Over my ten years working in academic admissions at Harvard Business School and Carnegie Mellon University, I’ve certainly read my fair share of recommendation letters. The one fundamental difference between an excellent one and a mediocre recommendation is that the former is written by someone who is a true champion of the candidate. More often than not, the recommender has worked closely with the candidates and has a clear understanding of the unique value that person offers personally and professionally.
Building a powerful brand requires that you have brand champions who are invested in you. These brand champions are committed to helping you refine your brand and are phenomenal marketing agents of your brand.
So who are brand champions? They are individuals who are interested in your personal and professional success. They understand what you stand for, your passion and values, and your skills, accomplishments, and goals for your future. Most important, they’re committed to seeing you succeed, are willing to speak up on your behalf to promote your career, and are quick to bring you on board projects with high visibility and importance.
Not all recommenders are brand champions. Just because someone writes a recommendation letter on your behalf does not mean that they understand who you are, what matters most to you, and how you envision the MBA to help you achieve your life goals. I have read many recommendations that have had damning consequences on a candidate’s admission outcome. Choose wisely and make sure whoever you select is truly an avid supporter.
How to choose your brand champion? Ideal recommenders need to be in positions in power. For an MBA application, your focus should be on superiors, particularly supervisors who can provide tangible and detailed information about you that reinforces your brand. But don’t simply go for title alone. Avoid using the CEO or managing director of your firm who can barely remember your name. It’s far more important to have a relationship with the person that goes beyond interacting with them a couple of times a year. When it comes to selecting a recommender, ask yourself the following questions:
• How does this person feel about me?
• Have I worked closely with them on a project?
• Have they complimented me based on the results I produced?
• What types of evaluation have they given me in the past?
• Did they go out of their way to assist or support me in some capacity? (The more someone has gone out of their way to show a commitment to you, the more likely that person is to become a fan.)
What are the most common recommendation mistakes to avoid?
• Show don’t tell. Often recommendations are too general and full of fluff. They tell you that the candidate is brilliant and use a lot of adjectives but have very little substance to back up the assertions. The rule here is to show and not simply to tell. If a vivid example does not come to mind to back up a point, or if the examples fail to strongly reinforce the message, it should be cast aside.
• Beware of the contradiction factor. The recommendation is an authentic yardstick by which an applicant’s story is measured. It doesn’t help a candidate’s case when he says he is passionate about the health care industry and his recommender says that he will likely end up as a real estate developer. This is a popular mistake I observed while on the MBA Admissions Board at Harvard. Take the time to make sure your recommenders understand your goals and are supportive of them.
• Recommendation bias. Recommenders from certain countries tend to be by-the-book, blunt, and straight to the point. Their evaluation may be more focused on the areas of improvement and therefore may miss an opportunity to highlight the positives. Sitting down with your recommender in the beginning of the process and discussing any concerns you have will help ensure that your recommendation is balanced.
• Beware the bland recommendation. Bland letters of endorsement lack spontaneity and seem too molded and coached. Ask your recommender if he removes your name from the letter, could it apply to any other person? If so, your recommendation could very well lack distinction and will do little to endear you to an admissions board.
• Recommendation ownership. Don’t fall into the trap of writing your own recommendation. I know this is a common request from recommenders who are too busy or are uncomfortable writing a letter. It is unethical to write your own recommendation. If your put into this position, I strongly suggest you decline tactfully.
• The killer comment. If the person you ask to recommend you says any of the following, I would ditch them. “I don’t think you should go for the MBA.” “I’m kind of busy at this time.” Don’t you think you are reaching too high?” “Why don’t you write the recommendation?” “I don’t need any input from you; I’m an expert at this.”
Take the time to begin to develop the relationships with individuals in your profession and community to win them over as brand champions. And it isn’t too late to start today.
Chioma Isiadinso is the author of “The Best Business School Admissions Secrets” and the founding CEO of EXPARTUS, a global admissions consulting company. She has more than ten years of admissions experience and is a former admissions board member at Harvard Business School and former director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Public Policy and Management.