Diaries of a Dark Horse: Subtle Art Of Choosing Recommenders

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Ben Fouch, an aspiring member of the MBA Class of 2021, will be documenting his journey as an applicant every other week in his “Diaries of a Darkhorse” column. He works on the corporate development team at Booz Allen Hamilton on the sourcing, valuing, and structuring of potential M&A deals., Among his target schools is Harvard Business School. He was also a 2017 Best & Brightest business major with Poets&Quants.

As we move through August, my feelings about the first round admissions deadline are pretty accurately summed up by the title of a Queen song: “Under Pressure.”

I’ve been spending hours brainstorming, tweaking, polishing, rewording, and restarting every piece of my application. My hope is that the pressure makes a diamond. Creating a cohesive story about my life goals is hard enough, but knowing that the final product is my only audition for the admissions committees makes it even tougher.

Think orchestrating the different parts of your application so they coherently tell your story is stressful? It gets more complicated when you realize that this audition is not a solo; it’s a group performance! While your letters of recommendation come from others, they can be a deciding factor in how your application is received. While I’ve been told that I have a voice for singing like Van Gogh has an ear for music, even I recognize that – with any group audition – getting the recommender and applicant voices in harmony is critically important.  We do that by picking the best performers and giving them great guidance.

Typically, the two recommenders are required by programs. The first normally comes from a direct supervisor. When I was reflecting on who to ask, my priority was finding someone who could speak with clarity and conviction about my candidacy. This person would be able to state those qualities that made me a good applicant, and then back them up with concrete examples of when I displayed those qualities. The direct supervisor I asked had not seen the majority of my work, which involved firm-wide recruiting, but he did collaborate with me on one of my passion projects. He knew about my professional goals, and his conviction came from buying into that professional vision.

The second letter gave me quite a bit of trouble. With one recommender already slated to write about my technical proficiency and general attitude, I knew that the second recommender, an administrator at my alma mater, would ideally talk about a dimension of my application that I hadn’t fleshed out yet. Being 24, I wanted someone who could convince the admissions committees that I wanted to go for reasons other than to relive the glory of my college intramural sports days. My second recommender had known me since interviewing me during my senior year of high school, and had served as my mentor through all my growth since.

Benjamin Fouch

I picked my dream team for the audition, and next came guidance. Immediately after the notifications were sent out by my target schools, I followed up with my recommenders with an email. In that email I provided a two-page summary of my application. The first page was my resume. The second outlined my background outside of work, reasoning for pursuing an MBA, post-graduation plans, and several key themes that I was emphasizing in my essays and application. Obviously, recommender has their own perspective, and giving them these materials gave them the ammunition they needed to back up their claims.

Giving materials like these has made it much easier for my recommenders to harmonize their voice in with mine. It makes it much more likely that their contribution will strike a chord with the admissions committee. Telling a recommender what to write would be unethical and poorly received, but giving them context around what you are doing and why helps them make an informed decisions on what they want to share. While both recommenders have said yes and submitted their materials, I don’t know what they wrote. Yet I can rest easy knowing that they were the right people, given they had the right tools for the job.

Originally from Indiana, Ben graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Finance and Political Science. While at Notre Dame he co-founded Dark Horse Sports Recruiting, an undergraduate academic and athletic admissions consulting service. He enjoys baking, dad jokes, alternative history novels, and obstacle course races.



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