The recommenders raved about the candidate’s leadership abilities and team skills. They praised his initiative, curiosity and motivations. And they did so in unusually detailed anecdotes that allowed the applicant to come alive.
Problem was, his recommenders had never written the highly favorable words. Instead, the letters were crafted by the applicant himself.
Christopher, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, makes no apologies for writing his own recommendations nor does he believe that a school can do much about it.
‘WHO’S GOING TO KNOW?’
“Who’s going to know?” asks Christopher, who recently graduated from one of the top three business schools in the U.S. “With the number of applications coming in, schools aren’t going to compare writing styles between the recommendation letters and the applications. Obviously if they did that, I wouldn’t have been in business school.”
Christopher’s handiwork is not an isolated case. A recently published survey by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) found that 38% of applicants were asked to write their own recommendation letters. Most admission consultants, however, believe the number is much higher–with as many as six of ten letters being written by MBA applicants.
Still, even the survey results surprised many admission directors because they believed their schools were getting fairly candid, third party assessments of MBA candidates. “We were aware of the fact that some applicants are asked to write their own recommendations, but I wouldn’t have guessed it would be that high,” says Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “I really rely on the recommendation because I see it as an objective form of information. I don’t have a problem with a student sitting down and talking to a recommender, but I am trying to wrap my head around the authenticity of the recommendations now.”
‘NOBODY IS BEING REALLY TRUTHFUL ABOUT IT’
Authenticity in a recommendation letter, however, may be fairly elusive, according to several MBA applicants and admission consultants. “Business school applicants are often told by recommenders, ‘You write it, and I’ll sign it,’” concedes Adam Hoff, of Amerasia Consulting Group . “Nobody is being really truthful about it. When I first got involved in the business school arena four years ago, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the number of people who were writing their own letters of recommendation and who then brought the letters back to a consultant to help them with it.”
Christopher, who asked that his alma mater not be named because “if they found out, there would be a witch hunt,” explains that his direct supervisor was not fluent in English. “He had no clue how to construct a recommendation letter,” he says in defense of his actions. “Because of that, I wrote the letter in proper English and made it sound like I’m a good employee, which I am. I didn’t embellish, and he was fine with it.”
The employer signed off on the letter. But many recommendations don’t even gain this actual stamp of approval. Some MBAs write, sign and send off their own references. “An MBA’s motive is to get into school, and they don’t want that left to someone’s whimsical evaluation,” Christopher explains. “If you messed up at work the day before, then it’s not going to be good — especially if they mail it themselves, and you don’t know what they’ve said.”
WRITING A RECOMMENDATION LETTER IS ‘LIKE JURY DUTY’ TO MOST BOSSES
In general, of course, getting a strong letter in support of a candidate’s MBA application is a highly collaborative process. “People don’t like to write recommendations,” says Sanford Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com, a prominent admissions consultant. “It’s kind of like jury duty. No one wants to do it. It’s imposed on you. There is nothing in it for them. Collaboration is the standard. They say, ‘Why don’t you write something up and show it to me. Or give me an outline of what you’ve done.’ My recommendation is to collaborate and to dominate while being diplomatic.”
The extent to which admission consultants advise their clients on recommendation letters may also surprise some school officials. Kreisberg says he pays as much attention to the quality of a recommendation letter as he does to the application essays. “I get to see recommendation letters all the time and 150% of the time I recommend changes,” he maintains. “It’s one of the reasons an applicant should hire me. Recommendations can sink you. It’s super important. I give it as much attention as the essays.”
Sometimes, consultants say, applicants could have a “weak relationship” with a recommender who just wants to rubber stamp a reference written by the applicant. “If the recommender is inflexible on this issue, then we help the client craft the letter,” says Avi Lidgi, founder of Twainstein, a Los Angeles-based admissions consulting firm. “I can tell you , as a result of my experience, that no matter how hard we try to make the letter fair, balanced and flattering, using all the tricks at our disposal to capture the recommender’s voice, in almost all cases it costs the applicant an acceptance. Why? I’m not sure. I can only say that there is just no substitute for a heartfelt letter of endorsement by someone with intimate knowledge of the applicant.”