Letters of Recommendation: When You Can’t Ask Your Boss

Letters of recommendation

Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School

Applying for an MBA program is stressful. For many applicants, seeing the dreaded application step, 3 Letters of Recommendation required, compounds the stress exponentially. For those individuals with understanding supervisors who work for open-minded companies, this step is a breeze. But what happens when you can’t ask your employer without risking your job?

You’re not alone. Many MBA applicants are in your very same position. At Georgia Institute of Technology’s Scheller College of Business, the MBA information sessions always discuss the issues associated with letters of recommendation. Scheller advises that you should never put your job at risk for a recommendation. Period. It’s possible to provide the needed recommendations without speaking to a direct supervisor.

Can Your Letters of Recommendation Put You at a Disadvantage if They’re Not From Your Current Employer?

The short answer is, “No.” Your direct supervisor at your company is not the only person who knows you in a professional capacity. The key to a good recommendation is providing an outsider’s perspective of your ability to compete in the MBA program. There are many different people who can fit this bill.

We talked to Paula Wilson, the Director of MBA Admissions at Scheller, and she had this to say, “Asking your supervisor is not your only option and nor should it be. You can ask anyone who knows you well and who can speak about you on a professional level.” And if you can’t get a recommendation from your direct supervisor or any individual at your current place of employment, consider using your open essay as an opportunity to explain.

If You Can’t Ask Your Current Supervisor, Whom Should You Ask for your Letters of Recommendation?

When it comes straight down to it, your MBA recommendation letter is less about who is writing a letter and more about the content. Just as Ms. Wilson recommended, choose a recommender who can speak to your abilities, such as the individuals below:

  • A prior supervisor from a job where you no longer work.
  • A current or former client—someone you can trust.
  • A faculty member from your undergrad program—if you still keep in touch.
  • A supervisor, community member, or coworker from a community service organization where you are highly involved.

If your application allows a peer recommendation, you could get a letter from:

  • A coworker at your current company who would not put your job in jeopardy.
  • A friend or colleague who has successfully completed a well-recognized MBA program and can speak to your MBA candidate abilities.
  • A colleague from a professional development organization of which you are a member.

If the app requires a direct supervisor, this second category of folks can still often provide a letter of support that can strengthen your application.

When Asking for Letters of Recommendation, How do you Ensure that Your Content Dazzles?

If you want letters of recommendation that impress the MBA admissions committee, consider the following five tips.

  1. Provide your recommenders with information. It is your MBA application. You need to give your recommender the information they need to write you an appropriate letter. Submit your resume, list your significant accomplishments, and even provide your recommender with an essay to demonstrate your voice and focus. The more information you can provide, the better letter of recommendation you will receive.
  2. Focus on relationships, not titles. Don’t ask a CEO for a letter of recommendation if he or she does not know you personally. Instead, ask a coworker who can speak to your work ethic personally. Character reference letters are also often good to include in addition to professional letters.
  3. Ask for concrete examples. Blasé, wide-open praise that could apply to any applicant is not going to help you. Provide your recommender with particular situations where you displayed extraordinary skills that would be helpful to your time in an MBA program. Your letters of recommendation should demonstrate your abilities with specific anecdotes of your professional experience.
  4. Avoid performance reviews. A letter of recommendation should be just that, a recommendation. Don’t ask for a recommendation from someone who will be overly critical and treat your letter as an evaluation of your work. The letter should instead praise your skills and advocate for your admission on your behalf.
  5. Keep it professional. Your letters of recommendation need to be objective. The last thing you want is it to sound like you were the ghostwriter for your recommendation. You also don’t want your letter to read like your mother or grandfather wrote it. Your letter should stand on the facts and data to demonstrate why you’re a great candidate and not flowery and bloated language. Brevity is appreciated.

Letters of recommendation are a vital part of the MBA admissions process, but they’re not as impossible as you may think. The fact of the matter is that even MBA programs recognize the difficulty associated with garnering letters. Paula Wilson let us know that Scheller is moving toward only two letters of recommendation in the future because they understand the inherent difficulty. So while your letters of recommendation may be causing you anxiety, it’s time to relax and follow the tips in this article.

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About the Author

Kelly Vo    

Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and personal development.

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