Timeout with Trav: Letters of Rec for MBA Applications

Send your admissions questions to timeout@veritasprep.com!

Dear Trav,
I run my own business and don’t have any managers. Who should I go to for letters of rec?

We often hear that b-schools want a letter of recommendation from your current supervisor, period.  There are a number of circumstances where this is not possible, and running your own business is certainly one of them.  Fear not!  Admissions officers completely understand that you don’t have a direct supervisor, and they will not hold this against you.  Instead, you should be congratulated on starting and running your own business!  This shows a great deal of leadership ability, calculated risk taking and professional maturity, all of which are highly valued by MBA programs!

So… who can you get to write letters of rec? This may depend on the type of business you run.  Remember, the real key is to ask someone who knows your working style, habits, strengths and weaknesses well enough to answer the school’s questions thoroughly and with specific examples from their relationship with you.  If you run a B2B business with some major clients who know your strengths and weaknesses well, you could ask a longtime client to write your letter.  Do you have mentors with whom you confer about business decisions and who know you well?  These mentors could write letters on your behalf.  Entrepreneurs often have a lot of “question marks” on their MBA applications, where it is difficult for an admissions officer to determine whether they’ve really been successful or are just good at spinning stories about a poorly run business. Whether it’s a major client or a professional mentor, you need a recommender who can speak to the success of your venture and your personal leadership traits.

If you’ve only run your business for 2-3 years, perhaps you have stayed in contact with a supervisor from a previous job who can speak to your abilities to work with others.  One of the other “question marks” on an entrepreneur’s application is their ability to work in teams. Much of your work as an MBA student will be performed in teams, and schools want to ensure you can “play nice” with others. If you do not have experience working in a corporate setting, perhaps you could reach out to partners or vendors with whom you have worked closely who could speak to your skills in working with those over whom you do not have direct management responsibility.

Lastly, I wanted to offer a few suggestions of who NOT to ask to write a recommendation.  If you’re part of a family business, do not ask a family member to write your reco. These will be seen as biased by the admissions committee. Also, do not ask a subordinate in your business to write it, as they have a clear incentive to write in an overly positive way to keep their job!  Business owners have to get a little creative with their letters of rec, but the Admissions Committee recognizes this fact and will provide you flexibility accordingly.

Our Veritas Prep Admissions Consultants can help you select the best recommenders for your situation and even help you prepare them so that they write the best, most enthusiastic letters on your behalf!

Best of luck!


If you’re thinking about applying to business school, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

Travis Morgan is the Director of Admissions Consulting for Veritas Prep and earned his MBA with distinction from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. He served in the Kellogg Student Admissions Office, Alumni Admissions Organization and Diversity & Inclusion Council, among several other posts. Travis joined Veritas Prep as an admissions consultant and GMAT instructor, and he was named Worldwide Instructor of the Year in 2011.