Admissions 101: Who Should Write Your Letters of Recommendation?

MBA AdmissionsYou know yourself better than anyone, but in the eyes of MBA admissions officers, the best experts on you are often those who have worked with you. Every one of your business school applications will contain at least one letter of recommendation, and most top schools ask for at least two. These letters build on 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.

Ideally your direct supervisor will provide at least one of your recommendations, but what if you can’t (or don’t want to) tell your boss yet that you’re applying to business school?

Fortunately, admissions officers know that many applicants face this situation. They get it, and they’re not going to overlook a potential star because of it. Especially 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, “I hope you’ll help me leave this place.” So, MBA admissions officers willing to accept recommendations from other sources, as long as those recommendations still give them what they need.

What do they need, exactly? Business schools want to see a complete, objective (as much as is realistically possible) assessment of your abilities by someone who knows you well and has been in a position to evaluate you. So, it makes sense that your direct supervisor is the ideal candidate; 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, ask yourself these questions as you look for substitute recommendation writers:

Does they know you well from a professional setting?
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.

Have they worked with you you recently?
Every year we work with business school applicants who have a seemingly good recommendation writer in mind, but they haven’t worked with that person for a couple of years. When you have only worked full-time for a few years, that’s almost 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.

Does they 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.

Can they coherently string together ten words?
This might almost seem like a silly question to ask, but you would be surprised by how many successful managers — and even top-level executives — can’t write to save their lives. And by “write” we mean writing a proper business letter, one that’s clear and can persuade a stranger who’s reading it without knowing the person at all. Especially in this day and age of all-lowercase text messages and abbreviated tweets, proper writing is a dying art form. Just be sure that your recommendation writer can actually write about you enthusiastically, yet professionally!

Does they have enough time and dedication to write you a great recommendation?
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’m happy to help, but I’m just so busy this month. 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. Admissions officers at top business schools 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. You probably have more possible candidates around you than you initially thought… Just run them all through the above filter first!

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