As MBA applications open, the essay questions understandably get a lot of early attention and focused effort. But don’t overlook the importance of having a strategy to secure strong letters of recommendation, and the necessity to start early. This is especially true in our Covid-19 reality, where pandemic-related issues have wreaked havoc on everyone’s schedules and psyches. (Chances are your recommenders are steering their company through a crisis while also managing families whose activities are curtailed by various levels of lockdown; adding this to their plate and keeping their attention will be trickier than usual.)
As the only part of your MBA application not authored by you, your letters of recommendation carry a lot of weight by validating how you’re perceived by others who are in a position to judge your candidacy. This means that the people you choose to be your outspoken champions, along with the strength, thoroughness, and enthusiasm of their recommendations – are a vital element of your overall narrative.
I’ve read thousands of recommendation letters, both as a Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach and as former Associate Director of Admissions for UCLA Anderson, and I can affirm that a powerful, first-hand testimonial can make the difference at decision time. Many a letter of recommendation offered the puzzle piece that confirmed an applicant’s fit, while other letters disappointed with generic platitudes or lack of detail that failed to enhance an applicant’s file. Too often, it was as simple as not having enough substance or specificity, lackluster examples, or not credibly backing up the abilities and strengths the candidate mentions themselves.
So who should you ask? And what can you do to ensure the best possible letter of recommendation? Here are 5 top tips to help you secure a recommendation that works in your favor.
5 TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL MBA RECOMMENDER STRATEGY
- Identify individuals who know you well.
Persuasive letters are filled with specific details and action examples that bring your credentials to life. Your recommender should speak to the high quality of your work, your specific accomplishments and achievements, managerial or leadership growth, and your potential to do well in business school and beyond. Ideally, this person is a direct supervisor. (This is particularly vital for Harvard Business School letters of recommendation, for example.) But if you can’t ask your supervisor, look for someone you’ve worked for in the recent past with unique insights into your strengths, qualities and potential. This might be an indirect supervisor – someone who has overseen a project you’ve contributed to, a manager from another department, or a client (especially if you’re self-employed). You might also consider someone you worked with outside of your regular job where you made a significant impact (such as volunteer or pro bono work). Such insight can really drive home the fact that you’ll be a great contributor to the community during your time in business school.
- Ask recommenders to be an ‘advocate.’
It’s heartbreaking to read a great application that’s let down by a lukewarm recommendation. One way to set yourself up for success – and your recommender – is to ask them if they’d be willing to ‘be an advocate for you,’ versus willing to ‘write a recommendation for you.’ It’s a significant distinction, and their response (especially if you can witness it in person) will tell you what you need to know. You want to ensure that the person you choose will take the time to write a supportive and thorough letter, detailing examples that speak to your leadership, teamwork and presentation skills, as well as your character and what makes you uniquely exceptional. You’ll want to nurture this relationship, taking time to share a context for your decision to pursue the MBA, your post-grad plans and key themes you intend to highlight in your application.
- Don’t get hung up on prestige.
This is why it’s a mistake, for example, to push for a recommendation from the company CEO you’ve never worked with – even if she knows who you are and thinks you do good work. While this person may write you a positive recommendation, their letters tend to be skew generic. If you truly have a close working relationship with the CEO or a C-suite executive, of course, it’s a great person to ask, but if that person can’t provide specific examples of your performance, or discuss your skills and potential in any depth, find somebody else who can. MBA Admissions committees aren’t impressed by big names or fancy titles when it’s obvious that you haven’t worked together closely.
- Once you choose your recommenders, sit down, and coach them.
They may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your recommenders know exactly what they need to do. For example, if you’re a professional in tech, it’s not a given that your boss went to b-school (unlike your peers in the consulting industry, for example). Set your recommenders up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. (Don’t assume they’ll just remember every time you did a good job –everyone is busy.) Having this discussion is critical to ensuring coherence and consistency across your application, and the upshot is that the conversation may elicit insights or perspectives you haven’t considered. This doesn’t mean telling them what to write – you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead. But coach them by connecting personally to guide them through your resume and refreshing them on your accomplishments and ways you’ve demonstrated excellence.
- Allow lots of lead time and stay in touch.
Give your recommenders at least four weeks of notice, but more is better. Don’t assume that your recommender can turn around a letter in a week, especially over summer break. Stay in contact with your recommenders in the coming weeks by maintaining regular communication, checking in to ensure they’re aware of upcoming deadlines. My colleagues and I have all received that call to the admissions office from a panicked candidate whose recommender can’t submit by the deadline because he’s at a remote lodge without Internet. Ample timelines, frequent touchpoints, and clear communications allow recommenders to shine as your chosen champions. Everyone is juggling competing commitments as your application deadline approaches, so you’ll want to stay front of mind (without becoming a pest, of course).
As my colleague Malvina puts it, “Among the most vital ingredients to your future success as a business leader are the relationships you nurture along the way.” So no matter the outcome, make time to follow up with your recommender with a sincere appreciation of their support. If you’re accepted, they’ll want to celebrate with you, and if not, you’ll want to secure their continued support if you choose to reapply.
For more advice on this topic, check out the 5-minute video strategy session with my Fortuna Admissions colleague, Caroline Diarte Edwards: Getting a Killer Recommendation Letter.
Jessica Chung is an expert coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and former Associate Director of Admissions at UCLA Anderson. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.