Your letters of recommendation offer business schools a third-party perspective on your leadership and management potential, teamwork abilities, interpersonal skills, and readiness and fit for their program. Since your recommenders will provide the MBA admissions office with valuable insight to into how you’re viewed by others, the people you select to be your outspoken champions – and the enthusiasm, thoroughness and strength of their recommendations – are an essential element of your overall narrative.
As former Associate Director of Admissions for UCLA Anderson, and in my current role at Fortuna Admissions, I’ve read thousands of letters of recommendation and I can assure you that a thoughtfully written one can tip the balance in an applicant’s candidacy. Many of these first-hand testimonials offered the puzzle piece that confirmed a candidate’s excellent fit, while other letters disappointed with lack of detail or banal platitudes that did little to enhance an applicant’s file. Too often, it was as simple as not having enough detail, not the right examples, or not substantively backing up the strengths and abilities the candidate mentions themselves.
So who should you ask? And what can you do to ensure the best possible letter of recommendation?
Here are five top tips on securing stellar letters of recommendation for your MBA application:
# 1. First and foremost, choose someone who knows you well.
Your recommender should speak to the high quality of your work, your achievements and specific accomplishments, and your potential to do well in business school and beyond. Make sure that your recommender is someone who will take the time to write a supportive and thorough letter, detailing examples that speak to your leadership, teamwork and presentation skills. Ideally, this person is a direct supervisor. But if you can’t ask your supervisor, look for someone you’ve worked for in the recent past with insight into your strengths, qualities and potential. This might be an indirect supervisor – someone who has overseen a project you’ve contributed to, a manager from another department, or a client (especially if you’re self-employed). Alternately, someone you worked with outside of your regular job where you made a significant impact (such as working pro bono or on a volunteer project) can also bring a great perspective into your application. Such insight can really drive home the fact that you’ll be a great contributor to the community during your time in business school.
#2. Don’t get hung up on titles.
It’s a mistake, for example, to push for a recommendation from the company CEO you’ve never worked with – even if she knows your name and thinks you do good work. While those individuals might write a positive recommendation, their letters tend to be skew generic. If you truly work closely with the CEO or a C-suite executive, of course it’s a fantastic person to ask, but if that person can’t discuss your strengths and potential in any depth, or provide specific illustrations of your performance, go with somebody else who can. Business schools aren’t impressed by big names or fancy titles when it’s obvious that you haven’t worked together closely.
#3. Read the instructions.
Some programs specify a request for letters from current supervisors, or someone who has known you for more or less than a certain number of years. So make sure you’re selecting recommenders that the schools are looking for, and read their instructions carefully, as the nuance varies from school to school.
#4. Once you select your recommenders, sit down and coach them.
They may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your recommenders know exactly what they need to do. Prepare them by walking through the process, emphasizing the importance of details, depth, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. This doesn’t mean telling them what to write – you want you recommender’s voice and authenticity to come through in the responses. But you also don’t want them to dive in blindly – especially if they’re unfamiliar with what writing MBA recommendation letters entail. It’s easy to assume writing enthusiastic yet generic phrases like “Sally is the top performer on my team” is enough. Business schools want more substance, with stories that really back up the fact that you’re an amazing person and stellar employee with enormous potential to succeed.
Be sure to meet with your recommenders, walking them through your resume and refreshing their memories on your accomplishments and ways you’ve demonstrated excellence. (Don’t assume they’ll just remember every time you did a good job, everyone is busy.) Be sure to share your goals and how business school will help you get there. Having this discussion is critical to ensuring coherence and consistency across your application. The added benefit is that kind of dialogue may elicit insights from your recommender that you haven’t considered about how they perceive your abilities, or how you’ve contributed on a team or project, offering perspectives you may not have thought of yourself.
#5. Keep in touch regularly.
Stay in contact with your recommenders in the coming weeks by maintaining consistent communication, checking in to ensure they’re aware of upcoming deadlines, especially entering the end-of-year holidays. Everyone is juggling competing commitments as the new year approaches, so you’ll want to stay front of mind (without becoming a pest!).
Finally, no matter the outcome, follow up with your recommender with a sincere and timely appreciation of their support. They’ll want to celebrate with you if you’re accepted, and if not, you’ll want to secure their continued support if you choose to reapply.
Jessica Chung is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director of Admissions at UCLA Anderson. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 12 of the top 15 business schools.