Wrangling Great Recommendations

Admissions committees look at recommendation letters far more closely than you may imagine.  Think about it: the word count on your recommendation letters could even be longer than your essays. So it’s important to choose your recommenders carefully and to prep them well in advance. In fact, selecting and briefing those who will write your letters is so important that you tee-up your recommenders as far in advance as possible.

Keep in mind that business schools want to accept honest, decent people. They expect you to choose recommenders who know you well and can write in-depth letters that convey both your strengths and weaknesses. Admissions committees want to see that your recommenders can confirm the qualities and information you’ve expressed to them in the other parts of your application.

Close is Better than Famous

They are also looking to see who’s writing the letter and the kind of genuine relationship you two have formed. If you have a choice between Bill Gates, who is willing to write you a letter because he is a very distant family friend, and your direct supervisor with whom you work day in and day out, choose your direct supervisor. The person writing you a letter of recommendation should know you personally and know you well. This kind of relationship will make the letter stronger and more persuasive, giving you more credibility with the admissions board. The recommender must be the one writing this letter — you should not be writing it for him or her, even if you do give him or her suggestions and guidance on how to approach it. This is an ethical issue, and you want to be honest with the school from the start.

Here are some quick tips to choose the right person to recommend you.

Put your potential recommenders in a list. For each individual, make sure you can answer yes for each item in the following checklist.

  1. Was a supervisor, not a peer* or direct report
  2. Will champion your cause
  3. Is able to rank you at the top among others in your peer group
  4. Will be able to tell stories rather than brush the surface
  5. Will not make you write the recommendation yourself
  6. Has time and is willing to talk over what you need him or her to say

*Note: Stanford GSB asks for a peer review in addition to two supervisor reviews. If you are in a start-up, a peer such as a co-founder will work. Board members and clients are also acceptable.

If a recommender does not meet the above requirements, see if you can come up with someone else who does. You really, really want someone who knows you and is willing to promote your case.

Next, sit down with your recommender over coffee (or on the phone if you aren’t in the same locale) and help them help you.  Give them some written material with which to work. The following templates may help you remind your recommenders of specific instances worth mentioning as they answer the specific questions in their recommendation form.

Why Business School?

You definitely want to give your recommender a two-to-three sentence nugget on why you want to go to business school to reinforce what you’ve already discussed when you asked him or her to help you.  See if you can write it out first, for yourself, and then for your recommender. Try to keep it more conversational than formal.


Go back through the portion of your resume where you worked with your recommender.

For example, Jennifer’s resume had the following bullet point:

  • Managed strategic planning and re-branding campaign for 15-year-old non-profit

That is a tangible, measurable event, and worth discussing in a recommendation. Even if Jennifer wrote about it in her essays, by definition, her point of view is different from that of her supervisor. Jennifer’s recommender can use the same story, but should use a slightly different approach. To help the recommender, put together bullet points or a short paragraph, some use the STAR (situation, task, action, result) model. Alternatively, you can use the following template to make sure it is all included.

Event:  Management of strategic planning and re-branding campaign

Impact: Changed the organization from a staid, outdated “charity” to a modern, dynamic non-profit

Tangible, measurable results: Raised profile of organization by getting favorable publicity in international press, increased donations by x%, and increased local recipient organizations by y%

Methodology: Used for-profit strategic management tools, such as questioning the status quo and coming up with actionable ways to move the organization forward

Demonstrated leadership traits: Organization, motivation, calm under pressure, ability to communicate at various levels of an organization

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