Harvard Business School's Advice on Recommendations

Yesterday Harvard Business School Dean of Admissions Dee Leopold wrote a blog post dispensing some good advice to HBS applicants regarding their MBA letters of recommendation. While what she wrote is all consistent with what we have written in this space many times before, much of it bears repeating.

Dee hits on several key themes that we tell our clients, and that are covered in detail in Your MBA Game Plan, our MBA admissions guide. These include:

  • Above all else, make sure that your recommendation writers know you well. Every year we have clients approach us and say something along the lines of, “Good news. I think I can get my CEO to write a letter of recommendation for me.” If your CEO hasn’t worked with you extensively, and can’t discuss your strengths and potential in great detail, then this isn’t very good news. Admissions officers are impressed by what YOU have done, not by what your recommendation writer has done.
  • Details and specifics are key. As Dee says, “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Any recommendation written in general terms — “He’s a true leader… He exhibits teamwork all the time…” — will fail to leave a lasting impression on admissions officers.
  • While your recommendations don’t all have to come from the workplace, the best ones are usually written by someone who has evaluated your performance. Dee writes, “Note that we are not looking for a peer recommendation – we find it most helpful if there is some developmental distance between you and the recommender.” That kind of person is typically best suited to comment on your strengths and development areas.
  • Simply knowing an HBS student or grad doesn’t give you any kind of leg up. Dee has this to say: “Please don’t ask current HBS students to write to us on your behalf outside of the formal recommendation process.” Of course, dozens (if not hundreds) will surely ignore her advice this year, but you heard it straight from Dee!
  • This last one is Dee’s most interesting point. To answer the question of whether or not someone with a tenuous job situation should go to his or her boss for a letter of recommendation, Dee says, “Especially in these unusual times, please don’t jeopardize your employment in order to secure a recommendation from a current employer.” While we have also shared this advice before, we glad that Dee wrote this. Having it come from the head of admissions at HBS should put some jittery applicants at ease as they grapple with this question.

For more information and advice on applying to Harvard, visit the Veritas Prep HBS information page. Also, call us at 800-925-7737 and find out how we can help you with your recommendations!

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