“Ingredients of a Great MBA Letter of Recommendation” is excerpted from MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools, by Linda Abraham and Judy Gruen.
You may view the job of gathering strong Letters of Recommendation (LORs) as an annoying chore, or even redundant. Haven’t you already proven in your essays and through your stellar resume how amazingly focused, smart, diverse and dedicated you are to earning your MBA? You may think so, but the adcoms want even more proof. So take a deep breath and reach back for that final burst of energy you still need, because LORs are read carefully by adcoms and can be highly influential to the acceptance process.
LORs can strengthen your application on many fronts. For example, they validate claims. Because they are written by a third party, they affirm that what you claim about yourself in your essays is true. They reveal new and distinct qualifications by providing an opportunity to showcase additional managerial or leadership experiences, or exemplary characteristics that you didn’t have room to discuss in your essays. They can counteract a weakness. For example, if you’re a quant jock, you should look for someone who can talk up your communication skills. Conversely, if you come from a nontraditional professional background, you should find a recommender who can testify to your quantitative and analytical skills. Finally, they develop a fuller picture of you. Because they offer a complementary (and complimentary) perspective about your leadership, integrity, and other characteristics, LORs round out your profile. Through third-party validation, they confirm that you are a well-rounded person of good character who can fit well with the school and its environment.
In fact, when the adcom wrestles between extending an offer to two otherwise equally qualified candidates, a stellar LOR can tip those precariously balanced scales in your favor. Conversely, lackluster LORs that fail to add any new insights and lack enthusiasm can doom your application.
Effective letters of recommendation highlight and amplify your leadership, teamwork, organizational and communication skills. They offer examples of the value you have brought to an organization. This means that managers, supervisors and professional mentors are ideal candidates to write them. Having supervised you over a period of time and seen you in a variety of situations, they can respond knowledgably to most, if not all, of the questions that schools raise, such as how you stand out from others in a similar capacity, and in what ways you have had an impact on your organization. They also ask for assessments about your personal attributes such as intelligence, creativity, focus, integrity, communication skills, even your sense of humor.
Recommenders will also need to assess your weaknesses and what you have done to remedy them. Consequently you need recommenders who really know not only about your proven abilities and talents, but also about areas where you can improve and do so without drawing attention to or magnifying any weaknesses that you do have. (Hint: This means your mother is out of the running as a recommender – even if she is your boss!)
If you cannot ask your current manager for an LOR, ask a former supervisor, as long as he or she did not supervise you more than three years ago. You should also get someone who can speak about your skills and abilities now, such as a team lead or manager of another department where you currently work. Recruiting a recommender who knows you well and cares about you and your plans will result in a far more effective LOR than getting someone in the company with a high title who barely knows you to sign off on a letter about you.
If you run your own company, good recommender options include a partner, consultant, major client, vendor, supplier, attorney, accountant, or board member, if applicable. Whomever you choose should have a longstanding relationship with you (at least two years) during which you’ve had opportunities to display your integrity, professionalism and other strengths. Under no circumstances should you ask a relative (especially one who shares your last name) to write your LOR, even if you work in a family business. If you work in a nontraditional, nonbusiness environment, make sure that at least one of your recommenders can speak to your business acumen and management potential.
Tools to make your recommender’s job easier
Writing a meaningful and beneficial LOR will take at a minimum one to two hours of a recommender’s time, which is a lot to ask of an already busy person. Explain to your hoped-for recommender your plans for graduate study and why you are applying to the MBA programs that you have chosen. Tell her what you need the LOR to accomplish for you, including the addition of new, distinct details about your work experience and management potential. Offer tangible information that will make her job easier, including your essays. Then ask if she feels she can endorse you enthusiastically and can give the letter the time it requires. If not, she can politely decline, and you can move on to the next possible recommender.
Once you have recommenders lined up, give them the tools they need to get the job done, including:
- A brief overview of how you are trying to position yourself with the school.
- A resume.
- Copies of each LOR form, with basic data already filled in.
- Timeline to submit the LOR to meet the school’s deadline. If applicable, stamped and addressed envelopes.
- A list of experiences, anecdotes or other stories that you would like mentioned. Choose with an eye toward strengthening any weaknesses in your application. The stories you suggest should be different from those already discussed in your essays, though it would be natural to mention a very significant achievement in both an LOR and an essay.
- Copies of relevant work evaluations.
- Copies of your essays, if you already have essay drafts.
To ensure a stellar LOR, suggest that your recommenders check out our Letter of Recommendation Services. They’ll be matched with an advisor who will coach them through the LOR writing process or help them edit and polish their letters.