mbaMission’s Guide to Recommendations
Letters of recommendation are an important part of your overall application package—they provide the only outside information the admissions committee receives about you. One of the most stressful parts of the application process can be picking your recommender. The first question you should ask is who can write a valuable letter?
Like many candidates, you may believe that your recommenders must have remarkable credentials and titles to impress the admissions committee. However, what is far more important is selecting individuals who can write a personal and intimate letter that discusses your talents, accomplishments, personality and potential. If senior managers at your company can only describe your work in vague and general terms, they will not help your cause. By contrast, lower-level managers who directly supervise your work can often offer powerful examples of the impact you have on your company, and their letters can be far more effective at getting you accepted into an MBA program.
Nonetheless, not all people who know you and your capabilities well will make good recommenders. For starters, of course, you should have some confidence that your potential recommender likes you and will write a positive letter on your behalf! One step you can take is doing some background work on your recommenders to make sure your choices are indeed “safe.” After all, if you are playing by the strictest interpretation of the rules of recommendations, you will not know what your recommenders ultimately write about you. So, by doing a little intelligence work in advance, you can better understand whether you are making the right choice, before you commit to a certain individual.
By doing some “intelligence,” we mean, where possible, contacting past colleagues in a discreet and diplomatic way to find out what their experiences were like with your potential recommender. For example, was your potential recommender a generous advocate or was he/she a disinterested third party who had a tendency to be harsh? Clearly, learning more about your target recommender’s approach in advance can help you understand whether or not you should offer him/her this important responsibility. Past colleagues can also guide you in how best to manage your recommenders, which can be just as important as choosing them. Knowing up front that your recommender is a procrastinator or performed better after being given a list of accomplishments from which to work can help ensure the best letter possible and can prevent you from inadvertently antagonizing your recommender or delaying the process.
If your prospective MBA program asks for two letters of recommendation, then generally, you should approach two of your recent supervisors, with one ideally being your current supervisor. Your letters will have added credibility if they are written by individuals who are senior to you, because your recommenders are in evaluative positions and will not have anything to lose by critically appraising your candidacy.
If you are unable to ask your current supervisor (and there are a number of reasons that might be the case), do not panic! MBA admissions committees have indeed seen it all. Your situation is most likely not unique, so you do not need to fret. Let us consider the example of a family-business vice-president and add a detail—that the family business is in manufacturing. This hypothetical MBA candidate could contact one of the company’s long-standing clients or suppliers, who may be able to write about the applicant’s integrity, growth, sense of humor, determination and more, all in relation to other comparable individuals.
If these constituents were not able to offer adequate feedback, however, the MBA candidate might instead ask the head of a trade association or possibly even a respected competitor to write on his/her behalf. If the applicant really needed to get creative, he/she might even consider asking a service provider; for example, getting a letter of reference from an architectural firm that collaborated with the candidate to build a new manufacturing facility could be an interesting solution.
In short, most MBA candidates have more potential recommenders to choose among than they realize. Keep looking and try not to get discouraged—someone out there knows you well and can write objectively on your behalf.
After you have chosen your recommender(s), another question might spring to mind: “What if my supervisors don’t get their letters done by the deadline?”
In our opinion, the easiest way to ensure that your recommenders complete their letters on time is to present them with your own deadline—one that is a bit earlier than the school’s—when you first ask them to provide a recommendation for you. If the application to your school of choice is due on January 15th, for example, tell your recommenders that you are submitting on the 8th. (Incidentally, submitting your application early can be good for your sanity as well.) By setting this advanced deadline, you can put some additional pressure on your recommender on the 8th (if he/she has not finished the letter) and should still be able to submit on time (i.e., by the school’s official deadline).
Most people work to deadlines. Alleviate unnecessary stress by setting your recommenders’ deadlines one week early, and “enjoy” the application process a little bit more.
If you are having trouble negotiating with your supervisor to ensure that he/she is putting the proper thought and effort into your application, you are not alone. Because of this asymmetry of power, a junior employee can only do so much to compel his/her supervisor to sit down and write thoughtfully. So, before you designate your supervisor as a recommender, you must first understand how committed this person really is to helping you with your candidacy. In particular, your recommender needs to understand that creating a single template to be submitted to multiple schools is not okay and that each letter must be personalized and each MBA program’s questions must be answered using specific examples.
If your recommender intends to simply write a single letter and force it to “fit” the school’s questions, or to attach a standard letter to the end of the school’s recommendation form (for example, including it in the question “Is there anything else that you think the committee should know about the candidate?”), then your recommender is not really helping you—in fact, this kind of approach could actually hurt you! By neglecting to put the necessary time and effort into your recommendation, your recommender is sending a very clear message to the admissions committee: “I don’t really care about this candidate.”
If you cannot convince your recommender to write a personalized letter or to respond to your target school’s individual questions using specific examples, you will need to look elsewhere. A well-written personalized letter from an interested party is always far better than a poorly written letter from your supervisor.
Well, what about writing my own recommendation? Writing your own recommendation letters can seem like a blessing. Suddenly, you have the power to control a part of the application process that was previously beyond you. So, your downside risk in these letters is mitigated and your upside is infinite, right? Well, things do not quite work that way.
Admissions committees are not seeking blustery rave reviews, but want recommendations that are detailed and personal, intimate and sincere. Can you really write about yourself with dispassionate sincerity? And even if you are a master of “dispassionate sincerity,” are you able to capture the subtleties that allow you to stand out from your fellow applicants? For example, suppose that in addition to the many important things you do at work every day, you also occasionally do something thoughtful that you do not even perceive as significant—you take new team members to lunch. While you might consider “closing the big deal” meaningful, others might instead appreciate and admire this small yet impactful act, which helps forge team unity and illustrates your mentoring skills. Unfortunately, you may lack the objectivity necessary to ensure that this positive aspect of your character is included in your letter.
This is just one simple example; our point is that you probably will not know what is missing from your letter if you write it yourself!
For more information on properly selecting, communicating with and managing your recommenders, check out mbaMission
’s Letters of Recommendation Guide
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