Most business schools will ask an applicant’s recommenders to describe a weakness of yours, or a time when they offered you constructive feedback. You may face great temptation to ask your recommenders to avoid writing anything critical or to present a “disguised strength” as a weakness. Your recommender might write something like one of the following entirely disingenuous statements, believing that he/she is helping you, when in fact he/she is not:
- “John needs to learn to balance his work and home life better—he is always at work, making sure that he stays on top of every detail.”
- “Mary is a perfectionist and holds others, who just may not be capable, to the same high standard that she holds herself.”
Alternatively, a recommender who is afraid of hurting your candidacy may write about a “professional development” weakness, focusing on a business skill that you have not yet had the opportunity to learn or develop, rather than describing an area in which you need to improve:
- “Rodney is an excellent communicator in small group settings; he has not, however, had the opportunity yet to give presentations to large groups, and I think doing so is the next important step in his career path.”
- “To move to the next level, David needs to start sourcing his own deals, rather than just working on deals that others have found.”
This may be shocking, but admissions officers understand and know that there is no such thing as a perfect employee or MBA candidate and are skeptical of the sincerity of any recommender that presents you as such. Such falsely positive comments do nothing to help the admissions committee get to know you better and instead undermine the integrity of your recommender’s letter. Although you do not want your recommenders to present unprofessional traits (e.g. “Denise is lazy”), recommendation letters should involve honest, detailed reflection using a critical (not negative) eye.
You should also avoid presenting “disguised strengths” in any essay prompt that asks for a weakness, such as Harvard Business School’s “Tell us about something you wish you had done better” or Dartmouth Tuck’s “Describe a circumstance in your life in which you faced adversity, failure, or setback…” See our essay analyses for strategies for writing these types of essays.