Some applicants have this idea that if they can just get their company CEO, whom they have never met, to write their business school recommendation, then the admissions committee will be in awe and immediately accept them. But this is really not the case. You want your letters of recommendation to stand out, and to make admissions committees sit up and take notice. At Accepted, we always tell our clients that letters really only stand out (in a good way, at least) if the person who writes your recommendation knows you well and is able to speak honesty. This is why we also suggest to our clients to waive their right to access the recommendations. The waiver makes the recommendations more credible to the admissions committee.
What are Some Elements of a BAD Letter of Recommendation?
Before we look at what makes an excellent recommendation, let’s consider what makes a bad one. A bad LOR is one that is:
- Written by someone that does not know you well (like a CEO),
- Full of assertions about what a good person you are, but gives no evidence to back up those assertions, and/or,
- A generic write-up full of platitudes that does not seem genuine.
If your recommender doesn’t know you well, they’ll be more likely to write generic letters that lack details about your professional achievements and wonderful personality.
What are Some Elements of an AMAZING Letter of Recommendation?
A great recommendation, on the other hand…
- Is written by someone who knows your work very well,
- Includes examples of impressive contributions that provide evidence of your leadership skill, teamwork ability, and business acumen, and,
- Incorporates great stories of your work that you had completely forgotten or taken for granted.
These recommenders write about what’s important to them, and therefore give great third-person points of view about your candidacy to the admissions committee, which is exactly what the committee wants.
The Who, When, What, Where, and How of Scoring an Excellent Recommendation
Who are the best people to address the questions the schools are asking? Who are the best people to affirm what you say and also add information that you don’t have the chance to include in your application essays?
Your recommender should be a supervisor, a colleague, or a client. Be sure that you have developed a strong relationship with your recommender prior to “the ask.” Don’t choose someone who simply has a big title or happens to be an alumnus at the school, thinking that this will carry weight with the admissions committee, because in our experience reviewing these types of letters, that person will likely write something generic that will not help you.
Also, try to select a range of recommenders – ones who have seen you in different situations – so that they don’t all end up saying the same things about you or using the same stories. For example, choosing your supervisor and that person’s supervisor is rarely a good strategy, because they’ve seen you work on the same projects from the same point of view. The admissions committee wants views of you from different angles; they don’t want the same point of view given two or three times.
When should you ask your recommender to write your letter of recommendation? You should make your request at least six weeks prior to your anticipated date of submission. Everyone will face delays, so allow for them. Six weeks should give your recommender enough time to:
- Review your preparation materials (see What? below)
- Meet with you for the request (in person if possible)
- Meet again to give the packet of information that you will provide (see What? below)
- Meet again to ask any questions they may have for you
What the recommender submits should be on the unique e-form each school provides the recommender and needs to answer the questions each school asks. You will add the recommenders’ contact information on your application, and the school will send your recommender a link. Many of these documents can be written in Word and then uploaded.
Regardless of how the letter is delivered, you need to give your recommender a packet of information to use to help them answer the questions. Often the questions will ask about your leadership in relation to your peers or when your recommender offered you criticism and how you received it. The latter question has been problematic for many recommenders. We suggest that the recommender think about the question in a different way: rather than thinking about a weakness, think about the time the recommender “offered the candidate advice and how the candidate acted on that advice.”
Your recommender may ask you to write the letter, and they’ll sign it when you’re done. Put aside the likelihood that the admissions committee will recognize your writing style and discount the recommendation accordingly; the problem is that if you write your own recommendation, you’ll just write things you already know about yourself, or repeat things from your essays, and it’s a recommendation that brings out new things about you that works well. You need to stand your ground and say, “the school really wants your honest perspective, and I would be so grateful to you for your original work.”
However, you can coach your recommender by providing the following:
- A list of the schools you are applying to and why
- A copy of your resume
- Your goal statement
- Additional items you want your recommender to cover, like achievements or items you can’t cover in your essays but that the recommender can elaborate on
- A request to highlight achievements that may counteract a negative – like your communication skills if you have a low verbal score or a quantitative achievement if you have a low quant score
All of the statements a recommender makes should be backed up with evidence (a story) to make it more interesting and hammer home the point of the recommendation.
Many recommendations also offer grids where the recommender ranks the applicant in different areas. Your recommender should be honest.
Where your recommender writes the recommendation is only important in that it is in a quiet place, with at least an hour to dedicate to it. If your recommender says they don’t have the time to write the recommendation, try booking a one-hour appointment with them (after you’ve given them the packet of materials needed to write the recommendation) and then tell the recommender you’d like them to use this hour to write the recommendation.
How does your potential recommender respond to your request for a recommendation? If they say that they can’t write a strong letter for you, you need to find another recommender. If they enthusiastically say “yes!” you’ve got a winner.
Do you or your recommender need advice? Accepted’s LOR services aim to guide both the applicant and the recommender to create the strongest possible letter of recommendation for your target program. View Accepted’s Letter of Recommendation Services for more information.
Linda Abraham is the founder of Accepted, the premier admissions consultancy. She has coached MBA applicants to acceptance for over 20 years. The Wall Street Journal, US News, and Poets & Quants are among the media outlets that seek her admissions expertise