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. 

  • JohnAByrne

    I agree. I’m just as surprised as you are that the schools didn’t make a combined announcement. We were tipped off to this by a couple of admission consultants who were at their annual conference in New York and heard a Columbia Business School official break the news.

  • JW

    Hi John,

    Just to update you here: all the schools I applied to out of the above did indeed use the same recommender questions. Made things a heck of a lot easier for everyone involved. Specific schools: Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Booth, Columbia.

    Any idea why there wasn’t a more formal announcement on the unified questions? It’s a really big step for applicants and makes the process a lot less imposing. You’d think schools would want to highlight that.

  • @Steve,

    I’d say between GPA/GMAT– at least 1 of them needs to be solid.

    If you have a bad GPA, you’re gonna need a stellar GMAT.

    If you have a bad GMAT, you’d better have a high GPA.

    If you really had to nitpick, I’d say the GMAT carries slightly more weight simply because it’s more comparable with everybody else around the world.

    Adcom won’t know that a 3.1 GPA from your school is actually considered really good and was perhaps harder to get than a 3.4 from some other university.

    GMAT standardizes everything so it’s easier to compare.

    And yes, a very prestigious job may even trump both GPA/GMAT. But if that’s not what you have, then focus on what you can. Still believe the essays will allow you an opportunity to shine above the stats, but you’ll need a compelling story.

    Of course, Sandy is welcome to chime in his thoughts.

  • Bass

    The university I graduated from does not use GPA. I have a first class degree and the college is not one of the utterly famous ones like IIT or St. Stephens but it is regarded as one of the best colleges around. Also, in your experience do three year degrees from Commonwealth countries pose a problem? PS – a GMAT score >740

  • hbsguru

    you the guy with the 790. Depends on what current job is, and ODDLY, what college GPA was, as odd as that may sound.

  • Bass

    Thanks Sandy. I’m an Indian applicant, majored in biology. I’ve been a fulltime musician and have also worked at a startup in the education sector and I’m currently working in the digital marketing domain. I guess I have my work cut out as far as the essays are concerned! For a profile like mine, with serviceable execution, is M7 within reach?

  • hbsguru

    Hey Sandy, you say that stats will matter the most now. I agree. Between
    all the available stats, which will matter the most – GPA, GMAT or your
    prestige jobs? Will applicants from unique or non-traditional
    backgrounds still have a chance to get in top B-Schools? And is it end
    of the road for the 3.2 GPA guys with 710 GMAT’s for the top 10
    [Sandy]: the change in recs is just a small sign that the application process is becoming commodified, the real impact is shorter and more nominal essay prompts, and fewer recs.
    Unique and non-trad applicants will still have a chance to explain themselves, and depending on how unique or non-trad, and IF those are areas favored by adcoms, they will be fine.

    As to this:
    And is it end
    of the road for the 3.2 GPA guys with 710 GMAT’s for the top 10
    HMMMMM, 3.2/710 white male w. nothing super valued in terms of jobs etc. would always have a hard time at HSW, and prob. wld not get into MIT, COL, Kellogg, etc. Not sure things are much worse now, things were always bad.

  • hbsguru

    ha ha–a 790 GMAT always counted for a lot. The fact that apps + recs are getting shorter might make it count a little more, hard to quantify, if the rest of your stats and story are serviceable, a 790 can really tilt things in your favor, sort of like having a great butt, some schools really go for that and all schools don’t mind.

  • Mechanical Engineer to MBA

    Thanks for the insight, Sandy!

  • JohnAByrne

    I should also add that not all the schools mentioned by Shea have confirmed.

  • Steve

    Hey Sandy, you say that stats will matter the most now. I agree. Between all the available stats, which will matter the most – GPA, GMAT or your prestige jobs? Will applicants from unique or non-traditional backgrounds still have a chance to get in top B-Schools? And is it end of the road for the 3.2 GPA guys with 710 GMAT’s for the top 10 Schools?

  • adam markus

    Cheers, I agree with you completely. A common rec form merely makes it easier for recommenders to write one good recommendation. The content being asked for is substantial and sufficient for effectively communicating about an applicant. Recommendations should be strong endorsements for an applicant, not an extended writing contest. Especially for applicants who need or want to apply widely, recs can be a major burden: It is not an easy thing to expect a busy supervisor or other recommender to write 5-10 different versions of a rec. Hopefully many more schools will adopt either the same or very similar rec forms.

  • FWilliams

    For sure the average numbe of applications per applicant will go up with this. Now which school will benefit? I bet its not H/S since those get the apps anyway even if they make their questions unique. Its the Booths and Whartons of the world who would benefit since applicants will be like – “well, I got the rec and there is only one more question to answer so why not throw in an app to Booth and Wharton too? They are #1 in USN and BW…. worth a shot.” Do you guys agree?

  • Cheers!

    Couldn’t agree less. Personality is not manifest by forcing a recommender to write 3-5 different recc letters. I applaud this move by schools to remove what was an artificial and needless barrier to entry to a lot of applicants. Bravo!

  • Ryan S.

    B-School apps are turning into a joke. This amounts to the complete removal of personality from the application process.

  • hbsguru

    oh no, there are millions of b schools. what happens to people like you is that you wind up attending a b school a couple of slots below where you might have gotten in say 5 years ago, when the admit process was more holistic, but dont over -read what is happening as any drastic change–admissions was never THAT holistic, it was always mostly stats and prestige jobs.

  • hbsguru

    any small company in hot field e.g. biotech, big data, social networking.
    also any non-feeder company as 2nd job after job 1 =feeder company, that happens a lot, often small hedge fund after Goldman, etc.
    But you knew that.
    High stats, chem major, only job is biotech, doing research which involves some marketing and you want to transition into management, that works at most every B school.

  • Mechanical Engineer to MBA

    Haha, got it. Thanks! Just curious, in what situations would high stats + non-feeder company be an advantage? Just for class diversity?

  • Orange 1

    Sandy, agree with what you are saying, but to me that leads to the entire B school experience becoming more commoditized. On paper, I was not the greatest candidate out there but I worked hard in class, participated in discussions, joined groups, and had as good an experience as more “model” candidates. I had a classmate, so-so undergrad and GMAT, who was one of the most prepared students imaginable because he had a chip on shoulder and busted himself to pass with high grades. What happens to people like us in this day and age? I guess no B school.

  • Ben

    I am in this same boat. I have a few great managers that I know do not have enough time to write recs for 6 schools.

  • hbsguru

    High stats and non-feeder company can work, and depending on circs, be an advantage, what does not work is medium stats + non-feeder company + some delusions about how your leadership and goals are going to overcome the low stats and non-feeder company. Got it, now???

  • adam markus

    A common recommendation is really welcome news to applicants. Especially for those applicants who are not from the US or in industries like Management Consulting where recommenders are MBAs or are very familiar with the recommendation process, this is a great change. The HBS/Stanford rec questions while brief, provide recommenders with sufficient space to write something meaningful about the applicant. The feedback question is especially an opportunity for the recommender to show how well they know the applicant. As a member of AIGAC and of the 2014 Survey Distribution Sub-Committee, I am proud that our organization is contributing to making the MBA application process easier for many applicants. The full Survey can be found at See Page 19 for the results on recs.

  • Mechanical Engineer to MBA

    With this in mind, do you think it’s getting to a point where it’s not worthwhile to apply to top schools if you work for a non-feeder company? Or can sufficiently high GPA & GMAT compensate for not having a name brand on your resume?

  • devils0508

    Got into 3/5 I applied to, matriculating at kellogg.

  • JW

    Me, to myself last night: “My recommenders are going to murder me if I apply to more than three schools.”

    Me, to myself right now: “THERE IS A GOD!”

    In short: thanks John!

  • JohnAByrne

    Yes, that is our understanding based on interviews with consultants who were at the conference when Shea of Columbia made this announcement.

  • sky

    what school did you end up in

  • JW

    Am I correct in understanding that starting this coming fall (2014), Stanford, Harvard, Wharton, Yale, UVA, Booth, and Kellogg will all require recommenders to answer the exact same set of questions?

  • devils0508

    Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t use an admissions consultant and didn’t write any of his own recommendation letters.

  • hbsguru

    sorry to beat a dead horse, but 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,

    B school admissions is now becoming LAW school admissions–the idea that law school applicants often apply with 0-1 years of work ex, and B school applicants with 2-4 years exp, and that therefore B school applications were more robust and comprehensive: IS GOING OUT THE WINDOW.