MBA Recommendation Letters – Making the Most out of (Re)connecting

As MBA application deadlines for the upcoming semesters approach, you’re faced with the numerous tasks involved in crafting the perfect package that will make you stand out to admissions officers.

While the combination of GMAT/GRE scores, prior academic projects, career accomplishments, and insightful essays are part of the picture, stellar recommendation letters can be the driving force that propels you to the next round and finally, to the school of your choice.

The recommendation letter is authoritative proof of the strength of your other qualifications.

Choosing the right people to recommend you is a delicate task.

Clearly, recent professional connections or mentors with whom you’ve recently worked and with whom you’ve formed solid relationships are ideal. But what if you find yourself having to reconnect with a person whom you may have lost touch?

What are the most effective ways to remind these colleagues of your past accomplishments, while also reestablishing the connection?

A major barrier to overcome in the search for a solid recommendation is the concern that it’s been a while since you last spoke to the person.

That manager from that internship you had while earning your bachelor’s degree gave you a foundation that’s been formative in your career. But will she remember you? As much as we would all like to keep in touch with everyone who has had an impact on us over the years, the reality is that life often gets in the way.

An obvious first move in this situation is to be sure you’re aware of this person’s own career path, before assuming that their current LinkedIn or company website profile are up to date. Things change at the speed of a click, so be sure to verify your contact’s current position before you reach out. Take some time to reflect upon the specifics of this relationship and of your experiences working together.

Once you’ve done so, a well-written, succinct email can serve as a great reminder.

Which projects that this manager assigned to you taught you the most? How have those lessons informed your current pursuits? A few sentences to this effect will get the manager’s attention, while also reminding her of how important her mentorship was to you and to others.

Remember to ask questions and to be curious. People want to be heard as much as they want to listen.

This type of contact has been referred to as a ‘dormant tie’. While this might sound like a negative thing, these relationships are often the most fruitful. Time has passed which held new contacts and new experiences for both of you, and the recommendation request could be a spark that could lead to mutual benefits for each of you further down the road.

Speaking to Inc., Wharton professor Adam Grant said,

“Unlike your [more recent] ties, it’s actually comfortable to reach out to [dormant contacts] because you have that shared experience, the common history. It’s a lot easier to reconnect than to start a connection from scratch.”

Another important thing to remember while contacting a long lost colleague is to be upfront about the lapse in communication.

It can appear disingenuous to ‘come out of the woodwork’ to ask for a glowing recommendation. The Harvard Business Review’s Jodi Glickman offers this tip,

“Acknowledge the lapse of time up-front and center — and give that time period some rationale or context. Have you been… working or traveling abroad? Did you leave your profession to try something new? Did you have a family, get married or change careers? Or, have you just been completely busy and self-absorbed? Whatever the reason, you need to acknowledge it.”

The more honest and sincere that you are, the better.

On a practical note, be sure that you allow yourself, and those of whom you’re asking for letters, plenty of lead time before your deadline. It may take a while for the contact to respond, due to their schedules or to other circumstances beyond your control. Create a ‘long list’ in the event that you don’t hear back, so that you’re not scrambling at the last minute if you’re not receiving a response.

Keep the big picture in mind for any recommendation request. What is the overall ‘slant’ of your application? This of course will be different pursuant to the program and to your intentions in obtaining your degree.

It seems obvious, but much as you’re tailoring the other pieces of your application, the recommendation letter needs to be likewise attentive to your needs from the program. Make clear your intent in your request.

It’s also important to remember to diversify your list of recommenders. Instead of asking three supervisors with whom you connected at your first job out of college for letters, ask one, and then examine your network to see who else saw and acknowledged your potential. Chances are, there are more of these individuals than you realize initially, and it takes some time and reflection to recall who they are and how they’ve defined you.

Though the application process can seem stressful, the recommendation letter can provide an opening for you, particularly in terms of those people that you hold in high professional regard. Remember to send thank you letters and to retain contact even if you didn’t gain admittance to the particular program for which they recommended you.

These past colleagues will appreciate your attention and could likely provide you with an open door in the future.

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About the Author

Maggie Boccella

Maggie Boccella, a lifelong resident of Philadelphia, is a freelance writer, artist and photographer. She has consulted on various film and multimedia projects, and she also serves as a juror for the city's annual LGBTQIA Film Festival.

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