Tuck: Write Your Rec Letter & Face Expulsion

Tuck's Patricia Harrison

Tuck’s Patricia Harrison

Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business reminded MBA applicants yesterday (July 30) that if they prepare a draft for a recommender who agrees to sign the letter it is a violation of the school’s academic honor principle and could result in a claw back of an admission offer. If the school discovers it after a candidate is already enrolled at Tuck, the school said it could spell the termination of a student’s enrollment.

The tough talk by Patricia Harrison, a senior associate director of evaluation in Tuck’s admissions office, came in the form of a blog post that offered candidates some very good advice on the recommendation process. The warning addresses concerns that a significant percentage of business school applicants are being asked by their recommenders to write the letters for them. Last year, for example, a 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.

The survey finding surprised many B-school admission officials, including Tuck Director of Admissions Dawna Clarke. When the poll came out, Clarke told Poets&Quants:  “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.”


The school’s concern apparently led to the warning by one of Clarke’s admissions officers. “Occasionally, we will hear that a recommender asks the applicant to prepare a draft, or even write the letter for them and they will sign their name to it,” wrote Harrison. “If this request is made of you, you should decline.  Doing so is a violation of the terms of our application process and Tuck’s Academic Honor Principle and could result in rescission of an offer of admission or termination of a student’s enrollment.”

Harrison said it is perfectly appropriate to coach a recommender, but it’s not okay to cross the line and write the actual document the person will submit to Tuck on one’s behalf. “Once you have selected who will write your recommendations, take some time to help prepare them,” she said. “It should go without saying, be sure to give your recommender plenty of time to complete the letter by the deadline.  Then, sit down with them to talk about your goals and reasons for getting an MBA.  Spend some time reminding them of your recent performance reviews, and talk about your significant accomplishments.  This will help them write a more compelling evaluation because they will have specific examples to use in support of their comments. Now, I am NOT saying that you should tell your recommender what to say.  We want an honest and independent assessment of your skills.”

Otherwise, Harrison dispensed what many applicants are likely to find valuable advice on how to deal with recommendation letters, including how to pick the best recommender and how to cope with worries that a supervisor will react negatively if he or she knows an employee is applying to an MBA program. She also provided answers to the most  common questions applicants ask Tuck about the recommendation letter requirement.


“Letters of recommendation,” Harrison noted, “help provide us with additional insight into your career accomplishments, as well as your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. The recommendation is the only part of the application not completed by the applicant themselves.  Because the applicant isn’t writing the recommendation, sometimes they think that they don’t have much influence over it.  This isn’t true.  By picking the best recommenders to make your case, you can have a lot of impact.”

Regarding who to pick to write a letter on an applicant’s behalf, she said that typically Tuck prefers to see recommendations from a candidate’s professional experience and from a direct supervisor.  “Someone who has worked with you closely and can really speak to your work experience, leadership, maturity, team orientation, communication skills, intellectual ability and interpersonal skills in detail and with supporting anecdotes is ideal,” wrote Harrison. ” We are not swayed by a recommender’s title.  A brief, generic letter from the CEO who hasn’t worked with you closely won’t have nearly as much impact as a thoughtful discussion of your performance from a middle manager.”

One of the most common questions Tuck gets from applicants, she said, is ‘I don’t want my supervisor to know I am applying to business school.  What should I do?’ “Applicants fear telling their supervisor will impact their job security or potential bonuses,” she said. “My first answer is not to worry, we see this frequently.  If you are not providing a recommendation from your current supervisor, you should include an optional essay explaining the situation; otherwise, we may make a negative assumption you don’t have a good working relationship with him/her.  Next, you should choose someone else who can provide good insight.  Some suggestions are: a former supervisor; a co-worker who you don’t report to, but who is senior to you; or a client.  If you have extensive involvement with an extracurricular organization someone in a senior role there can be another good option.  Also, these are all good options for your second recommender since you need to provide us with two.”

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