Selecting your recommenders requires a strategy. I like to begin with the basics: Who, When, What, Where, and How. I also like to suggest that you waive your right to access it. The waiver makes the recommendation more credible to the admissions committee.
Who are the best people to address the questions the schools are asking? Who are the best people to affirm what you say and also add information that you don’t have the chance to include in your application essays?
Many schools ask that a supervisor writes your LOR, and while that is ideal, there are times when you just can’t ask a supervisor for a letter. If you find yourself in that situation, you’ll need an explanation. For example, “I asked my mentor [instead of my supervisor] to write my recommendation because she knows my leadership, drive, and work ethic better than anyone else I know.” Or, “I’ve asked a former supervisor to write my recommendation letter because asking my current supervisor would jeopardize my current project/promotion.” Or, “I’ve asked a supplier to write my recommendation because my supervisor has only been on board for one month and I’ve known my supplier for three years.” Regardless, develop a strong relationship with your recommender prior to “the ask.”
It’s best to ask your recommender to write the letter at least six weeks prior to your anticipated date of submission. Everyone will face delays, so allow for them. Six weeks should give your recommender enough time to:
1. Review your preparation materials (see What? below)
2. Meet with the recommender for the request (in person if possible)
3. Meet again to give the packet of information that you will provide
4. Meet again to answer any questions the recommender may have for you
Many schools ask similar questions, but it is best to use the unique e-form each school provides the recommender and answer the questions the school asks. You will add the recommenders’ contact information on your application, and the school will send your recommender a link. Many of these documents can be written in Word and then uploaded.
Regardless of how the letter is delivered, you need to give your recommender a packet of information to use to help them answer the questions. Often the questions will ask about your leadership in relation to your peers or when did your recommender offer you criticism and how did you receive the criticism? This latter question has been problematic for many recommenders. I suggest that the recommender think about the question in a different way: rather than thinking about a weakness, think about a time the recommender “offered the candidate advice and how did the candidate act on that advice.”
A letter of recommendation is not your annual review; it’s your recommendation. Your recommender may even ask you to write the letter, and they’ll just sign it when you’re done. You need to stand your ground and say, “the school really wants your honest perspective, and I would be so grateful to you for your original work.”
However, you can coach your recommender by providing a list of the schools you are applying to and the reasons why, a copy of your resume, your goals statement, and additional items you want your recommender to cover (like your achievements or items that you can’t cover in your essays but that your recommender can elaborate on, like your affinity for paragliding or your talent with the cello).
You can also ask your recommender to highlight achievements that may counteract a negative – like your communications skills if you have a low verbal score or a quantitative achievement if you have a low quant score.
I know when I write letters for my former students, having this information will remind me of the great things that the student did for the school or for me. It gives me the launching point to tell a story.
All the statements a recommender makes should be backed up with evidence (a story) to make it more interesting and hammer home the point of the recommendation.
Many recommendations also offer grids. Your recommender should be honest.
If your recommender says they don’t have the time to write the recommendation, I’ve suggested my clients book a one hour appointment (after they give the packet of materials needed to write the recommendation) and then call the recommender and say that they’d like to use this hour to write the recommendation. You can also offer to do things like pick up dry cleaning or groceries, walk the dog, or drive carpool to make time in your recommenders’ schedule to write the letter. Regardless, they need at least one hour of quiet time to get this right.
If your recommender says that they can’t write a strong letter for you, you need to find another recommender. If they enthusiastically say “yes!” make the task easy for them by giving them the packet (as mentioned in the What? section).
Check out our Letter of Recommendation assistance service if you have other questions regarding your recommendations, and good luck!
By Natalie Grinblatt Epstein, an accomplished Accepted consultant/editor (since 2008) and entrepreneur. Natalie is a former MBA Admissions Dean and Director at Ross, Johnson, and Carey. Want Natalie to help you get accepted to business school? Click here to get in touch!