Letters of recommendation are a valuable part of your MBA application package, but the process of getting them can be tough – especially when you aren't sure who to ask or what to look for in a recommender.
Having sat on the admissions board for both Harvard and Carnegie Mellon, I’ve seen a lot of MBA recommendations, both good and bad. And in my consulting business, EXPARTUS, I get questions from applicants every single day about how to obtain recommendations that will improve their chances of getting in.
Here are answers to the top three questions I get about MBA recommendations:
Who should I choose?
As a practical consideration, you need to choose someone who won't jeopardize your career. Recommendation letters from your supervisor are an asset if you can swing them, but don't anger your boss or risk a valuable promotion if you think asking for the recommendation would be frowned upon.
Aside from your supervisor, you can choose someone who you have worked closely with for a while. Previous supervisors are strongly preferred. You can get a recommendation letter from a co-worker, but if possible you should choose someone who has been in a position to judge your work. Don't limit yourself to workplace recommenders; your supervisors from volunteer positions or internships can be valuable resources for a strong recommendation.
Your recommender should be someone who supports your ambitions. Someone who doesn't think business school is worth it will write a much weaker recommendation than someone who understands the value of an MBA.
Before you even think about approaching someone for a recommendation, be sure of how they feel about you. Don't ask for a recommendation from someone who might give anything less than a whole-hearted endorsement of your work.
How and when should I approach my recommenders?
Don't approach a recommendation flippantly or casually – you shouldn't be speaking to this person for the first or second time when you are asking them to write you a rec letter.
When it comes to asking for a recommendation, the sooner, the better – especially if you're applying that same year. Don't wait until the deadline is looming, or your recommenders will be far more likely to either refuse or write a rushed, half-hearted letter. Give them the time to write a stellar recommendation letter for you!
Six to eight weeks is your best bet, especially in the summertime when they may be planning a holiday. And of course, if you know your desired recommender has an intense schedule, factor that into your lead time. It's better to apply in round 2 with a stellar recommendation than to apply in round 1 with disappointing recommendations.
When you ask someone to recommend you, use that opportunity to highlight what it is you'd like them to talk about. For example, you might mention “I was hoping that you might feel comfortable writing me a letter of recommendation, since you are familiar with my work on Project X and Y.”
You can then put together a cheat sheet that highlights the examples and instances you want your recommender to focus on in your letters.
Once someone has agreed to write the recommendation, you'll still need to manage the process a bit. Don't be a pest about it, but don't completely ignore it up until your deadline, either. Check in with your recommender to ensure that the process is going smoothly. This can also give you an opportunity to locate an additional recommender if it looks like one of your recommenders won’t be able to follow through.
How can I be strategic about my recommendations?
Applicants often get hung up on the idea that there is a specific formula to the recommendations – example, one from work and one from your volunteer/community services. That is not the case.
In reality, different situations work best for different applicants. What's really important is how well, and how specifically, they can talk about your abilities and strengths.
Think about the personal brand you're trying to convey. Who knows you? How do they know you? What would they say about you? An ideal recommender will have specific, concrete details to share about your experience and ability. They will be able to enthusiastically recommend you to your chosen business school with specific reasons why you would be a good fit.
I recently read a phenomenal recommendation from an athletics coach. It was so specific, and so detailed, outlining exactly why the applicant was such an asset to the team. The coach had shared several examples of how this young man – though not the strongest player on the team – demonstrated incredible character and leadership. It was very powerful, perhaps one of the best recommendation letters I've ever seen.
The job of a recommendation letter is to get the admissions committee excited about having you as a part of their school. Ultimately, that's what you're really looking for when you choose a recommender – not just individuals with impressive titles, but those who will be able to convey what makes you exceptional.
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.