London Business School changed its MBA application for the 2021-2022 season to require just one letter of recommendation. In doing so, it joins a growing number of top business schools requesting a singular reference, including MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School, and IESE. So what does this mean for your MBA recommender strategy?
To put this into context, MBA applications have been trending ever shorter over the past two decades, which until recently was largely reflected in fewer essay questions. Where once it was common to write upwards of four essays per program, most top US schools have slimmed down to one or two essay questions. (HBS, which has one essay question, had no less than nine back in 1999; view this retrospective from Fortuna’s Matt Symonds on MBA Essay Questions from 20 Years Ago).
“The message to candidates is that the admissions committee should be able to clearly understand who an applicant is in much less space,” says Fortuna’s Karen Hamou, an alumna of Columbia Business School and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead. “The MIT Sloan 60-second video is a great example, or even Stanford’s ‘what matters most to you and why’ essay. Just having a look at one of these can be sufficient for determining whether you want to meet someone in an interview.”
ESSENTIAL POINTS TO MAKE IN A REC LETTER
This speaks to the value-add of having a second recommender – one excellent reference usually covers key points.
“MIT Sloan used to take two recs, but honestly there was diminishing value from the second recommendation,” says Fortuna’s Patricia Robertson, former Admissions Consultant at MIT Sloan. “The request for two additional references to contact as backup allow MIT to use these recs as ‘verifiers’ for something that is in question, such as to emphasize a strength or debunk a weakness.”
This trend toward fewer MBA letters of recommendation is positive for candidates, as well as the recommenders who are asked to be their outspoken champions. Younger candidates can find it hard to identify two recommenders, so it removes a barrier to entry. It also takes the pressure off referees who are often asked to write multiple references each year. LBS favors their personalized recommendation, so this candidate-friendly change is currently preferable to moving towards a common LOR.
At the same time, your discernment is critical: the person you choose, and the strength of their recommendation, carry more weight if they’re not balanced by other third-party perspectives. Unlike IESE Business School in Madrid, which requires one recommendation but invites you to submit up to three letters of recommendation, LBS will not be accepting requests to submit another recommendation.
HOW A REC LETTER SHOULD SUPPORT YOUR NARRATIVE
“This does mean that the recommender has to be stellar,” says Patricia. “The most important criterion is the quality of the recommender, so this should be the deciding factor over using your direct supervisor. Choose the person that can speak to your performance and work style as a valued team member. Make sure that your recommender uses specific examples that reflect their knowledge of you as a colleague/team member and as a person. Ideally these examples don’t replicate the application rather augment the qualities shown in the application.”
As the only part of the MBA application not written by you, your letter of recommendation is a critical element in your overall narrative. It illuminates how you’re perceived by others and brings your credentials to life by describing not just what you’ve done, but how you’ve done it in terms of your impact on others and your organization. It needs to convey concrete, substantive evidence supporting your candidacy and leadership potential from someone who possesses specific knowledge about you that few others will have.
“With a singular letter of recommendation to work with, you’ll want to err toward being more robust,” says Karen. “For example, if you would have had one recommender speak to your external (client) relationships and another to your more internal-facing qualities like mentoring junior colleagues, then the strategy is to ensure the one recommender you pick can really span all types of strengths in one package.”
To ensure a strong, substantive, and enthusiastic recommendation, my Fortuna colleagues and I advise that you word your query strategically.
“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?’” says Fortuna’s Malvina Miller Complainville, former Assistant Director of Career Services at HBS. “Gauging their reaction to being an advocate will tell you a lot.”
For a deeper dive on how to secure the best letters of recommendation with five tangible tips, including how to prepare your recommender, view this related article by Fortuna’s Jessica Chung.
Emma Bond is a director at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions and was previously responsible for MBA admissions at London Business School. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation.