A great MBA letter of recommendation brings your credentials to life by validating how you’re perceived by others. Since your letters of recommendation are the only part of your MBA application not written by you, they can tip the balance in your application. This means that the people you choose to champion your candidacy for HBS – and the strength, thoroughness, and enthusiasm of their recommendations – are a critical element of your overall narrative.
Harvard Business School is looking for candidates with a deep intellectual curiosity, a habit of leadership and a track record of positive impact that speaks to your future leadership potential. The HBS admissions committee is also trying to understand how you compare to your peer group in terms of performance and potential. The committee wants a recommender’s honest reflection, backed up by concrete, objective insights. You want your recommenders to possess specific knowledge about you that few others will have – someone who can speak in detail, with examples, about your managerial and leadership growth and the impact you have had in the department/organization.
Too many great applicants are let down by lackluster recommendations – probably unintentionally – because the recommender (or candidate) didn’t know what was expected. Here are a few key things to know about what HBS is looking for in your letters of recommendation, along with tips to ensure you’re positioning your recommenders for success.
Three Key Tips for Your HBS Letters of Recommendation:
Choosing your recommenders and setting them up for success.
A piece of advice I often give about approaching recommenders is to not just affirm their participation e.g., ‘will you do this for me?’ but instead clarifying, ‘can you advocate for me?’ Gauging their reaction to being an advocate will tell you a lot. By far your best bet is someone who has been responsible for your growth and development and can comment in detail as well as with enthusiasm, such as a current or recent supervisor. HBS, for example, strongly prefers two direct supervisors. This isn’t always realistic, but it’s nonetheless the ideal (the only exception is if you’re applying for the 2+2 program). Consider whoever is closest to you, but senior, and preferably your direct supervisor, supervisor’s boss, and/or previous supervisor.
A stellar letter of recommendation is all in the details, and details are the evidence. You don’t want a recommender offering a list of generic adjectives – e.g. ‘this person is ambitious and bright, has leadership skills’ – without any supporting examples. The admissions committee wants to know that how you present yourself, and the skills and capacities that you’ve identified in your application, are indeed validated by the more senior people who have worked with you. If a recommender can’t speak about you with both substance and specificity, they aren’t the right person to ask.
If you’re unable to provide a letter from your current supervisor, you should explain why. There are scenarios in which applicants feel they can’t query a direct supervisor without putting their job at risk. It might also be that your supervisor has only worked with you for a short time due to a change in management. In those cases, you’ll have to go back to previous supervisors at former companies, and that can work well. But again, if that’s your situation, you’ll want to offer HBS an explanation.
Ensuring substance and specificity from your recommenders.
It’s vital to equip your chosen recommenders to be your outspoken champions. Once you have them on board, ask them what you can do to help facilitate the process and what they need in order to answer the questions with precision. So many have done this a million times, but don’t assume that everyone knows what they’re doing. These are busy people who are doing you a big favor, so you’ll want to be thoughtful about how to prepare them and keep them on track (without pestering, of course).
One of the best things you can do is discern what questions they’re going to be asked. Then, sit down with your recommenders, and jog their memories on your achievements and the ways you’ve demonstrated excellence. Make sure they understand your MBA aspirations and goals. Together, discuss different examples to get buy-in on ways they might convey your best qualities – they may see things that you haven’t, so you want this to be a conversation. Preparing your recommenders is about facilitating a process, not spoon-feeding them the material that they’re going to write (as this would undermine the letter’s authenticity).
Discussing with your recommenders examples when you’ve come up short – and how you’ve grown.
It may seem counterintuitive to speak to any failure or flaws, but it’s actually a tremendous opportunity to give your letter of recommendation credibility. Any great leader is someone who isn’t against identifying their blind spots. HBS wants to know how you’ve grown and how you’ve managed whatever issue has come your way. When a recommender writes that a candidate has no observed weaknesses or has faced no challenges, it can make the other accolades seem less genuine.
For inspiration, look back at performance reviews. Someone who cares about you as a manager is going to tell you where you’re going wrong or how you can push yourself to grow in new ways (such as speaking up more, networking more actively internally, etc.). Encourage your recommenders to offer as much detail as possible, versus platitudes such as, ‘improving your communications skills.’ Maybe your recommender can share an example from when you froze before giving a huge presentation – how you got through it, then prepared differently in the future, and solicited feedback and coaching to get better. Even if it’s an ongoing issue, how do you keep it in check? Maybe you’re great at seeing the big picture but struggle with attention to detail – what do you do to manage this tendency? For your recommender to use a specific example will go a long way, and even give the positive points in your recommendations more power and weight.
Finally, keep your recommenders in the loop as things progress. No matter the outcome, be sure to let your recommenders know how much you sincerely appreciate their efforts on your behalf. Among the most vital ingredients to your future success as a business leader are the relationships you nurture along the way.
Malvina Miller Complainville is an Expert Coach at MBA consulting firm Fortuna Admissions and former Assistant Director at Harvard Business School. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.