Admissions 101: Getting Enthusiastic Letters of Recommendation (Part I)

Last week we wrote about how great letters of recommendation contain “Pound the Table!” levels of enthusiasm. It’s nice for your recommenders to write, “He’s a strong employee who will do well in the future,” but that doesn’t grab an MBA admissions officer by the collar and shout, “This person has ‘it,’ and you would be a fool not to admit him!” And that difference easily makes the difference between an admit and a rejection, or an admit and eternal waitlist purgatory.

“That’s all well and good,” you’re saying, “but how do I actually get my recommenders to convey this kind of enthusiasm in what they write?” There are a couple of things to ask yourself, and a couple of key steps to take to make sure that your recommenders understand the game, and do their utmost to help you get admitted. Today we’ll look at who in your life will be most likely to produce the kind of enthusiastic letters you need to get into a top-ten MBA program.

Choose People Who Know You Well
We have written about this countless times before, but first and foremost, your recommenders need to really know you, including your weaknesses (come on, you probably have more than one) and your ambitions. They should know your personality, what makes you laugh, and what you enjoy doing in your free time. They may not actually write about all of this, but if they can’t answer basic questions about you as a person, then they probably don’t know you well enough.

So why does it matter so much? As Dee Leopold told the Wall Street Journal last week, your letters of recommendation need to contain specific examples of you in action. In that article, Leopold said that the best recommendations contain a lot of verbs, and we like this rule of thumb, but applicants should take a step back and think about what this means beyond the specific style choices that their recommendation writers will make. If a recommendation writer can’t cite specific examples of why you’re a great leader in the making, or why you are good and acting on constructive feedback, then their letters will sound vague and wishy-washy… Not the stuff that “Pound the Table!” recommendations are made of.

Choose People Who Care About You
If your recommenders are not at least a slight bit personally invested in seeing you succeed, then how can they write enthusiastic recommendations? Remember that, at least before the interview, admissions officers don’t know you at all beyond the words they see in your application. If they don’t see evidence that those around you adore you and want you to succeed, then that says something about what kind of positive impact you have (or don’t have) on your organization and your community.

Now, even if you’ve done everything right and have done amazingly well in your career so far, you still might happen to work with some people who just aren’t inclined to care about others. Or, you may work for someone who in fact doesn’t want to see you get into business school, since they would rather you stay in your current role, for their own selfish reasons. These instances are not your fault, but you still need to steer around those people. If your current boss falls into this “”not enthusiastic” camp, you still may need to get a recommendation from him or her, but will need to augment that recommendation with another one from someone whose level of caring will clearly come through in their application.

Choose People Who Believe In You
Similarly, if you solicit letters of recommendation from people who just don’t quite envision you kicking butt in business one day, you may be disappointed with their final output. For schools that ask recommenders to rank you against your peers, or against other young professionals they have managed, you will want to work with recommenders who are comfortable giving you “Top 1%”-type ratings for at least most of the questions in the recommendation.

Odds are that you will know pretty well who thinks of you as “Top 1%” material or merely as “Top 20%” material. If you’re not sure, be careful. But if you think you have identified someone who believe in your potential, then earning high ratings from them partly depends on properly setting their expectations, which we’ll get into more next time, in Part II!

Do you plan on applying to business school soon? Call us at (800) 925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert about your letters of recommendation. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

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