Recommendations: Does Prestige Matter?


Mistake #1: Going for a very senior recommender who actually doesn’t know the candidate very well. As admissions directors, we often saw these recommendations from CEO types who write a few general phrases about their positive impressions of the candidate. Now this is the point that we made at the start, but we see it made so often that we thought we would repeat it, and make it the first on our list.

Mistake #2: Getting someone who clearly can’t have an objective opinion about you to write your recommendation letter. This sometimes happens with applicants working in a family business, whose parent or other family member is unable to separate a professional assessment from a close family tie. We have seen a letter of support from a wife – very sweet, but it just raised a smile, and carried no weight.

Mistake #3: Try to avoid asking for academic references, unless you are in a doctoral program; the admissions committee has other ways to assess your classroom performance, and is more interested in learning from your recommenders how you engage and contribute in the workplace. While a recommendation from a college professor might be suitable for those applying for the HBS 2+2 or similar applications aimed at seniors, it is clear from the questions asked by business schools that once you have started work, it is better not to approach a professor from college for one of your recommendations. Though well-placed to describe academic achievement and class participation, they would struggle to describe your potential for senior management.

Mistake #4: Assuming that your recommender can turn the letter around in a week, or over a holiday break.  You want to give them plenty of lead time, with subsequent gentle reminders about the deadline. You will also want to get recommendations wrapped up before any long planned vacations such as the end of the year prior to Round 2, so that you know that the letter is completed by the deadline. Our admissions teams often received panicked phone calls from candidates who realized that one of their recommenders would not be able to submit on time. This hardly makes a good first impression.

Mistake #5: Going back several years for both references. Very old recommendations can seriously undermine a candidate’s credibility, so it is better if both letters relate to the most recent three years. We have seen applications where both recommendations go back to jobs the candidate held four or more years ago. This raises serious red flags about the candidate’s more recent performance, unless there is a really good explanation.

Mistake #6: Writing your own recommendation. Not infrequently, the recommender will ask the candidate to write the recommendation him/herself and send it through for sign off. Avoid this if at all possible. Firstly, it contravenes the schools’ requirements. Secondly, file readers are expert at spotting recommendations that don’t quite ring true, and can identify through parallels in the style when they have been written by the same person as the essays. Suggest instead that you send them some suggestions of points to cover, which they then can elaborate on and write up in their own words.

The preferred letter of recommendation is typically from your immediate boss, the person you work with on a daily basis. Now he or she may be the last person you intended to share your business school plans with, particularly if you have not been very long in the position. And as Dee Leopold, the director of MBA Admissions at Harvard Business School explains in her blog, a person should not jeopardize his or her employment in order to secure a recommendation from a current employer. Nevertheless, by asking your immediate supervisor you are also making a clear statement to the school about how committed you are to the MBA project.


Tip #1: Recommendations really matter. No matter how much effort you put into your own essays, schools really value the input of a third party whose hierarchical position in relation to you gives them a depth of perspective on your performance. So nurture this relationship, and take the time over lunch or a pre-scheduled phone call to provide a context for your decision to go to business school, your post-MBA plans, and what you yourself will be focusing on in your applications.

Tip #2: Think strategically about your recommenders and the timing of your application. If you have only known your current boss for three or four months, but are developing a great working relationship and have exciting projects on the horizon that he or she could refer to in the recommendation, weigh the advantages of deferring your applications to Round 2 to be able to include this great material.

Tip #3: The recommendation should support the application. So you want the strengths and the achievements that you highlight to be supported by the recommenders, or at least ring true with what they say about you. What they say should give greater credibility to what you say about yourself. But be careful not to have too much overlap – they should be complementary, not duplicative.  To this end you should share at least bullet points or drafts of your essays with your recommendation writers so that they can understand your point of view.

Tip #4: Try to pick two recommenders who can speak to different aspects of your experience. For example, your current boss and your previous boss at your last employer; your boss and a client; your boss and an investor in your entrepreneurial side venture. A letter from a client or a supplier can carry a lot of weight, and complement the perspectives shared by your supervisor.

Tip #5: Provide a retrospective of your performance. Recommenders tend to focus on what they remember most easily, for example, their more recent interactions with the candidate. So you might want to discuss with them some examples of what you did previously so the recommender could draw on your earlier achievements in their letter of support. For a manager responsible for a large team, it can be hard to remember what a subordinate did 18 months ago and exactly what his or her contribution was to a project. Your professional history may be branded on your memory, but don’t assume that your recommender will recall things so clearly.  You should take some time to assemble a file that will jog the memory of the recommendation writer and include relevant details.

Tip #6: Keep recommenders informed of your application progress – for example if you secure an interview. Gaining admission at a leading business school is notoriously competitive, and if things don’t work out with the two or three schools you applied to in Round 1 you will need to approach them for additional letters for Round 2. If they feel involved and truly supportive they are more than likely to support you throughout the entire process.

And irrespective of the outcome, remember to thank them for their support and to follow-up. Do make sure your recommenders feel that their efforts on your behalf were truly appreciated. A handwritten note to express your thanks is a nice touch in this digital age.

Judith Silverman Hodara and Caroline Diarte Edwards, Co-Directors at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Directors of MBA Admissions at Wharton and INSEAD respectively. Fortuna is composed of former Directors and Associate Directors of Admissions at many of the world’s best business schools, including Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, London Business School, Chicago Booth, NYU Stern, IE Business School, Northwestern Kellogg, and UC Berkeley Haas. This is the fifth in a series of myth buster articles on admissions.


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