Harvard Business School’s Recommendation Questions

If you’re an MBA applicant to Harvard Business School, what does the admissions staff expect from the three recommenders it requires as part of your application?

For the 2012-2013 application season, HBS suggests that two out of the three recommendations come from your professional life (Harvard’s 2+2 applicants only need two recommenders). “Ideally, one of those should come from a current or recent supervisor,” advises Harvard on its website. “We completely understand that this is not always possible. Use your best judgment. Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them! This should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status.”

BILL GATES OR YOUR DIRECT SUPERVISOR? 

Betsy Massar, founder of Master Admissions, an MBA admissions consulting firm, puts it this way: “If you have a choice between Bill Gates, who is willing to write you a letter because your father is a friend of a friend, and your direct supervisor with whom you work day in and day out, choose your direct supervisor.”

The single biggest mistake recommenders make? They’re positive and bland. Dee Leopold, HBS managing director of admissions and financial aid, says that “many recommendations are well written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples of how your wonderful qualities play out in real life. What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.”

HBS recommenders are asked to fill out a personal qualities and skills grid that the school keeps under wraps (it is somewhat similar to Stanford’s grid which can be seen here). The recommendation form includes four essay questions “along with other types of questions” the school also does not disclose.

The four key questions:

1)   Please comment on the context of your interaction with the applicant. If applicable, briefly describe the applicant’s role in your organization. (250 words)

2)   How does the candidate’s performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (250 words)

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

4)   Please make additional statements about the applicant’s performance, potential, or personal qualities you believe would be helpful to the MBA Admissions Board. (250 words)

About the Author...

John A. Byrne

John A. Byrne is the founder and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media, publishers of Poets&Quants and four other higher education websites. He has authored or co-authored more than ten books, including two New York Times bestsellers. John is the former executive editor of Businessweek, editor-in-chief of Businessweek. com, editor-in-chief of Fast Company, and the creator of the first regularly published rankings of business schools. As the co-founder of CentreCourt MBA Festivals, he hopes to meet you at the next MBA event in-person or online.