How To Solve The MBA Rec Letter Sham

taking notesWe are deep into the Round Two MBA admissions process and many applicants will be working feverishly into the holiday period to finish those last essays, resumes and yes, letters of recommendation.  Not long ago, I was very surprised to read that a prominent business school admissions director had no clue that many MBAs have actually written their own reference letters.

Talk to leading admissions consultants and we will all report that even clients with impressively solid personal character are often put into this unavoidable situation. As Woody Allen declared in his 1970s film Bananas, “it’s a travesty of a mockery of a sham.” It is indeed a sham to ask applicants to get as many as five to eight different letters from extremely busy bosses. So admissions officers, give a holiday gift to next year’s MBA hopefuls: Solve this problem.

Overall, I would estimate that 25-30% of my clients are asked to write drafts themselves by their chosen references. I run a boutique shop, so my sample size may not be fully representative, but even this rate of questionable behavior amongst applicants is reason enough to make effective changes. International applicants are often asked to draft their letters because overseas superiors are not used to the American style of excessive feedback, and they may feel uncomfortable and intimidated with the requirements. Industries like accounting, engineering and science research don’t employ as many MBAs, and so these bosses tend to have less “feel” for the process.


These writers, fairly or not, often believe they are not going to do a solid job or simply don’t understand how important it is to get a dynamic reference. And yes, at times bosses who have been less recent tend to opt out of the actual writing. Even some applicants coming from the MBA concentrated finance industry are told by their superiors that the burden is just too great, so “please write it and I will sign it.”  I’ve even seen clients getting into the coveted Harvard Business School 2+2 program having to deal with this predicament of “to write or not to write” as 21-year-olds.

So, as my HBS professors used to say, what is the POA (plan of action)?  Some have called for a common recommendation form, and this is a no brainer. Although I can guess that some schools will say that they simply must extract specific information that is more relevant to “their culture” and unique selection process, an impartial analysis of most rec forms shows they directionally have the very same prompts. All MBA programs are trying to understand the context of the relationship, the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, impact on the firm, communication and interpersonal skills, and the applicant’s fit for senior management. But the schools will ask all this in a slightly unique way, with different enough requirements to necessitate original drafts.

Why not have one required reference, and the second one be optional? UCLA has gone to one rec and I assume they made the change with all this in mind. It is often with a second reference where the applicant is calling upon a less than optimal choice to help. And at times this person only agrees with the stipulation that he or she not have to write it.


Why not also have a video option that could be done once and sent around to the different schools? This may reduce the workload and increase the comfort of some tech savvy references. Of course, many may not want to be on camera, but applicants are also increasingly being asked to present themselves with short video requirements. At least adcoms can be sure that the rec was done ethically.

Why not also share actual reference samples so writers can get more comfortable with the quality expectations? This may decrease anxiety and yield more true drafts.

Well, it’s too late for the adcoms to give these types of holiday gifts this year to all of you MBA applicants, but I will share a few ideas with applicants that may help. First, prepare a word doc for your writers with reference deadlines, examples of leadership accomplishments, a potential weakness to cover (that is not too damaging nor too immaterial), strengths backed up with examples. In other words, help jog their memories and provide some potential content. Provide this preparatory document weeks ahead of the deadlines and not days. Second, ask your MBA friends or admissions consultants for an actual sample to share with your writers. This can increase the likelihood that you won’t get stuck writing the rec yourself. And believe me, I can generally tell when a client has gone at it alone.

Of course, if all else fails, try another mockery of a sham. Tell your references that you’ve heard a rumor that adcoms are using pattern recognition software to discern if the essay writer also wrote the recs. This will surely guilt your references into writing all seven recommendations. All joking aside, if MBA programs really did use this type of software, what they learn could be a real shocker.

Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

Alex Leventhal of Prep MBA Admissions Consulting

Alex Leventhal is the founder of Prep MBA, an admissions consulting firm. Leventhal, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1998, had worked as a management consultant and held various vice president of marketing positions working for such companies as Johnson & Johnson and Siebel Systems. He has been an MBA admissions consultant since 2005.


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