Recommendations: Does Prestige Matter?

In this exclusive column for Poets&Quants, Fortuna admission consultants  look at some of the myths that surround the MBA admissions process – and how schools evaluate candidates.  So if you have ever asked yourself "Is it true that ...", you'll find all the myth busting answers right here.

In this exclusive column for Poets&Quants, Fortuna admission consultants look at some of the myths that surround the MBA admissions process – and how schools evaluate candidates. So if you have ever asked yourself “Is it true that …”, you’ll find all the myth busting answers right here.

Would a letter of recommendation from the President of the United States help your chances of admission to business school?

It might seem like a no-brainer to have the leader of the world’s largest economy write on your behalf. This case was the source of much discussion among the team at Fortuna Admissions when a client suggested this option for his MBA applications last year. Surprisingly perhaps, our advice was ‘no..  The applicant has since been admitted to one of the top business schools in the country, and secured a significant scholarship along the way.

So what was our thinking? Our team includes former directors and associate directors from top schools in the U.S. and Europe, and we remember reviewing applications from candidates who boasted recommendations from Heads of State, Fortune 100 CEOs, 4-star Army Generals, iconic entrepreneurs, and even a rock star.

But the golden rule for choosing recommenders is to select the person who knows you best, not the person with the best job title.

As impressive as letterhead from The White House, the Pentagon or the corner office may look, nine times out of ten the recommendations are short on detail, and even shorter on substance. Many times we assume that the letter was not even written by the person signing at the bottom, who had delegated the task to a deputy chief of staff or an assistant. That is not always the case, of course, and when appropriate the admission team will follow up to check the authenticity of the letter.

A TELEPHONE CALL TO CHECK THE AUTHENTICITY OF A LETTER FROM A U.S. GENERAL

Our colleague Pete Johnson, the former executive director of admissions at UC-Berkeley Haas, recounts a time when he received an impressive recommendation from a highly ranked officer and called the telephone number at the bottom of the page to see if the letter had indeed been written by that person. “Oh, yes,” explained the person on the other end of the phone, “the General always writes the recommendation himself, and takes the whole process very seriously.”

Pete adds that this particular applicant was subsequently admitted to the program.

With Stanford GSB modifying it’s admissions requirements for the coming year and reducing the number of recommendations from three to two, now all the world’s top business schoolS expect you to identify two individuals to write on your behalf.

The best letters bring the applicant to life in the eyes of the admissions committee, and are filled with specific details and action examples rather than adjectives and glowing general praise. A recommender won’t be judged on their command of English, but their letter will provide insight into your professional performance, and the impact you have had in the organization.

So who should you ask? Poets&Quants asked Fortuna to answer this question, so let’s highlight a half dozen of the mistakes we have seen time and again, and six tips that will help you secure recommendations that work in your favor.