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Choosing the Right People to Write Your Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation can make or a break your candidacy for anything, whether it be a job or an undergraduate program of study.

The same goes for graduate school programs. Letters of recommendation are a very important part of almost every business school application, including full-time, part-time and executive MBA programs.

While the number of recommendations you’ll need to procure may vary by school, as well as the requirements (e.g., current or recent past supervisors), there are a several best practices that anyone applying to graduate business school should follow.

Let’s start with the basics.

How important is the letter of recommendation for a prospective MBA?

Business schools ask for recommendations to glean additional and outside perspectives on your character. Think of it as a fact check — admissions officials are trying to validate who you are and what you say about yourself in your MBA application.

According to a list on Quora, a solid letter of recommendation is important for the following reasons:

It provides external validation for all the great stuff you said about yourself in your essays (along with your salary trajectory and promotion schedule).

It demonstrates that you have at least 2-3 busy professionals in your work life who are willing to spend 1-5 hours helping you without any direct benefit to themselves.

Recommenders can brag about you in ways that you can’t brag about yourself without sounding like a jerk.

Recommendations don’t have the same space constraints, so recommenders can talk about all the great work you did which didn’t fit into your 500 word essays.

Ultimately, a good letter of recommendation could be the key to getting into a program you like: It can counterbalance a low GMAT score, a less-than-perfect undergrad GPA, and gaps in employment experience.

Who should I choose to write my letters of recommendation?

Now that you understand the importance of a good letter of recommendation, it’s time to discuss who you should ask to write this thing.

You’ll want to pick some who knows you, and knows you well. More importantly, this person should know what you are capable of in a work environment. While going to the CEO of a company for a letter may look flashy for an MBA program application, it’s wiser to select someone who interacts with you on a daily basis. These are the types of folks who can provide the kind of detailed information about your on-the-job performance (and not just a list of adjectives that describe you or a personal endorsement that you “are a great person”) that shines in a letter of recommendation.

You want to ask someone who knows you, and who can take the “facts” on your transcripts and provide perspective on the person behind those numbers.

Alex Brown, Clear Admit‘s Resident Admission’s Expert comments on the process,

The key to selecting the appropriate recommenders is to identify the people who can address, most effectively, the questions that are being asked, while also addressing the experiences and attributes you would like your recommenders to highlight.  Do not try to identify the most important person you know; while it might seem that getting a recommendation from an important person will help, if that letter is vague in terms of anecdotes and insights, it will backfire.

More often than not, a supervisor is usually the best choice, but don’t ignore other options like a client manager or the head of a non-profit with whom you interact.

Additionally, if you are an entrepreneur who doesn’t report to anyone, consider choosing a client who can evaluate your performance in a letter. If you work for a family business, go the client direction too — choosing a family member to write a balanced recommendation is a no-no.

You want to make sure that when you ask someone to write your letter of recommendation that they trust and believe in you. These people should be your loudest supporters.

You also want to approach someone you are comfortable asking and have good communication with — it’s up to you to understand which aspects of your candidacy should be conveyed through the recommendation and provide strategic guidance on the content of the letter.

Brown comments further,

“The majority of schools will expect a recommendation from your immediate supervisor.  If you are not able to gain a recommendation from this person, it should be explained in the optional essay. Sometimes candidates’ companies do not know that they are applying, or a candidate has been in her current job for too short a period of time to acquire a substantial recommendation from a supervisor.  Also, those in a family business, or running an entrepreneurial business, may not be able to get a recommendation from a supervisor.  In these cases, clients, mentors and colleagues may be appropriate.

Unless specifically requested, recommendations should not be solicited from your undergraduate professors.  These are professional recommendations that should focus on issues during your work experience and community service activities.” 

They want specific examples of how you have demonstrated certain skill sets and competencies. Hearing from someone who has worked closely with you and ultimately evaluated your performance and your deliverables provides this important information. The recommendation should also be balanced – highlighting strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and learning over the time that they have known you.

Who should I avoid choosing to write my letters of recommendation?

US News and World Report describes three mistakes that b-school applicants should avoid when choosing MBA recommenders:

Don’t select someone who can’t answer the questions: In other words, you may feel tempted to choose someone who knows you inside and out, but not in a professional setting. He or she can speak to your love of soccer, your compassion and your integrity, which are all great attributes. But this person cannot answer the specific career questions recommenders must address.

Don’t select someone who is not an advocate for you going to business school. This may sound strange, but plenty of successful and well-positioned professionals won’t understand why you would want to go to business school. They may even be actively against it. Maybe they don’t want to lose you as an employee for two years, or maybe they aren’t really your biggest fan.

Don’t select a person who doesn’t know who you are and where you stand now: If you worked with someone four years ago and have not done a good job of staying in touch, that person really cannot comment on your progress and skills today.

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About the Author

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Max Pulcini

Max Pulcini is a Philadelphia-based writer and reporter. He has an affinity for Philly sports teams, Super Smash Bros. and cured meats and cheeses. Max has written for Philadelphia-based publications such as Spirit News, Philadelphia City Paper, and Billy Penn, as well as national news outlets like The Daily Beast.

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