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 score, 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 and maturity relative to peers, and the other pertains to a time when the applicant received constructive feedback. Therefore, 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.
I recently had a client ask if this advice means that she should not use a recommender who has a high-level, C-suite title. She feared that the admissions committee would be turned off by seeing such a lofty title despite the fact that she worked very closely with this person. Fear not—as long as you are choosing someone who knows you, your work, and your strengths really well, no title (lofty or not) will be a turnoff.
3. Consider 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.
Most of the top programs still require two letters of recommendation, with the expectation that one of them will be your current supervisor. However, there are some cases where getting a recommendation from your current supervisor is not feasible: 1) telling your supervisor could potentially harm your standing in the organization; 2) your boss is new to the role and therefore is not familiar with your work and could not provide the level of detail or care required; 3) you work in a family business where your supervisor is your mom or dad (from whom the admissions committee does not want a letter); or 4) you’re an entrepreneur and you’re the boss.
The admissions committee understands these situations and allows (or, in many cases, requires) you to explain why you don’t have a recommendation from your current supervisor—whether in the optional essay or an essay specifically devoted to explaining your choice of recommender. Just be direct and honest. For these situations, you can choose an old boss with whom you worked closely, significant clients who can speak to your work, a supervisor from a community group you are involved in, or a peer IF they have good standing in the company and can provide specific details about your accomplishments and strengths.
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 with their obligations, you can prepare the recommender with some further direction. Highlight key traits you’d like to demonstrate throughout the application, and remind them of specific situations they could write about—doing so will help empower them. Remember, you know your story and your application better than they do, 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 situations where you had to demonstrate leadership or communication skills. Was there a time when you overcame huge obstacles to achieve a desired result? Or perhaps there was a situation where a client did not respond well to bad news, and you were the one to smooth things over. These are the types of examples you should arm your recommenders with so they can tell the stories from their perspective.
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 tips in “Four Steps to a Five-Star MBA Recommendation.”