender. Let them know you respect their time constraints and will ask someone else. If someone doesn’t care to take the time, how good of a letter do you think you would get?

    I would hope that someone that is applying to business school either has strong enough relationships that those busy people will write it or have several people they could go to. It is not difficult to give someone 6-8 weeks lead time in the process. And you can provide appropriate support (e.g. reminders, providing specific examples or stories, etc).

    At the same time, the issue is real. I would advocate that schools collaborate and go to a common recommendation. If there are very specific things that that a school is looking for they could use the common rec plus limited additions.