Other consultants confirm their involvement in the process, even when the letters aren’t drafted by an MBA applicant. “It’s an open secret in the admissions world that a lot of candidates get to look at their recommendation letters beforehand,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, a major MBA admissions consulting firm. ”We’re not going to sit there and line edit something, but we will do a sanity check to make sure there’s nothing in there that can be harmful.”
While the AIGAC survey doesn’t dig into exactly how many students actually do write their own letters, the percentage is likely high, believes Anna Ivey, founder of Anna Ivey Consulting and AIGAC president. Candidates are generally expected to request letters from their direct supervisors, but if the boss pushes back or refuses to write one, things can get tricky.
“Even applicants trying to act ethically find themselves in this bind,” she says. Some schools suggest contacting an extracurricular supervisor in lieu of a reluctant boss. “So if they’re leading a Boy Scout troop on the weekends, are they supposed to use their scout leader’s recommendation instead?” Ivey asks. “Realistically, I don’t think that’s the answer.”
NON-U.S. APPLICANTS ARE TWICE AS LIKELY TO BE ASKED TO WRITE RECS
Letter writing can be particularly problematic for non-U.S. candidates. The study, based on 377 responses from MBA applicants, found that international candidates are twice as likely to be asked to write their own letters. A whopping 61% of applicants in Japan, for example, said they were asked to draft their own letters of recommendation.
Even if international recommenders are fluent in English, the art of writing a solid recommendation letter can be lost in translation. Different cultures value different traits and this comes through in the letters, says Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of MBA consultancy Expartus and AIGAC board member. “American recommendations are a bit over the top – everyone is brilliant, amazing and incredible. German ones tend to be very direct, ‘Hans did a good a job.'” However, she says most admissions teams can pick up on cultural nuances. And part of the responsibility falls on the applicants to educate their recommenders about each school’s values and why they’re a good fit.
The pressure on MBAs to write their own recommendation letters also varies by industry. Half of the MBA applicants with finance or accounting backgrounds were asked to write their own letters, compared with only 28% in technology. “You’d think it’d be an employer in a small rural town somewhere, but more often than not, it’s the consultants at top-tier firms or bankers or private equity professionals – it’s part of the culture,” says Isiadinso, who had once been an admissions official Harvard Business School. “The applicant is in a very awkward situation, because there’s a perception in the marketplace that it’s okay.”
MEN ARE ALSO MORE LIKELY THAN WOMEN TO BE ASKED TO WRITE THEIR OWN REFERENCES
Men (43%) are also significantly more likely to be asked to draft their own recommendations than women (27%). These results beg for more research, and Ivey says the next AIGAC survey will likely dive further into the gender dynamics. “I think this is fascinating stuff that speaks to the workplace, culture and gender wars,” she says.
For the most part, business schools are reluctant to admit there’s a problem. Some admissions professionals claim they didn’t know it was happening, a position that admissions consultants find hard to believe. “That’s pretty naïve. Unfortunately, this is further proof that these people exclusively live on Planet Adcom or pretend to,” quips Kreisberg. “This could be a Casablanca moment when everyone is shocked that people are gambling.”
Even among schools that acknowledge the issue, most would be hard pressed to take action. “It definitely happens and the survey proves it,” says Alex Kleiner, a second-year MBA student at Harvard Business School. “It’s something I would never feel comfortable doing. But if you’re an admissions director, I don’t really know how you combat that. You could be more explicit and say, ‘If we find out your application will be rejected automatically. Other than being really tough, I don’t think you can stop it.”
IF SCHOOLS COULD TRACK IT DOWN, ‘THEY WOULD HAVE TO EXPEL A PRETTY SIZABLE CHUNK OF THE CLASS’
A more pragmatic reason for looking the other way is also possible. “If a school started to go and figure out who wrote their own letters, they would have to expel a pretty sizable chunk of the class, and I don’t know that schools want to get into that,” Isiadinso says. Instead, many schools prefer to push it under the rug. This don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach applies to students, too. The former MBA student says the motivation for silence is obvious: “You could be tossed out for academic dishonesty. Once you’re in, nobody cares.”
However, consultants and some top B-schools are toying around with ideas to curb self-written recommendations. Stanford already makes it explicitly clear that “drafting or writing your own letter of reference, even if asked to do so by your recommender, is improper and a violation of the terms of the application process.”
Consultant Ivey proposes a common reference application, which could significantly cut the workload for recommenders, making them less likely to push the letter back on MBAs. “Some recommenders have to write more words than the applicants’ essays. If you multiply that times three, four, five, it’s as if the recommender is applying to business school,” she says. “That’s asking too much.”