Business school recommendations are a black box for many applicants. They go ahead and ask two people for whom they have worked and who they think have an overall positive perception of them to write their recommendation. They might vaguely discuss their career goals and why they want an MBA.
For recommenders without a significant business background, that conversation will likely go in one ear and out the other. Regardless of how highly the recommenders think of the applicant, the actual recommendation will be of little help. Many applicants will know this and are simply hoping for the best, or that the recommendation will at the least not cause any irreparable damage.
Given the highly competitive nature of admissions to top tier business schools, this is not the way you should approach your recommendations. In order to turn your recommenders into true advocates you must take a much more proactive role.
The first step is selecting the right recommenders. Create a list of possible recommenders for any job you have held since college – err on the side of being inclusive at this point. This list can include customers, clients, partners, etc, but should generally exclude college professors. Evaluate your recommenders based on your key accomplishments working with/for them, their ability to discuss your managerial potential, length and quality of interaction and also on how well you believe they can put forth their arguments on paper. Title and seniority at the company matters less. Typically one of the recommenders should be your current manager, but schools realize this is not always feasible (especially if you don’t want your employer to know that you are considering leaving); there is room to explain a different choice in the optional essay. This should hopefully leave you with 2 strong options.
Next, you need to provide the recommender with what we refer to as a recommender packet. This would include your resume (or list of key accomplishments at the company), short-term and long-term career goals, your reasoning for why you want an MBA, and what overall themes you are trying to develop for your candidacy. Putting this on paper will force you to crystallize your own thoughts and be more effective. More importantly, you need to have an open discussion on how best to answer the recommendation questions using specific examples of past accomplishments that support your key themes as an applicant. The point here is to provide the recommender with sufficient background to write convincingly about why you are amazing. And just to be clear, we do not encourage you to write your own recommendations – it is unethical and much more likely to hurt you than help.
As schools offer fewer essay questions, having amazing recommendations is becoming increasingly important. Do not leave your recommendations to chance – give them the attention they deserve.
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