Some applicants have this idea that if they can just get their company CEO, whom they have never met, to write their business school recommendation, then the admissions committee will cower in awe and immediately accept them. It’s not a new idea; applicants have asked me every year for the last ten years if they should choose high-level people as recommenders. The short answer is no.
Here’s the longer answer. There are two simple rules for choosing recommenders: You should choose people who know your work very well, and you should choose people who will write the recommendations themselves (with your guidance).
The typical bad recommendation, the kind written by someone who does not know you well (like a CEO), is full of assertions about what a good person you are but gives no evidence to back up those assertions. It’s a generic write-up full of platitudes that does not help you. A great recommendation, on the other hand, is written by someone who knows your work very well, someone who can go beyond simple assertions to give examples of impressive contributions that provide evidence of your leadership skills and teamwork ability and business acumen. People who know you well can often write great stories of your work that you had completely forgotten or taken for granted. They write about what was important to them, and therefore they give great third-person points of view about your candidacy to the admissions committee, which is exactly what the committee wants. So again—choose people who know your work well.
Typically, this means that your recommender should be a supervisor, a colleague, or a client. Do not choose someone who simply has a big title or happens to be an alumnus of the school, thinking that this will carry weight with the admissions committee, because that person will write something generic that will not help you. Only if this big titleholder or alumnus knows your work very well should you choose them.
Also, try to select a range of recommenders—ones who have seen you in different situations—so that they all don’t end up saying the same things about you or using the same stories. For example, choosing your supervisor and that person’s supervisor is rarely a good strategy, because they’ve seen you work on the same projects from the same point of view. The admissions committee wants views of you from different angles; they do not want the same point of view given two or three times.
Do not write your own recommendation if you can avoid it. Seriously. Put aside the likelihood that the admissions committee will recognize your writing style and discount the recommendation accordingly: the problem is that if you write your own recommendation, you’ll just write things you already know about yourself, or repeat things from your essays—and as I said above, it’s a recommendation that brings out new things about you that works well.
Now, you do want to guide your recommenders; you want to tell them you’re applying to business school, tell them your goals, remind them of successful projects you’ve worked on together, and suggest to them that they write about your business-related skills rather than your technical-related skills. You can even write an outline or a series of bullet points for them to serve as helpful reminders and save them some time. In these ways, you can influence the recommendation process. But really, they should write the recommendation in their own hand, in their own style, with their own thoughts. Someone who takes the time to write your recommendation is someone who believes in you and your candidacy; you can draw your own conclusions about someone who does not want to take the time.
By R. Todd King, an MIT MBA, who has worked with MBA applicants since 2001. Todd can help you make the most of your strengths and mitigate your weaknesses.