Top Schools To Adopt Common Recs

lettersFollowing reports that MBA applicants often write their own recommendation letters, a group of the most highly selective MBA programs in the U.S. are planning to adopt a common recommendation system. Admission officers at the same hope that a common form will reduce the burden on many recommenders and lead to more honest appraisals of candidates.

Robert Shea, a director of admissions at Columbia Business School, told a group of admission consultants in New York last week that Columbia will make the move with several other business schools, including Wharton, Yale, the University of Virginia, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University. He made the comments at the annual conference held by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC), according to several consultants who were present at the session.

A year ago, a minor storm was set off when a survey of applicants by AIGAC revealed that 38% of them were asked to write their own recommendation letters. Most admission consultants believe the number is much higher, with as many as six of ten letters being written by MBA candidates. The results surprised many B-school admission directors because they believed their schools were getting fairly candid, third party assessments of prospective students.


“Having different recommendation questions for each school placed a substantial burden on recommenders and was a source of anxiety for applicants,” says Dan Bauer, founder of The MBA Exchange, a leading MBA admissions consulting firm. “It’s really gratifying to see this change finally happen. Now recommenders can put more thought into crafting better content and candidates can apply to more schools in less time. It’s a win/win/win.”

The schools will apparently follow the procedure for recommendations set by both Harvard Business School and Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. The first to publicly adopt the standardized format was Wharton which yesterday (June 2) revealed that it would now ask recommenders to answer the same two questions posed by HBS and Stanford:

How do the candidate’s performance, potential, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicants. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)


Both Harvard Business School and Stanford apparently were unaware of the effort to standardize around their recommendation approach. “HBS isn’t part of any group effort,” said Dee Leopold, who heads up MBA admissions at Harvard. “We developed recommender questions that worked for us and have kept them the same for a few years. Our questions are made public early so any school is welcome to see them.”

Stanford GSB Admissions Director Derrick Bolton noted that the school has been using the same recommendation form and prompts with some minor annual tweaks for years. “Any MBA program may adopt them,” said Bolton. “In recent years, I think Virginia and Yale have used elements of the Stanford recommendation form (our grid) and also possibly our questions. Other schools may have begun, or may start, using our questions at any point.”

Chicago Booth declined to confirm or deny the report. “We have yet to finalize our application but will be releasing it in July as we do every year,” said Stacey Kole, deputy dean of the full-time MBA program at Booth.

Admission consultants generally welcome the change. “To be honest, this move by the schools to reduce the burden on the recommenders is long overdue,” said Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions. “It costs prospective students quite a bit of political capital to ask a recommender to answer these questions thoughtfully and intelligently. And it makes them really, really anxious.

“Now they don’t have to ask recommenders to do a lot of busy work by figuring out what to say to which school,” added Massar. “Having said that, students are still going to have to get buy-in from their recommenders and talk through their candidacy. A meaningful recommendation will never be just a bunch of laudatory adjectives, but real stories with real purpose.”

Still, it is not without controversy. Sandy Kreisberg, founder of and a long-time MBA admissions consultant, says that the move to a common recommendation along with declines in the number of required essays schools are asking of applicants makes business school admissions more like law school. The more recs and essays become commodified, and that is what is happening, the more GPA, GMAT, and prestige work history–often a derivative of GPA/GMAT and prestige schooling, count,” said Kreisberg.