Getting Letters of Recommendation from Your Current Supervisor

Click here to read the intro to this blog series! Send your admissions questions to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com.

Dear Trav,
I want to change careers so my employer can’t know I’m applying to b-school. How should I navigate letters of recommendation if I can’t ask my direct supervisor for help?

As you probably already know based on your question, pretty much every MBA program asks for a recommendation from your current supervisor.  In fact, if your current supervisor does not provide a recommendation, the school will usually ask you to explain the circumstances in your optional essay. Because of this very strong language on their website, most candidates believe that if they can’t provide a recommendation from their current supervisor, they are put at a huge disadvantage.  They think of it like a homework assignment that doesn’t fulfill all the requirements, so you’re automatically deducted a full letter grade.  Please don’t think like that!  The admissions process is much more holistic and flexible than you might think!

There are many circumstances when an applicant cannot get a recommendation from their current supervisor.  In many cases, they are not comfortable telling their current employer that they may be leaving the company to go to business school.  In others, they may have worked with their current supervisor for a very short time, and the person does not know them well.  In other cases, the applicant may be concerned that if they tell their current supervisor that they will be leaving the company, their projects or bonuses may be affected. Or let’s be honest, sometimes you can’t get a recommendation from your current supervisor because you absolutely HATE them, and the feeling is likely mutual, so you don’t think they will offer you a strong recommendation.

It’s okay!  Admissions officers know that there are many circumstances where obtaining a recommendation from your current supervisor is not possible. In most cases, you may simply explain the situation in a straightforward and candid way in your optional essay.  For example, I worked with an applicant in investment banking who simply said, “I have not informed my direct supervisor of my intentions to apply to business school because I am concerned that it may impact the projects to which I am assigned and my quarterly bonuses.”  He was admitted to his first-choice school.

The key is to select another recommender who can offer a similar perspective on your strengths and weaknesses.  Think about what your current supervisor knows about you: they know your day-to-day job responsibilities and working habits, they have firsthand knowledge of projects where you’ve shown initiative, they understand your interpersonal skills, they can compare your performance to peers, and so on. You need to find someone who can replicate this intimate level of understanding as closely as possible. A peer is usually NOT the best answer, as it’s pretty easy to just find our best friend at work and have them write a glowing review. Do you have a former supervisor from the fairly recent past (past 2-3 years)?  Do you work in a matrix-style organization where you’ve reported to other supervisors on different projects? Do you have a mentor within your organization with whom you feel comfortable discussing your future career goals—including business school? You need someone who has served in a supervisory role to you and who can speak very personally about your performance, strengths and weaknesses.

Once you have selected the proper replacement, be sure to mention why you selected them in your optional essay.  So after explaining why you have not asked your current supervisor for a recommendation, you need to add a sentence stating something like, “Therefore, I have asked Travis Morgan to write a recommendation on my behalf, as he is my most recent former supervisor and can speak directly to my professional experience, performance relative to my peers, and personal strengths and weaknesses.”

The MBA admissions committee places the greatest value on recommendations from your current supervisor, as they can speak to your current circumstances and achievements. Besides, if you show the courage to speak with them about your future plans, this shows the level of trust that you have with them. So obtaining a recommendation from your current supervisor is always the best option.  However, admissions officers will understand your circumstances and recognize that this is not always possible. You will not be automatically “demoted” in consideration for this one omission. Instead, just find your best alternative recommender and prepare them properly so that their recommendation is strong, personal and specific.

I hope that comes as a relief to you as you prepare to apply!


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! If you have any admissions questions for the blog, please send them to timeout[at]veritasprep[dot]com.

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.