Your MBA letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight. Not only are they the only element of the MBA application not written by you, but they bring valuable credibility to your narrative by validating how others perceive your talents and leadership potential.
As former Director of Admissions at INSEAD, I can affirm that a powerful letter of recommendation can tip the balance in your favor at decision time. Alas, the reverse is also true – I’ve also witnessed applications that were completely undermined because a candidate has obviously misunderstood their relationship with their recommender – whether the letter lacked detail or actually veered into negative commentary. You need to be both planful and strategic to make sure your letter of recommendation is memorable for all the right reasons.
Three things you need to know to secure a killer letter of recommendation:
Re-frame the typical ask to set yourself – and your recommender – up for success.
A piece of advice we often give about approaching recommenders is to not just affirm their participation such as, “would you be willing to write a recommendation for me?” Instead, frame your ask in terms of, “would you advocate for me?” How your chosen recommender reacts will give you a valuable indication of whether they are willing to be your champion, or if there’s a risk that they could write a lukewarm recommendation. The best recommendation letters are written by someone who thinks you are fantastic, wants to help you, and is in a position to supply the kind of anecdotes and detail that speak to what makes you distinctive.
“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,” says my Fortuna Admissions colleague and former Assistant Director at Harvard Business School, Malvina Miller Complainville. “If a recommender can’t speak about you with both substance and specificity, they aren’t the right person to ask.”
Facilitate the process and prepare your recommender.
Schedule a conversation with your recommenders, walking them through your resume and refreshing them on your accomplishments and successes (don’t assume these will be fresh in their mind). Brainstorm your strengths and weaknesses with them, as they may have a different perspective than you. Make sure they’re prepared to speak to ways you can further develop – the MBA admissions committee wants to know how you’ve grown and how you’ve managed whatever issue has come your way. Follow up your discussion by sharing some bullet points about what you discussed. It’s not about being prescriptive but facilitating an effective process – don’t assume they know what they need to do just because your recommenders are accomplished professionals.
Do not, however, overly script or veer into writing the letter for them – for ethical reasons, of course, but also because your recommender’s voice and authenticity is fundamental to the letter’s credibility. Your MBA file reader is well trained at picking up parallels and styles, and will discern if your recommendation and essays are written by the same person.
Start the process early – at least two to three months ahead of deadline.
In my time at INSEAD, I can’t tell you how many panicked calls I received two days before deadline by candidates who just discovered that a recommender had left on vacation and was unlikely to submit the letter by deadline. You don’t want to torpedo your entire application with poor planning. Stay in touch with your recommenders, know where they are in the process, and make sure you’re aware of any constraints in their availability. You want to make it as easy as possible for them to write a glowing and detailed letter of support, because they’re busy people and you’re asking them to do something above and beyond their day job (and amid a global pandemic, if now is your moment). Clear communications, ample timelines, and frequent touch points allow recommenders to serve as your outspoken champions.
Regardless of the outcome, remember to take the time to follow up and thank your recommenders for their support. A vital ingredient to your future success will be the relationships you cultivate along the way, and you want to ensure your recommenders know their efforts were sincerely appreciated. In this age of virtual everything, a handwritten thank you note is a thoughtful touch.
Caroline Diarte Edwards is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former INSEAD director of admissions, marketing and financial aid. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.