Why MBAs Are Writing Their Own Recs

Chioma Isiadinso is the CEO of MBA consultancy Expartus

Chioma Isiadinso is the CEO of MBA consultancy Expartus

Harvard Business School and Stanford Graduate School of Business have introduced a shorter version of the common form by defining a common set of recommendation questions. The schools tend to attract the same applicants and assumed the questions would cut down on time and boost quality, according to Lizabeth Cutler, Stanford’s associate director of MBA admissions.

“Individuals who were asked to write references to multiple schools expressed increasing fatigue. We were concerned that we might receive weaker letters overall because of the extra time and stress on recommenders,” she says. “We at Stanford think it’s the closest business schools may get to a common application.”

Even so, Harvard and Stanford still maintain their own recommendation grids, where applicants are ranked on personal qualities and skills. Interestingly, the business schools at the University of Virginia and Yale University have adopted Stanford’s grid.


Common application advocates argue that the partnerships should go further – to all B-schools – and point to law school and undergraduate universities as a prime example. “We had a panel of admissions officers who said it would be impossible to create a common form, and I twitched a little bit in my seat,” Ivey says. “Colleges and law schools have been able to come together. I understand it might be difficult, but it’s not impossible.”

And some B-schools have adopted a different approach, reducing the number of recommendations required for admission. Harvard this year dropped the number of required letters to two from three. Candidates to UCLA’s Anderson School of Management now need to secure only one recommendation. Explains Craig Hubell, operations director for Anderson’s MBA admissions, “It can be quite agonizing for applicants to figure out who the second recommender should be, so we said, ‘Let’s just make it easier for everybody.’ Very rarely would that second recommendation make a difference in the decision process.”

Consultants have also called for clear wording on the application that requires recommenders to write their own letters. Ostensibly, candidates could use the written rule as leverage when their recommender pushes back. “You’re not peers – it’s not an equal relationship, and you, as the applicant, can’t tell your boss what to do, so even a statement to that effect would give the applicants more cover,” Ivey says.

Other than Stanford, few B-schools have such a statement. “There is an element of people writing their own recommendations, but we don’t feel like it’s something we can control, so we don’t want to make a big legal thing about it,” Hubell says. “We would like to think that our applicants are honorable and understand that the intent of the recommendation is to get a third party’s view.”

Besides, a candidate’s chance to write his or her own recommendation letter isn’t always a golden ticket. Many applicants choke when they write about themselves or use phrasing that overlaps their essays – a dead giveaway.  Nor is it a new phenomenon. “It’s not as if in 2013 recommenders started asking applicants to write their own recommendations,” says Isiadinso. “This survey is simply bringing it to light.”

DON’T MISS: Wrangling Great Recommendations or Getting That MBA Recommendation From Your Boss or Getting Killer Rec Letters



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