Should You Ask a Professor for Your MBA Letter of Recommendation?

Letter of RecommendationMost schools require two recommendations, and the typical approach is to use a current and former supervisor to do them.  But sometimes this is either not practical or not ideal, in which case it might make sense to approach a former professor.  We frequently receive questions about recommendations, one of the most common of which is, “Should I use a professor as a recommender?”  The answer to this is not straightforward, and can be best encapsulated with “it depends.”

The ideal situation for any applicant, of course, is to use current or former professional work supervisors as recommenders, but what if you find yourself in a difficult situation?  For example, perhaps you have only been working in your current role for a short time, or you don’t trust your boss to give you a good recommendation.  Alternatively, you could simply not want to tell your employer that you are considering business school since the disclosure could have negative consequences, especially if you don’t end up leaving.  At the very least, in some cases supervisors can make your remaining time with the company miserable.

If you did well in college and made a good impression in class, it might make sense to use a professor – after all, they have no skin in the game professionally.  In fact, it could actually prove to be very positive commentary on your potential if you may recall taking a couple of classes in your major from your favorite professor, who seemed to look favorably on you compared to your classmates.  But what if it’s been several years and despite your best intentions, you have not maintained contact with this professor?  This is not unusual, so don’t fret: for tenure track faculty, it is likely they are still there, doing their thing, so tracking them down is usually not difficult.  Since professors see a lot of students come and go, despite your high performance in their class, it’s best to go visit in person.  Make an appointment via phone or email and get back to campus.

Professors, like any successful professional, have big egos, so it’s always nice to compliment them on the classes you took and how much you learned.  If you are going back to this professor, it’s likely you enjoyed the classes and took away something valuable, so this part should not be difficult.  One advantage of using a professor is that they obviously are in big favor of advancing one’s education, so it won’t likely be a hard sell to convince them it’s a good idea for you to be going back to school.

Just like you might do with your boss or supervisor, ask the professor if he would feel comfortable helping you with a recommendation.  If the answer is no, it’s probably because the professor simply does not remember enough about you or your performance in class, in which case you can either try to remind him/her, or just move on, since it is in your best interest to have someone who can comment directly on your potential and performance.  This is one area that is particularly challenging for professors, since ideally, they would need to have some insight into your performance both inside and outside the classroom.

For this reason, it makes sense to track down a faculty member with whom you were involved beyond just regular coursework.  Did you take a practicum or capstone project class, for example?  Were there any professors who took the class on an international study trip by chance?  Even a faculty member who was an advisor to a club you were involved with can add the extra insight required for a good b-school recommendation.  Finally, you want to ascertain if the professor thought/thinks of you as unique compared to other students they have seen come through their courses.  If you were a standout to them, it’s likely they will better be able to articulate why to an admissions committee.

Applying to business school? Call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today, or click here to take our Free MBA Admissions Profile Evaluation! As always, be sure to follow us on FacebookYouTube, Google+ and Twitter.

Bryant Michaels 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. See more of his articles here.

What If I Can’t Get a Recommendation from My Boss?

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:
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

For more MBA admissions tips and resources, give us a call at (800) 925-7737 and speak with one of our admissions experts today. And, be sure to subscribe to this blog and follow us on Twitter!

Three Ways a Letter of Recommendation Can Go Wrong

Letter of RecommendationRecently we talked to a new client who just went through a rough Round 1 of the MBA admissions process. Although the round isn’t over yet, the way his interview invitations are going, it looks like he’s not going to have much success. Once he saw the writing on the wall, he came to us for help. We took a look at the applications that he submitted to his Round 1 schools, and just about everything seemed to be in order: strong work experience with a history of increasing responsibility, essays that tell interesting personal stories of growth and maturity, a solid undergraduate university, and a GMAT score that puts him above the mean score at most top schools.

Everything looked great, so we were wondering what could be wrong. Then, he asked one of his recommendation writers to share what he submitted on behalf of this candidate, and then we saw it: a vague, lukewarm letter that answered the questions (not very well), and nothing more. Without knowing much else about this candidate, we quickly determined that his letters of recommendation may have been the culprit.

What’s so tough about letters of recommendation is that they’re the part of the application over which you have the least control. The GMAT can be scary since it all comes down to how you perform in a few hours in one sitting, and your undergraduate transcripts are in the past, so there’s nothing you can do to change them, but all of these things are determined by you (and can be overcome or mitigated with some work). When it comes to letters of recommendation, however, you’re putting your future in someone else’s hands. Even if that person adores you and wants to see you walk out of Harvard with an MBA in three years, he may have no idea of what he’s doing when it comes to helping you get in!

While a lot of factors go into creating a terrific letter of recommendation for a business school application, here are three ways in which recommendations frequently go wrong:

  1. A lack of enthusiasm.While your recommendation writer shouldn’t sound like a raving lunatic, he should sound as if he really, really cares about whether or not you get into the target school. If this person is so invested in whether or not you get in, clearly he must care a great deal about you, and business schools want applicants who forge strong ties with those around them. If your recommendation writer seems “blah” about whether or not you get in, and doesn’t think you’ve earned the highest possible ratings (for recommendations that ask the person to rate the applicant on a scale), admissions officers will wonder if you’re the type of person who just leaves a trail of “blah” in your wake. No business school wants that. The more that your recommendation writer shows that he really cares about your success, the better that reflects on you as an applicant.
  2. Not enough specifics. Some question prompts will ask for specific examples of leadership, teamwork, problem-solving abilities, and so on. Many won’t ask for specifics, but that doesn’t mean your recommendation writer doesn’t need to provide them. Which do you think is more compelling? “This applicant is a great leader,” vs. “This applicant is a great leader, as demonstrated by the time last year when he stepped in for a departed manager and led a team of six analysts to complete a project on time and save a critical client relationship.” Just as they do in your own admissions essays, specific examples help to make these important traits more concrete and believable in admissions officers’ minds.
  3. Not staying consistent with your application themes. While the above two failings catch many more amateurish applicants, this one is where even savvy applicants sometimes see their candidacies fall apart. If your essays stress how much you want to shift away from investment management and move into the non-profit sector, but your supervisor writes about how she knows how badly you want an MBA so that you can accelerate your career in finance, that will raise a red flag for admissions officers. Either you’re not being honest with the school, or you’re not telling your supervisor your true intentions. You can avoid these kinds of red flags by outlining your key application themes and walking your recommendation writers through them. While we firmly believe that your recommendation writers need to write their own letters, this kind of advance preparation is smart (and even necessary).

For more help with your MBA letters of recommendation, give us a call at 800-925-7737 and talk to one of our admissions experts. And, as always, be sure to follow us on Twitter!

Harvard Business School’s Advice on Recommendations

Yesterday Harvard Business School Dean of Admissions Dee Leopold wrote a blog post dispensing some good advice to HBS applicants regarding their MBA letters of recommendation. While what she wrote is all consistent with what we have written in this space many times before, much of it bears repeating.

Dee hits on several key themes that we tell our clients, and that are covered in detail in Your MBA Game Plan, our MBA admissions guide. These include:

  • Above all else, make sure that your recommendation writers know you well. Every year we have clients approach us and say something along the lines of, “Good news. I think I can get my CEO to write a letter of recommendation for me.” If your CEO hasn’t worked with you extensively, and can’t discuss your strengths and potential in great detail, then this isn’t very good news. Admissions officers are impressed by what YOU have done, not by what your recommendation writer has done.
  • Details and specifics are key. As Dee says, “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Any recommendation written in general terms — “He’s a true leader… He exhibits teamwork all the time…” — will fail to leave a lasting impression on admissions officers.
  • While your recommendations don’t all have to come from the workplace, the best ones are usually written by someone who has evaluated your performance. Dee writes, “Note that we are not looking for a peer recommendation – we find it most helpful if there is some developmental distance between you and the recommender.” That kind of person is typically best suited to comment on your strengths and development areas.
  • Simply knowing an HBS student or grad doesn’t give you any kind of leg up. Dee has this to say: “Please don’t ask current HBS students to write to us on your behalf outside of the formal recommendation process.” Of course, dozens (if not hundreds) will surely ignore her advice this year, but you heard it straight from Dee!
  • This last one is Dee’s most interesting point. To answer the question of whether or not someone with a tenuous job situation should go to his or her boss for a letter of recommendation, Dee says, “Especially in these unusual times, please don’t jeopardize your employment in order to secure a recommendation from a current employer.” While we have also shared this advice before, we glad that Dee wrote this. Having it come from the head of admissions at HBS should put some jittery applicants at ease as they grapple with this question.

For more information and advice on applying to Harvard, visit the Veritas Prep HBS information page. Also, call us at 800-925-7737 and find out how we can help you with your recommendations!

More Advice from U Chicago Law – Letters of Recommendation

The University of Chicago blog, A Day in the Life, which was detailed here yesterday, has also posted a helpful missive on the elusive letter of recommendation.

The big takeways here are A) to find someone who knows you well enough to write substantively on your academic qualities and B) to “feather the nest” (so to speak) by providing a packet of information to the recommender in question, allowing that person to do a thorough job. Chicago also makes it clear that recommendations should be from academic sources whenever possible, so applicants would be well served to cozy up to a few professors during their junior year or (worst case) during the fall.

Furthemore, Veritas Prep is pleased to see our own tips and suggestions mirrored throughout the post. The client always wins when consultants and law schools see eye to eye.

The following is from Veritas Prep’s Application Tips page and features many of the sentiments included in the U Chicago blog post:

One of the most egregious misperceptions regarding letters of recommendations has to do with the credibility of the source. While you do want to ask credible people to pen these letters, that doesn