Three Ways a Letter of Recommendation Can Go Wrong

Letter of RecommendationRecently we talked to a new client who just went through a rough Round 1 of the MBA admissions process. Although the round isn’t over yet, the way his interview invitations are going, it looks like he’s not going to have much success. Once he saw the writing on the wall, he came to us for help. We took a look at the applications that he submitted to his Round 1 schools, and just about everything seemed to be in order: strong work experience with a history of increasing responsibility, essays that tell interesting personal stories of growth and maturity, a solid undergraduate university, and a GMAT score that puts him above the mean score at most top schools.

Everything looked great, so we were wondering what could be wrong. Then, he asked one of his recommendation writers to share what he submitted on behalf of this candidate, and then we saw it: a vague, lukewarm letter that answered the questions (not very well), and nothing more. Without knowing much else about this candidate, we quickly determined that his letters of recommendation may have been the culprit.


What’s so tough about letters of recommendation is that they’re the part of the application over which you have the least control. The GMAT can be scary since it all comes down to how you perform in a few hours in one sitting, and your undergraduate transcripts are in the past, so there’s nothing you can do to change them, but all of these things are determined by you (and can be overcome or mitigated with some work). When it comes to letters of recommendation, however, you’re putting your future in someone else’s hands. Even if that person adores you and wants to see you walk out of Harvard with an MBA in three years, he may have no idea of what he’s doing when it comes to helping you get in!

While a lot of factors go into creating a terrific letter of recommendation for a business school application, here are three ways in which recommendations frequently go wrong:

  1. A lack of enthusiasm.While your recommendation writer shouldn’t sound like a raving lunatic, he should sound as if he really, really cares about whether or not you get into the target school. If this person is so invested in whether or not you get in, clearly he must care a great deal about you, and business schools want applicants who forge strong ties with those around them. If your recommendation writer seems “blah” about whether or not you get in, and doesn’t think you’ve earned the highest possible ratings (for recommendations that ask the person to rate the applicant on a scale), admissions officers will wonder if you’re the type of person who just leaves a trail of “blah” in your wake. No business school wants that. The more that your recommendation writer shows that he really cares about your success, the better that reflects on you as an applicant.
  2. Not enough specifics. Some question prompts will ask for specific examples of leadership, teamwork, problem-solving abilities, and so on. Many won’t ask for specifics, but that doesn’t mean your recommendation writer doesn’t need to provide them. Which do you think is more compelling? “This applicant is a great leader,” vs. “This applicant is a great leader, as demonstrated by the time last year when he stepped in for a departed manager and led a team of six analysts to complete a project on time and save a critical client relationship.” Just as they do in your own admissions essays, specific examples help to make these important traits more concrete and believable in admissions officers’ minds.
  3. Not staying consistent with your application themes. While the above two failings catch many more amateurish applicants, this one is where even savvy applicants sometimes see their candidacies fall apart. If your essays stress how much you want to shift away from investment management and move into the non-profit sector, but your supervisor writes about how she knows how badly you want an MBA so that you can accelerate your career in finance, that will raise a red flag for admissions officers. Either you’re not being honest with the school, or you’re not telling your supervisor your true intentions. You can avoid these kinds of red flags by outlining your key application themes and walking your recommendation writers through them. While we firmly believe that your recommendation writers need to write their own letters, this kind of advance preparation is smart (and even necessary).

For more help with your MBA letters of recommendation, give us a call at 800-925-7737 and talk to one of our admissions experts. And, as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter!

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