Vivek Singh had never called his boss’s wife, and he only had her number because she had called the previous year to congratulate him and his wife on their first child. He felt a bit odd tapping ‘Call’, but he knew this was his only bet.
After three attempts, he finally got through. His boss’s wife was surprised to find him on the line. She hadn’t saved his number, but at least she saved Vivek when she answered that call.
A few hours later, that call resulted in an irritated 45-year-old man in his shorts, typing away furiously on a laptop by the poolside. “I’ve done the best I could”, he said, before abruptly hanging up. All Vivek could do was send a sheepish WhatsApp with “Thanks, Ravi, enjoy your vacation, see you in a week” and a smiley emoji.
Vivek finally managed to get his boss Ravi to do his MBA recommendation, but still a couple of days after the application deadline. A journey of two months was completed, unexpectedly, with a sprint and a dash, right at the end.
The situation may be a bit exaggerated, but the circumstance is not. If there were ever a poll among Indian applicants asking for the one element of the MBA applications process they lose the most hair over, getting recommendations would win hands (and feet down). That is ironic – recommendations should ideally be the smoothest part of the process. Choose a recommender, get her or his assent, and leave the rest to them? Easy, right? Not really, because there’s plenty that Indian applicants can, and do, get themselves wound up on the way.
If you’re an Indian MBA applicant, and the recommendations process has you chewing your nails or pulling your hair out, here is some unconventional advice on how to navigate it smoothly. While a few of these points may be generally relevant to applicants from all nationalities, we have highlighted a few peculiarities we see Indian applicants come across often.
It’s not who know but how (well) you know them
Most applicants choose their recommenders on default mode – one is their manager, and the other probably the most senior person to say yes. Alternatively, it can be a senior colleague they’re friendly with. While some schools will strongly suggest that you choose your manager as one of your recommenders, most will leave that discretion upto you. Who do you choose?
We recommend that you choose your recommenders for not just how well they know you, but also how eager they are to support you. Recommenders typically do a great job not just when they know things about you, but when they are eager to make things happen for you.
What is a letter of recommendation for, if not to show the admissions office your best self from a third-party viewpoint? But oh, how so many of us get this wrong. The MBA recommendation should be about your candidacy and about making the best possible case for you. Unfortunately, if your recommender is not all-in on your candidature, she/he, despite the best intentions, may end up writing a generic recommendation that moves nobody.
Dissect most MBA recommendations and what do you see? A pile of worthless words, telling the school that you’ve worked hard, planned well, or are just a great team player. The level of eloquence (or lack thereof) of one’s letter would make for a cringe-fest if it weren’t for the reality that admissions teams skim them to find something to hold on to. Yet, this is what most recommenders will churn out if they treat the recommendation as a chore or a favor, not a partnership.
If possible, also choose a recommender who already has a top MBA – it can make a huge difference in their perception of the program, how it works, and how it can help you.
Look for recommenders who can provide a variety in viewpoints
You don’t want the school to receive (roughly) the same recommendation twice.
Sometimes, Indian applicants choose recommenders who have worked with them on broadly the same assignments, projects, and experiences. What do you think they saw? It is likely that both of your recommendations will highlight the same things. While some applicants consider this a positive (they believe that the recommendations ‘reinforce’ each other), the point of having two recommendations is not reinforcement or confirmation, but independent opinion.
In such situations, it may be better to choose recommenders who have worked with you on different projects or different aspects of your capabilities. If your strengths highlighted by them really are things that shine through, they will come through anyway. If you have spent significant time in an activity outside work (say, volunteering for a social organization significantly across years), you can even consider getting a viewpoint from there.
A related point here: we’ve seen a few folks in some companies who are ‘popular’ recommenders over time. They are generous in saying yes, and in giving glowing recommendations too, but they often use templates to make the process faster and save time. You want your recommendation to be personal and specific, and this is why it’s important to get to know how your recommenders plan to approach them.
“Gmail’s all I have, honey.”
Quick one here. Your recommender needs to use their official email address only. Even if they say using their personal (aka gmail, yahoo, and the likes) emails are more convenient, or that they don’t want to run foul with HR by using their official email for a personal favor, don’t buy it.
While admissions committees will on occasion allow you to submit recommendations through such email addresses, they might discount their value a bit. You are the only one who loses.
Besides, in today’s world, who doesn’t have an official email?
Understand that recommendations are about effort, not time alone
It’s a journey, though your recommender may be the one traveling.
This journey begins with you having a face-to-face conversation with your recommenders about your candidature, your hopes and aspirations, and why you chose them. The “Hey, I sent you an email, can you respond to it when free?” method doesn’t work, because it’s not personal, and it’s not creating a partner of your recommender (see the point before this), but an administrator, no matter how well you know them. So meet with them and discuss examples from your work that you feel are representative of your best self. Make it a two-way conversation – the objective is for the recommender to form an opinion on you, and ask you for more evidence to support that, not to make the recommender write your viewpoints on yourself.
As Vivek found out, it’s also important to ask for a letter of recommendation early enough so that your recommenders can take their time and write a strong one.
But it’s not about time – it’s about effort. Nobody – not even your best friend who got some lucky breaks and got promoted and is now your boss – will spend dozens of hours on a recommendation. They will at best spend 4-5 hours on it. So don’t assume that your recommender needs months to write the
recommendation. She probably needs months to find those 4-5 free hours to write it.
If your recommender is taking an unusually long time on the recommendation, it’s usually because he/she doesn’t know how to begin, and isn’t sure what to write.
Even if you give your recommenders enough time, they will forget about the recommendation or can keep postponing it till they know it’s urgent (a.k.a. getting that frantic call from you). Instead, schedule regular check-ins with your recommender every 7-10 days to check on their progress and see if you can help. Make sure you tell that the deadline is the last opportunity to submit the recommendation, not the first wake-up call to work on it.
Share your resume, not essays, with them
Conventional wisdom: Give enough time for your recommenders to work on their letters. While it’s true that a good recommendation needs time to be written well. Let them have plenty of time to think about their answers.
Reality: They will use that time to not work on them. Set up a cadence to check in and provide information.
Give your recommenders all the information they need to write a good recommendation for you, including deadlines, and enough information about yourself.
Sharing your resume with your recommender is a good idea, because it will give her/him access to additional useful information about you, and will also include points on the major projects you’ve done with that employer. They can see your career progression and key skills too, and that will help shape their overall narrative. The resume is a general bio-document, so you are not violating any recommendation guidelines by sharing it. Similarly, sharing a LinkedIn profile can help.
Avoid, however, sharing your essays with your recommender. While your aim may well be to share your goals and viewpoints, they can sometimes lead the recommender (especially when short on time) to follow your chain of thought, or express things as you have mentioned them in your essays. This might lead the admissions committee to discount that recommendation, assuming you probably wrote parts of it yourself, when you didn’t.
It is fine, though, to discuss with your recommenders the kind of goals you
want to achieve after finishing business school, the reasons why you want to get an MBA, and why you chose that school.
Thank your recommenders, and not only if you get an admit
Thanking a recommender for the recommendation letter he or she wrote for you is essential. They have spent time and energy writing on your behalf without it being an obligation in any way. If they did it right, they also spent hours pouring over the right things to include. They did it for a relationship, and you must value that relationship equally. We like recognition when we go beyond our jobs, or when we do something that is above and beyond expectations. Taking them out for lunch isn’t a bad idea at all.
And oh, keep them updated about the results (“Thanks to you, I made it!”) or the dings (“I’ll be back next year”) .
Rishabh Gupta is the founder of GyanOne Universal. Before starting out as an admissions consultant, he worked in global consulting firms as a management consultant. Gupta has been a career counselor and admissions consultant for over 12 years now.
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