The number of top-ranked MBA programs now asking the exact same questions for the letters of recommendation is growing, which is good news both for recommenders and for candidates. LORs are very important to an applicant’s case, providing an objective assessment from a supervisor, former manager, or other professional that helps affirm (or not) what the applicant has stated about her own skills, traits and abilities. But different questions with different word limits were onerous for both applicants, who had to ask the same people to write varying assessments for their multiple applications, as well as the recommenders.
• How do the candidate’s performance, potential, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
• Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
Harvard, Wharton, and Yale have word limits for both questions, though the other programs do not. Not all schools had released their LOR questions for the 2015 application season as of this writing, so this list is not comprehensive, and other schools may be added to the list. Stanford has a helpful link to a transcript of a podcast on what elements make for successful and effective LORs. This advice is certainly applicable to LORs for any other MBA program as well.
Some schools also ask recommenders to fill out a personal qualities and skills grid form, evaluating applicants in a variety of areas. Currently, there is no unity among the schools on the use of a grid, so carefully check each school’s requirements.
Graduate school admissions consultants have lobbied to streamline this LOR process for years, and this convergence around shared questions is a direct outgrowth of those efforts. Last year, at the annual conference of the Association of International Graduate School Consultants (AIGAC), the topic of LORs became unexpectedly lively, with school admissions directors expressing concern over the integrity of what they were reading in LORs, and AIGAC members arguing that using shared questions would enhance the integrity of the process because it would take pressure off both applicant and recommender.
Anna Ivey, president of AIGAC, is pleased with the development of more schools converging around shared LOR questions. “Applicants have for years found themselves in quite a pickle because they have had to dump so much work on their recommenders. In some cases, their recommenders have had to write more words than the applicants do in their essays. That has created all kinds of distortions, despite good intentions.
“As AIGAC’s MBA Applicant Survey has shown since its inception, a sizable minority of recommenders ask applicants to write their own letters, and we suspect that’s because there’s only so much bandwidth they can dedicate to someone else’s application, let alone for multiple people for whom they might be writing letters. That multiplier effect makes for a daunting amount of work. Any convergence around common recommendation questions not only makes the application process easier for applicants and their recommenders, but also helps preserve the integrity of those recommendations and the application process. Cutting down on the duplication and extra work for recommenders will make it more likely that recommenders write their letters themselves, and that’s a great outcome.”
By Judy Gruen, MBA admissions consultant since 1996 and author (with Linda Abraham) of MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.