What Should Your Recommenders Say About You?

Now that applications have been released, many clients are beginning to reach out to their recommenders.  We often get questions about the best approach to ensuring this portion of your application is the best it can be, so I thought it would be helpful to give you some tips for working with your recommenders so your end result is just that.  I have written other articles on how to wisely choose your recommenders, so I will assume you have done that part already.

Once you have the right people on board, it’s important to communicate to your recommenders your needs and expectations including your timeline and due dates.  There are generally two types of recommendations that are required depending on the school:  the original letter, and the questionnaire.  Both require a similar level of thoughtfulness from your recommender.

For first time recommenders, or for those who have not been through the process themselves as an applicant, it’s useful to give them a list of things to do and consider.  At the very least, recommenders need to review a copy of your resume, personal statement, or application essays so that their recommendation can dovetail with—and not conflict with or duplicate–the rest of the application.  This is important, since the recommendations are great tools to fill in gaps that cannot be properly covered in the essays or application questions.  They can also reinforce the various attributes you offer as a case for your admission.

Secondly, your recommender will need to establish their qualifications for evaluating you.  Often, this is taken care of easily with direct questions the recommender is asked to answer, but if they are asked to simply write a good, old-fashioned letter of recommendation from scratch, they should include this information.  Pertinent  details may include how long they have been in their current position, and how many people they supervise. Additionally, the recommender should discuss how well they know you specifically including how long they have supervised your performance on the job.  This information may seem obvious, but it establishes a critical level of credibility for the adcom and a foundation from which the recommender  can authoritatively comment on your strengths.

Next, the recommender should consider three strength qualities they have observed in you, always supporting their claims with descriptions of specific instances where the attributes were demonstrated.  Much like the advice we give our clients for their essays, the best way for a recommendation to be effective is through telling stories.  Of course it helps if your strengths are unique and distinguish you from your peers, which is often a measure for which the adcoms are most attentive.

It’s also great if a recommender can quantify your impact on the organization or role, which can be helpful when the adcom begins comparing you to other applicants with a similar background.  It goes without saying that recommenders should avoid generalities and overly common adjectives, which risks making you sound  like anyone else.  Again, telling a specific story is a good way around this trap.

Finally, since business schools are very keen on teamwork and leadership potential, it helps if your supervisor can characterize how you work with others and perhaps illustrate some instances when you have stepped up to lead.  To show professionalism and balance, it’s not a bad idea for them to bring up some mild criticism, often something that can be remedied by going to business school is a good strategy.   In the end, your recommender’s perspective will hopefully compliment the material you package for the  committees and result in a compelling case for your admission.

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Scott Bryant has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons.

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