During my 15 years on an admissions committee, I read thousands of recommendation letters. Every so often, in the best possible way, a letter would STOP. ME. IN. MY. TRACKS. This kind of letter had the power to change the trajectory of an applicant’s admissions journey, resurrecting a candidate from the ding pile to receive new consideration.
Make no mistake—to have someone write this kind of letter, you need to have impressive accomplishments. However, you can increase your odds of finding a recommender who is your true champion by following these four steps!
1. Nurture relationships.
Relationships matter—a lot! Extraordinary relationships do not happen without effort. Make regular “deposits” into the relationships you have with your supervisor and key mentors. These deposits can consist of regularly scheduled coffee chats, lunch meetings, or Zoom sessions, if conditions warrant. With a direct supervisor, these might happen naturally during your performance review. Ask for feedback on areas for improvement, and then take steps to address the input you receive. As you consider your future goals, note the responses from your potential recommenders. Do you sense that this person is invested in your future success? Trust your instincts: not all managers will be supportive of goals that would result in the departure of top talent from the organization.
Most programs expect a recommendation from your current immediate supervisor. If your supervisor only recently started supervising you or if you do not want to alert your boss about your MBA aspirations, however, then you can select someone else. Select individuals who are truly your champions, can highlight your specific accomplishments, and are willing to put in the effort to write an excellent recommendation. Invest in the relationship NOW, and plan to give recommenders at least six to eight weeks of advance notice to meet recommendation deadlines.
2. Think strategically.
Think strategically about your own strengths and weaknesses as you consider how to best engage your recommenders. If your GMAT Quant score is low and you were a liberal arts major, ask a recommender to comment on your demonstrated quantitative effectiveness at work to help shore up this weakness in your application. If you want to highlight your leadership skills, remind your recommender of the impact and initiative you have shown in your assignments. Think about how your recommenders can highlight various aspects of your profile. If you have been active in a volunteer activity, consider seeking a recommendation from the head of the organization (especially if it is relevant to your future MBA goal).
If you still have several months before your application deadline, think strategically about the skills you can continue to develop by reviewing the Leadership Assessment Grid in the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Common Letter of Recommendation. The grid assesses five key areas: achievement, influence, people skills, personal qualities, and cognitive ability. Ask yourself how you can demonstrate your impact in these areas:
Achievement: Consider how you have shown initiative to anticipate problems. Look for ways to demonstrate your commitment to achieving results. Do you have examples of delivering on goals and objectives?
Influence: MBA admissions officers want to see evidence of professional poise and presence as well as the ability to deliver messages and ideas in ways that achieve buy-in from the group. Have you been able to lead from below or the middle and influence people even when they are not your direct reports?
People skills: Do you acknowledge the value of others’ views and actions? Have you managed and empowered a team of direct reports or peers on project-based teams? Have you helped develop the performance and ability of others?
Personal qualities: Are you trustworthy? Do you adapt to changing demands and circumstances? Are you self-aware and able to understand your strengths and weaknesses?
Cognitive ability: Do you know how to frame problems, analyze situations, identify key issues, conduct analyses, and produce acceptable solutions? Do you have a strategic orientation to think beyond the span of your own control and into the future to reshape the approach or scope of work?
MBA programs value these qualities, so think about specific ways that you have demonstrated them—and then have your recommenders share these specific examples in their recommendation letters.
3. Share the right information.
In addition to sharing your motivation for an MBA and your post-MBA goals with your recommenders, provide your resume, submission deadlines, and basic background about the culture of each program. Let your recommenders know that you will include their email address in online applications, which will trigger invitations and specific instructions from each program.
Consider sharing the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants’ advice for recommenders so they understand the key components of effective recommendations. The guidelines are available in several languages.
4. Trust the process.
Once you have provided background information to your recommenders, step away from the process and trust them to do their job of writing a letter of support for you. Business schools place a high value on integrity, and you should be living this value throughout the application process.
Your recommenders should be writing an honest assessment of your performance and ability to be successful in business school. Therefore, there is no need for you to review their feedback; you want to check the box that waives your right to see the recommendation. If you have chosen the right person, trust that they have written a solid letter of support. If you retain your right to review the letter, the admissions committee could think you do not trust your recommenders and could wonder why you chose them in the first place.
Contact your recommenders occasionally to make sure they have everything they need to write their letter and are on track to submit by the deadline. If your manager is particularly busy, ask their assistant to block time on their schedule to work on your recommendation.
Show your recommenders your gratitude with a note and/or gift and keep them informed about your application status. I still count one of my MBA recommenders as a key supporter even 25 years after I applied to business school. And that brings us back to Step 1: nurture the relationships that can bring richness to your life throughout and well beyond your MBA process.
On May 12, 2022, join Stratus for a free webinar, “Tips for MBA Recommendations That Will WOW the Admissions Committee,” with myself and Lisa Cummings, who spent a cumulative 27 years reading applications at top MBA programs. In this hour-long webinar, Lisa and I will share insider insights on the dos and don’ts of supporting your recommenders.