Don't Make This MBA Recommendation Letter Mistake

Ex-Harvard admissions expert highlights what NOT to do when sourcing your MBA recommendations

By Chioma Isiadinso

Here’s a hypothetical situation: you’re applying to business school, and you have a family friend who’s an alum of one of the schools on your list.

They insist that it should be them who writes a recommendation on your behalf. Maybe they suggest they have an inside path to getting candidates accepted.

However, if you take them up on their offer and use them as one of your referees this could raise major problems with your application.

The first potential problem is that someone like this can approach the admissions process with a type of arrogance that will show through in their recommendation. This attitude will turn off admissions committees (adcoms) and hurt your chances of getting in.

Secondly, someone in this position doesn’t have any context for your application. They don’t know your work, they can’t compare you to your peers, and they don’t have any constructive feedback to offer.

As a result, their recommendation will lack substance. It will be superfluous and generic to adcoms, and it will be a missed opportunity for you.

When choosing a referee, remember to ask yourself: has this person given me constructive feedback, and if so, what was it?

It’s essential that your referees have concrete experiences with you to base their letters on. Someone who has worked with you in a professional capacity is a good bet, but someone who’s seen you in a leadership role outside of work can be a good choice too.

The bottom line is to look for someone who can compare you to your peers and draw on specific examples of experiences they’ve had with you. In other words, “I’m a family friend, and I play golf with the candidate’s dad” doesn’t help!

Even if the hypothetical family friend has written recommendations for a successful applicant in the past, proceed with caution. This person might be inflating their own role in the candidate’s success – the reality may be that the candidate got in despite this recommendation, not because of it!

So, the best option in this situation is to find a polite way of saying “thanks, but no thanks.”

Now, if you decide you really do want a recommendation from this person after considering the situation, you would want to use them as a supplementary recommendation at schools where that’s an option - definitely not as one of your main recommendations.

It’s easy for candidates to underestimate how important recommendations are in the application process. Keep in mind that for adcoms, your recommendations are an important data point in figuring out who you are and how you stack up with other candidates.

The key is to have referees who can give concrete information that will help adcoms make quantifiable, objective comparisons between you and other applicants. Letters in which this is lacking can do real damage, so choose your referees wisely!


Chioma Isiadinso is an education entrepreneur and co-founder/CEO of EXPARTUS, the first MBA admissions consulting firm to integrate personal branding into every aspect of the MBA admissions process.

She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.

Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.


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