Choosing Your MBA Application Recommenders

In an ideal MBA application timeline, the search for your MBA application reference letter writers begins about two months before the application submission deadline. About eight weeks before you hit “Submit,” you should have a short list of potential recommenders whom you’ve spoken with about supporting your bid for admission.

Most schools will ask for two recommendation letters and will expect one letter from your current direct supervisor. If the MBA program doesn’t specify criteria for a second recommender, it can be difficult to determine the best person among your many professional contacts to write that second letter. In previous posts, MBA Prep School helped you craft excellent application essays (Essay Writing Bootcamp Series) and provided tips for improving your MBA Application Resume. Read on for MBA Prep School’s advice on choosing reference letter writers who will optimize your chances of admission.

Let’s start with what the MBA admissions committee looks for in reference letters:

  • How well do the reference and the applicant know each other?

Given the choice between a recommender with an impressive title who doesn’t know you personally or someone who has worked wit`h you closely with a less-lofty title, always choose the reference that knows you best.

Remember, we don’t mean that your recommender’s seniority is unimportant. Strong reference letters from your firm’s senior leaders will help to differentiate you from your competition. However, it is important to choose a senior leader who knows you well.

  • What evidence does the recommendation letter provide?

Your recommendation letters should provide further evidence of the skills and strengths you are advertising in the other components of your application. It is important that your references’ view of you matches what you represent in your resume and essays. The goal is for your recommender to cite specific examples that back up your claims as well as their own praise. Along the same lines, we recommend that you enlist references who have known you for at least a year. Furthermore, a recommender who has seen you in action recently is in the best position to feature evidence of your most advanced skills and knowledge.

  • What will the recommendation letter add to the picture?

The recommendation letter should provide the admissions committees with information about you that they can’t find within your other application materials. Are there important fit qualities that you were unable to address in your essays or resume? The letter of recommendation is a good place to include information about how you perfectly demonstrate those qualities. Further, your references can freely brag about accomplishments in a way that may come across as boastful if you were to discuss them. Coming from a reference, information about your promotions or your responsibilities that are uncommon for someone at your level may hold more weight.

With those points in mind, how should you select your MBA application recommenders?

  • If your school has specific requirements, stick to them:

You need to satisfy the school’s stated requirements about who is qualified to write your letters of recommendation. If your chosen program requires a letter from your current direct supervisor and you don’t have one in your package, the admissions committee will have some questions. If you cannot ask one of your required recommenders to be a reference, be sure to explain in your “optional information” essay why you made this choice.

  • Choose a recommender who respects the value of an MBA:

A recommender with an MBA, or someone who believes in the value of an MBA, is an ideal choice as a reference. References who are familiar with the demands of an MBA program and what admissions committees are looking for will be best suited to express how prepared you are to meet those demands as well as to feature ways you compare favorably to the MBA applicant pool.

  • Choose a great writer:

Your reference letters need to be persuasive; recommenders function as the witnesses who will provide the admissions committees with evidence of your accomplishments and who will seek to sway the committees’ decisions in your favor. All else equal, choose a reference who is skilled in the art of persuasive writing because that skill improves your odds of obtaining a compelling recommendation letter.

  • Choose a recommender who is going to write a glowing review:

Someone who truly believes that you are a fantastic candidate for an MBA program is going to be able to write a stronger, more compelling letter on your behalf. Remember, your hope is that your references will be able to convince an admissions committee that you are a natural-born leader, that you are prepared for the challenges of an MBA program, and that you stand above 80-90% of your peers.

  • Choose a recommender you trust who is willing to work with you:

In the best cases, the reference letter process is collaborative between recommenders and candidates. You want to enlist mentors who are enthusiastic about your MBA candidacy and feel they are part of a team that is committed to your success. Ask yourself if your recommender would be willing to listen to your feedback on ways to strengthen his or her letter. This isn’t always going to be the case, so make sure that you seek recommendation letters from superiors who have your best interests at heart and whom you know you can trust.

Up next from MBA Prep School: You’ve selected your MBA application references, but how will you work with them to guide them to express the right fit qualities in your MBA recommendation letters? We’ll discuss providing your references with supporting materials, checking in with them, and giving feedback during the recommendation-writing process to help you optimize every component of your MBA application.

Learn from Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, and the other top MBAs how they wrote essays that got them in!

Tyler Cormney  is the co-founder of MBA Prep School, a full-service, boutique MBA admissions consulting firm that specializes in helping aspiring MBA candidates realize their dream of attending an elite business school. As a graduate of both Harvard Business School and USC’s Professional Writing Program, Tyler draws upon his unique blend of creative writing, strategic thinking, and coaching skills to help applicants stand out from the competition for a place in the most selective MBA programs, including Harvard, Stanford, and Wharton.

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