Top Tips for MBA Recommendations: How Much Does Prestige Matter?

Judith Silverman Hodara Fortuna

Would it help my MBA admissions chances if I secured a recommendation letter from the President of the United States?

As hypothetical as it sounds, we fielded this question from a prospective candidate during the Obama administration. While it was a subject of much discussion among our coaches at Fortuna Admissions, ultimately, we advised against it. The candidate went on to be admitted to one of the top business schools in the US, where he’d been awarded a significant scholarship.

What drove our thinking?

As former director of MBA Admissions at Wharton, I remember applications from candidates who boasted recommendations from Heads of State, 4-star Generals, Fortune 100 CEOs, famous entrepreneurs and even a rock-n-roll legend.

And as impressive as the letterhead from The White House or the corner office can look, 90 percent of the time the recommendations are thin on detail, and even slimmer on substance. My colleagues and I often assumed the letter wasn’t personally written by the undersigned at the bottom, as it can be a task delegated to an assistant. Of course, that’s not always the case, but prepare for an admissions member to verify the letter’s authenticity with a follow up call.

So who should you ask, and how to you set him or her up for success? Here’s six tips culled by my colleagues to help you secure a recommendation that works in your favor.

Six Smart Tips for Letters of Recommendation

Tip #1: Choose someone who knows you very well. As alluded to above, it’s far more strategic to pick the person who knows you best over the person with the best job title. Persuasive letters are filled with specific details and action examples that bring your credentials to life. It’s too often that candidates favor impressive titles over relationship, resulting in a generic-sounding endorsement that undermines their application.

Tip #2: Take it seriously. Recommendations really matter. No matter how much time and effort you’ve poured into your essays, programs put a premium on third-party input from a professional whose seniority offers a depth of perspective on your performance. You’ll want to nurture this relationship, taking time to share a context for your decision to pursue the MBA, your post-grad plans and key themes you intend to highlight in your application. So ideally, your recommender is both senior and can credibly share first-hand accounts of your excellence.

Tip #3: The recommendation should reinforce your application. The achievements and strengths that you choose to highlight should be supported by your recommenders, or at least complement what they write about you. But take care to avoid too much overlap – it’s about reinforcing your credibility, not being duplicative. It’s helpful to provide each recommender with a briefing document to help them understand how you’re positioning your candidacy and what qualities you’re aiming to convey.

Tip #4: Consider complementary perspectives. Try to pick two recommenders who can illuminate different aspects of your experience. For example: your boss and an investor in your entrepreneurial side venture; your previous boss at your last employer; your boss and a client. A letter from a client or a supplier, alongside an endorsement from your boss, can carry a lot of weight by offering valuable and complementary perspectives.

Tip #5: Convey a retrospective of your performance. Recommenders are inclined to focus on what’s front of mind, for example, their more recent interactions with you. To ensure your most shining achievements are brought to the fore, you’ll want to discuss some examples of what you’ve done previously so they can draw upon the full spectrum of your achievements. Just because your professional history is branded on your memory, don’t assume it’s the same for your boss. It’s also helpful to assemble a memo to jog your recommender’s memory that includes relevant details.

Tip #6: Allow for lots of lead time and stay in touch. At least three weeks, but four is better. Don’t assume that your recommender can turn around a letter in a week, or over a holiday break. (The last thing you want is someone’s half-hearted attention while sipping Chardonnay from the family cabin.) My colleagues and I have all received that call to the admissions office from a panicked candidate whose recommender can’t submit by deadline because she’s at a remote lodge without Internet. Ample timelines, frequent touch points and clear communications allow recommenders to shine as your outspoken champions.

No matter the outcome, don’t neglect to follow up and thank your recommenders for their support. Especially if you didn’t get the results you’d hoped for and set your sights on reapplying, you want your recommenders to know their efforts on your behalf were sincerely appreciated. A handwritten thank you note is a thoughtful touch in this digital age.


Judith is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former director of MBA admissions at Wharton. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 8 of the top 10 business schools.