Throughout the MBA application process, you’ll effectively put together a campaign based on your personal story making the case for why you should be accepted to your target school(s). Many people find it challenging to tell their personal story in a logical and compelling way within the limited application materials. Therefore, recommenders are a critical part of the application process because they provide the admissions committee with an outsider’s perspective of your story.
Choosing the “right” recommenders is a key decision. Choosing the wrong recommenders and/or not managing the process effectively can be the difference between being accepted and getting dinged. Consider the following tips when selecting your recommenders:
1. Know Your Application.
Very few applicants have a perfect application, so being aware of your strengths and weaknesses is important. Admissions committees evaluate multiple aspects including undergraduate performance, GMAT/GRE, community involvement, leadership experience, work experience, professional progression, global exposure, and school fit. Do you have weaknesses in one or more of these areas? If so, how can your recommenders improve your story in those areas?
Perhaps you have a poor GRE/GMAT score and didn’t have a strong quant undergraduate performance. In such a scenario, admissions committees may question your ability to handle the academic rigors (especially quantitative) of the curriculum. Therefore, consider a recommender who can provide examples of your strong analytical ability.
2. Titles Don’t Matter.
Although it may be tempting to ask the head of your company to write a letter on your behalf, this decision could backfire. The admissions committee would much rather see a recommendation from a direct supervisor who worked with you every day than one from a CEO who barely knows you. Recommenders are commonly asked two questions—one relates to the applicant’s performance relative to peers, and the other pertains to a time when the applicant received constructive feedback—so it’s logical to think first about who knows your peer group and who has given you constructive feedback.
The best letters of recommendation include strong, specific examples exhibiting your characteristics as well as how you grew, stood out from your peer group, or improved the company. Such illustrations are best and most authentically told from the perspective of those with whom you work with the closest. Therefore, choose a recommender who has worked closely with you and can speak to your attributes and strengths firsthand.
3. Who Cares the Most?
Ask yourself one simple question: of all the recommenders you’re considering, who do you think cares the most about you going to business school and advancing your career? The best letters are often written by recommenders who care deeply about the candidate. Given that applicants often apply to multiple schools, and each school utilizes different questions and ranking systems, the process can be quite demanding for a recommender—often more than they may have expected. Consequently, a recommender who cares is more likely to spend the time needed to write a strong letter—highlighting thoughtful examples, using superlative language, and speaking favorably about your strengths and attributes.
One note of caution: Avoid selecting peers, professors, or mentors as recommenders, as schools much prefer to hear from current or past supervisors.
4. Manage the Recommender.
Engage your recommenders early, and be respectful of their time. They likely are busy and in demand, so make the process as easy as possible for them. Likewise, if a potential recommender is too busy (or just not available, such as on maternity leave), then don’t force it. As you approach potential recommenders, focus on nurturing your relationship and providing guidance regarding the process. They will be appreciative, and you will get a better letter.
To provide guidance, let the recommender know the basics: how the process works, what they need to submit, the deadlines, the schools to which you’re applying, and the actual questions. As they gain comfort around their obligations, you can prepare the recommender with some further direction. Highlighting key traits you’d like to demonstrate throughout the application and reminding them of specific situations they could write about will help empower them. Remember, you know your story and your application better than them, so you must take the lead in describing the process and what will make it successful.
For example, if you have a stellar GMAT score and a solid undergrad GPA, perhaps they can provide insight beyond those numbers. Therefore, remind them of stories where you had to demonstrate leadership or communication skills.
The process of choosing the right recommender can be stressful, and doing so is an afterthought for some applicants. When you’re ready to begin the process, follow our “Four Steps to a Five-Star MBA Recommendation.”