Every business school application requires you to submit at least one letter of recommendation. These letters corroborate your admissions story, providing additional evidence of the leadership skills, analytical abilities, teamwork skills, and maturity that you have highlighted in the rest of your application. The best person to do this is normally your direct supervisor, but what if you can’t (or don’t want to) tell your boss yet that you’re applying to business school?
Fortunately, MBA admissions officers know that many applicants face this situation, and they won’t penalize you for it. Particularly in a rough economy, when job security seems to matter even more than usual, they know that you may take a serious risk by telling your boss, “If all goes according to plan, in a year I won’t be here anymore.” So, they’re willing to accept recommendations from other sources, as long as they give admissions officers what they need.
What most schools want, more than anything, is to hear an assessment of your abilities by someone who knows you well and has been in a position to evaluate you. That’s why your direct supervisor is your most obvious choice; he or she should spend a lot of time thinking about your performance, making it easy to provide an assessment of you as a young professional. Assuming that person is out of the picture, then you need to find someone else who meets these criteria:
- Does the “substitute recommender” know you well, in a non-social capacity? This person must have worked closely with you for some period of time; otherwise, they don’t really know your professional abilities and potential. We wrote “non-social” to make clear that this person needs to be more than an acquaintance, but we stopped short of saying “professional” since this person may come from outside of your job. For instance, if you devote serious time to a non-profit organization, someone who has served as a coordinator there may know you very well and may be a good person to provide a letter of recommendation.
- Has this person worked with you recently? We frequently talk to MBA applicants who have a seemingly good candidate in mind, but they haven’t worked with that person for a few years. When you’re a young professional, a few years is an eternity in terms of your development. Ideally, your substitute recommender will have worked with you in just the last year or two, or (even better) still works with you now.
- Does he or she have experience evaluating others in a professional setting?If your recommendation writer has never delivered a performance review in any setting, how will he or she be able to speak about your candidacy with authority? This doesn’t mean that your recommendation writer needs to have managed an entire department for years; the point is to find someone who can deliver a fair, even-handed-sounding (but still glowingly positive!) review of your candidacy.
- Does the person in question have enough time to do the job? This question always applies, even if your recommendation comes from your current boss. Too often, the recommendation writer will underestimate the task, or will simply say, “I don’t have time. You just write it for me and I’ll sign it.” Make sure that your recommendation writer understands the task at hand, and devotes enough time to it. You can help a great deal by providing specific examples of your recent successes that he or she may not remember. Doing that makes the recommender’s job easier, and makes the final product significantly stronger.
Keep in mind that what really matters is what your recommender writes about you, more than who exactly your recommender is. MBA admissions officers keep an open mind about these things, but it’s critical that your letters of recommendation provide all the clues that schools look for. Not only should your recommendations emphasize the four dimensions mentioned at the start of this post, but they should also clearly demonstrate the enthusiasm that your recommenders have about you and your business school candidacy. Find someone who can do that, and you will be fine.