Wrangling Great Recommendations

Try it with a bullet point from your own resume:



Tangible, measurable results:


Demonstrated leadership traits:


Admissions committees do not want to read just what the recommender thinks are your latest and greatest accomplishments. They are interested also in your teamwork skills, many of which don’t show up on your resume. If you have a specific teamwork story that you want your recommender to recount, that makes their job easy. However, if you are just talking about a day-to-day trait such as being responsible, helpful, and industrious, try the model below.

Situation:  One of five members an equity research team

Personal/professional qualities:  industrious, responsible, helpful, steps up, eye on the bottom line

Example: Carried weight as a full, senior team member even when junior (e.g., wrote monthly portfolio reports for investors, performed macroeconomic research), mentored and brought up to speed newer team members, got along with everyone (unusual in our industry), helped others meet their deadlines (e.g., when team member Matthew was out of the country, candidate single-handedly put together a pitch for institutional business, which brought in $X million in assets to the fund)

Now it’s your turn.


Personal/professional qualities:



Face it — no one wants to write about their weaknesses, and most people do a terrible job of it. You can relieve your recommenders of this odious duty by giving them real, sensible examples of areas where you know you need work or have already made some healthy changes. You can pull from previous performance reviews of that may have asked for your “areas of development.”  Try to be genuine on this one.  It will go a long way.

Remember, when you talk about weaknesses, awareness isn’t quite enough; you need some action to prove that you are taking steps to improve.

Here are some examples of weaknesses you may be willing to let other people talk about:

Sample weakness Sample awareness or action to improve
Too quiet in group discussions Starting to speak up more (give example), started going to Toastmasters for public speaking training
Avoids conflict Give example of being able to talk through a solution when she disagreed with someone on her team
Not diplomatic; too opinionated Took a workshop on giving and receiving feedback, resulted in a more mature presence on the team
Missed a number of important deadlines Time management training, or example of new pattern of successful on-time delivery of projects


Now you try.


When it didn’t work:


Awareness or indication of improvement:

If this all seems like a tremendous amount of work, you’re right. Remember, you are asking someone to go to bat for you. This isn’t part of their job. You want them to feel enthusiastic and invested in your future. The best way to do that is to manage your recommender as if you were managing the most important project in your career. How you choose to manage this part of the process is entirely up to you.

Betsy Massar is founder of Master Admissions and author of Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting Into a Top MBA Program.


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