A good recommendation letter is a key part of an effective business school application package. Unfortunately, far too many applicants focus on entirely the wrong things. They don’t know who to ask to write them a recommendation letter, they don’t know when to ask, and they don’t know how to follow up.
The reality is, recommendation letters are extremely important. They give adcoms an outside perspective on your candidacy. Done well, they can reinforce your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.
So if you want a truly stellar MBA recommendation letter, you need to understand what the admissions committee is looking for in a recommendation, and the difference between a good one and a bad one.
What adcoms look for in a recommendation letter
When the admissions committee reviews your application package, they want to see evidence that you’re a serious candidate who has demonstrated leadership skills and a commitment to pursuing a management career, who will mesh well with your cohort and succeed as a member of their school, and (ideally) that you are someone who will go on to achieve significant success after business school.
The best recommendation letters should support these goals. They should also:
- Be written in an authentic, believable voice (DO NOT fall into the trap of writing the letter on behalf of your recommender!)
- Include specific, concrete examples of times when you demonstrated leadership, took initiative, handled criticism well, etc.
- Avoid vague, clichéd platitudes like “hard worker”, “great employee” or “real go-getter”
- Be written by someone who knows you and your work well, not just someone with an impressive title
- Demonstrate that you have a good relationship with your superiors
Ultimately, your recommendation letter should sound like sincere, enthusiastic praise. So when you’re trying to decide on recommenders, look for someone who can honestly provide that kind of feedback.
How to successfully ask someone to recommend you for b-school
Keeping those factors for a great recommendation letter in mind will help you as you plan out your best course of action.
Start by making a list of all of your possible recommenders. Most schools want a direct supervisor and/ or someone from your current place of employment. Previous supervisors can also be a good choice, as well as non-direct supervisors and other higher-ups who you’ve worked on special projects with.
While most MBA programs require two recommenders, if you’re applying to several schools it often makes sense to ask more people to recommend you so you don’t overwhelm any one person.
This may also allow you to try to have alumni recommenders for some of the programs you’re applying to. It shouldn’t be your highest consideration by any means, but it can provide a slight bump. You should always focus on having your strongest recommenders write letters for your top priority schools.
Asking a busy professional to write you a letter of recommendation for b-school (or more likely, several letters) is a big ask. You’re much more likely to get a “yes” if you make it as easy as possible on the recommender – short of writing the letter yourself, of course.
Do your research before contacting your recommenders. Look into what types of questions the adcom will want them to address, how they’ll need to respond (letter, specific questions), and what the deadline for response is.
Make sure you have a clear sense of your personal brand, so you can provide your recommenders a sense of what to emphasize in their responses.
You may also want to refresh their memories with some of your achievements or projects you’ve worked on together – that will make it easier for them to write a letter that focuses on specifics. If you have previous evaluations, written praise, even congratulatory emails, all of those can help with creating a detailed recommendation.
Remember, the worst case scenario is not someone who says no when you ask for a recommendation – it’s someone who says yes and then doesn’t follow through, or who delivers a last-minute, half-hearted response to the admissions committee.
Your next step
You should start the process of choosing recommenders and preparing a recommendation strategy as soon as possible.
Remember, building an MBA application package often takes longer than you think, so the earlier you can get started the better off you will be.
If you have more questions about MBA admissions or what you can do to present yourself as the clear choice for admissions committees, get in touch with us today. Our admissions consultants have spent the last 16 years helping MBA applicants create compelling, effective application packages for the world’s most selective b-schools – and we can help you, too.