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.

  • Matt

    Yea exactly, a good rule of thumb. There have got to be exceptions, however, and I think a letter from the PRESIDENT is one of those. 🙂

    To even be able to get that letter at all says something serious about your network, and we all know how important that is..

  • Very relevant points. The points on building a relationship are really important – and often overlooked – by so many top applicants because they feel that the recommender already ‘knows’ them (having worked together for a long time). However, working with someone at work and writing them a recommendation are two different things. It is really important to sit down with your recommender, make him/her aware of your goals and objectives in pursuing the MBA, and making him/her an involved part of the process, rather than making the recommendation just another formality to be completed. An involved recommender is sure to be more thoughtful, introspective, and ultimately more impactful in recommending an applicant to a B-school.

  • Hamm0

    I would challenge that having relationships with high ranking places won’t help you in your career…think about if you said your goals were to be a Private Banking guru and your letters were from Paul Allen and Larry Ellison? (You must’ve worked for MSFT and ORCL) I would say that’d go a long way.
    You’re correct overall, though – quality over letterhead is a good rule of thumb.

  • CommonSense

    I don’t necessarily agree that one shouldn’t chase titles, I do think that chasing titles exclusively is a non-starter. If for example you happen to work at the white house or a titan of industry, there is no reason one shouldn’t push to build a relationship with them and THEN have them write your recommendation. I’m of the opinion that the more impressive your recommender the better, but the less personal it is the worse…so its about balancing those two things (and hopefully maximizing your recommenders familiarity with you and their “prestige” value.

  • Ben – You are spot on about providing your recommenders with a recommender packet. It should include information on the schools, why you want an MBA, a timeline, and very specific examples you would like them to hit on in their recommendations.
    Your recommenders will be extremely busy so you will need to manage them. Make it as easy as possible for them to write a recommendation by providing them with detailed and relevant information regaring the projects and responsiblities you had with this recommender. Don’t just send over a resume!
    These are just some high level tips. There is so much more that goes into preparing your recommender so make sure you do your research or speak to an expert

  • Critical Square

    Hi Matt. Sure the title looks good on paper (especially if it comes on the official letter head!) but if it is a generic letter that doesn’t speak in detail to your accomplishments and character then it won’t get you far. Having relationships with people in high ranking places doesn’t ensure success in b-school or your next career and adcoms know this

  • Matt

    I agree that you shouldn’t “chase titles” in your recommendation letters, however I am not sure if the rule holds true when the title is PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Are we seriously saying that recommendation wouldn’t impress an Adcom?

  • Ben

    This comes well timed for everyone looking to apply in Round 1. Just enough time to follow each of the suggestions and give the recommender time to write.

    I might have missed it, but from what I have seen, it is a good idea to give a small packet of info to the recommender with the school they are writing for, the timeline, and a bulleted list of “accomplishments” to jog their memory.

    I know where I work my managers etc are extremely busy. Tagging them with a reminder a month out and then two weeks out is a good idea.