If you’re setting your sights on both Harvard Business School and Stanford GSB, you wouldn’t be the first. They are indisputably the two most exclusive business schools in the world, with admit rates of 11% (HBS) and 6% (GSB) in 2017. Both schools are sleuthing for a habit of leadership and a track record of positive impact that demonstrates your future leadership potential. Since your letters of recommendation are the only part of your MBA application not written by you, they can tip the balance in your candidacy. That’s why a key element of your strategic positioning must be your recommenders.
Last week, Stanford GSB Admissions Director Kirsten Moss put a fine point on having a well-tuned recommender strategy during a panel discussion of Admissions Directors at the CentreCourt MBA Festival in San Francisco. “Recommendations are particularly important – it’s one time we can get someone’s outside opinion looking in, other than your own, of what you’ve actually accomplished,” says Moss (who also happens to have been Managing Director of MBA Admissions for Harvard Business School). “I am looking for those fine details about ‘what did this person do, how are they distinctive?’ There are 50 different ways to be a leader but tell me a couple of them.”
To echo Moss, it’s all in the details – which is essentially evidence. Admissions committees are looking for a recommender’s honest reflection backed up by objective, concrete insights about your development and potential. They look to recommenders because they should possess specific knowledge about you that few other will have – not just what you’ve done, but how you’ve done it in terms of your impact on others and your organization. A great letter of recommendation illuminates how you’re perceived by others and brings your credentials to life.
So, who do you ask to write your MBA letters of recommendation?
“Choose wisely,” says Moss of recommenders. “Make sure that they’re committed to spending that time and that they’ll be able to actually give us those details and not just give a couple paragraphs, which won’t be helpful.” In other words, no matter how impressive a recommender’s title might be, their endorsement will fall flat if it’s peppered with platitudes or adjectives that might be applicable to any number of rock star candidates. Vague or generic reviews of you and your performance will hurt more than help.
This is why it’s less important to get someone who’s extremely senior and has a fancy title than someone who’s actually witnessed your development and growth first hand. Someone who has been responsible for that development and growth and can comment in detail as well as enthusiasm is by far your best bet. If they can’t speak about you with both substance and specificity, they aren’t the right person for your recommendation.
So the best letters are from a current or recent supervisor. HBS, for example, strongly prefers direct supervisors. The ideal scenario is whoever is closest to you, but they should be senior to you, and preferably your direct supervisor or your boss’s boss. This isn’t always realistic, but it’s nonetheless ideal. If you cannot provide a recommendation letter from your current supervisor, you should explain why. Of course, there are situations in which applicants feel they can’t get a direct supervisor recommendation without putting their job at risk. In those cases, you’ll have to go back to previous companies, and previous supervisors and can work well. But again, if that’s your scenario, for schools like HBS or Stanford GSB, you’ll want to offer an explanation about why in your application.
This is where it’s important to know about each program’s expectations.
Moss’s recent advice reflects Stanford GSB’s values about the kind of perspective the admissions committee is hoping to gain from your recommenders, and implies some latitude. “I always say to candidates, think about the stories that you’re most proud of, the things that you’ve done – and it can be six-eight years [ago], go back through college – and when you think about those stories, where you’ve accomplished something, who do you know who could tell us about that story from a different lens? … Who’s actually seen me do it? Who’s been in the trenches?” says Moss. “For us it doesn’t matter what their title is, whether they’re an alum or not. It really is, who can tell us, and show us, the scope and scale of those accomplishments?”
A piece of advice I often give applicants when approaching recommenders about the process is to not just ask about a letter of recommendation like, ‘can you do this for me?’ but instead, ‘can you offer me a strong letter of recommendation?’ Inserting “strong” into your ask, then gauging their reaction, will tell you a lot.
Finally, it’s vital to equip your chosen recommenders to be your outspoken champions.
They may be well acquainted with the process, but then again, don’t assume they’ll know what they’re doing. I’ve seen too many great applicants let down by lackluster recommendations, probably unintentionally, because the person didn’t know what was expected. They’re busy people and they’re doing you a big favor, so you’ll want to be thoughtful about how to prepare them and keep them on track (without hovering too much, of course).
This is where the coffee date comes in: Sit down with them, make a list, refresh their memories on your achievements and the ways you’ve demonstrated excellence. Make sure they understand your MBA goals and aspirations, and talk through the different examples and get buy-in on ways they might convey your best qualities. They may see things that you haven’t seen, so you want that to be a conversation. This is about facilitating a process, not spoon-feeding them the material that they’re going to write (that would undermine the letter’s authenticity).
A vital ingredient to your future success will be the relationships you cultivate along the way, so take the time to let your recommenders know that you sincerely appreciated their efforts on your behalf.
“Circle back with your recommender with a timely and sincere appreciation for their support – no matter the outcome,” writes my Fortuna colleague Jessica Chung in her article on five tips for securing the best letters of recommendation. “If you’re accepted, they’ll want to celebrate with you, and if not, you’ll want to affirm their continued support if you elect to reapply.”
Karla Cohen is an Expert Coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director at Harvard Business School. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.