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Recommendations are the “X-Factor” in MBA applications

January 23 2018 By The MBA Exchange
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Resume.  Essays.  Short answers.

What do these three elements of a business school application have in common? They are all created and controlled 100% by the applicant. But what about the fourth element – recommendations? Not so much.

Simply stated, recommendations are written statements submitted directly to the school by individuals chosen by the applicant. Recs typically consist of narrative answers to a few open-ended questions and possibly a form that grades the applicant on a list of relevant traits and attributes. MBA admissions committees scrutinize and consider recommendations thoroughly while evaluating an application. The fact that recs come from third parties, rather than from applicants, makes this element of the application especially important – and uniquely challenging.

What’s the upside vs. downside for applicants regarding their recommendations? How can recs strengthen vs. weaken the chances for admission? Convincing, compelling recommendations from credible recommenders validate and confirm the candidate’s factual claims. In addition, recs are a highly personal endorsement of the applicant and can be a valuable complement to essay content. In contrast, recommendations that lack conviction and substance can commoditize an MBA candidacy and dilute the impact of essays. Sub-par recs can even raise doubts about an applicant’s candor and self-awareness.

Based on our experience advising thousands of business schools applicants over the past three decades, The MBA Exchange knows the critical importance of recommendations. In fact, planning and developing recs is a key component of our Comprehensive Admissions Consultations. Drawing from our expertise and knowledge, here are four action steps for serious MBA applicants who want to maximize the benefits, and minimize the risks, regarding recommendations:

1. Choose the right recommenders
When considering who to approach for a recommendation, ask yourself: How well does this person know me? Does he or she really care whether I’m admitted? Would the recommender’s background and perspective add value to the overall application? If you’re struggling to narrow your list of potential recommenders, a savvy admissions consultant can help you identify the best choices.

2. Cultivate these relationships
The more knowledgeable and comfortable a recommender is, the more likely it is for the rec to have the desired depth, breadth and conviction. Achieving such understanding and insight about an MBA candidacy can take several months of observation and conversation, formal and informal. Sit-down meetings, casual lunches and occasional coffee chats help make this a more natural process for recommenders and applicants.

3. Balance guidance and trust
There’s a fine line between providing strategic direction and overstepping boundaries. Likewise, there’s a difference between having faith and just rolling the dice. In discussions with recommenders, it’s wise and appropriate for the applicant to diplomatically suggest some topics and examples that would be most beneficial to the candidacy. This not only improves content but saves time for the recommender. Furthermore, if you’ve selected the right recommender in the first place, then allowing him or her freedom to produce and submit an authentic rec is important – and necessary to comply with school policies. (P.S. If you’re not sure what you’d like your recommender to emphasize, getting a free evaluation of your MBA candidacy can be quite helpful.)

4. Watch the calendar (rather than the clock)
In your earliest discussions with recommenders, be sure they understand and make note of the official deadline for submitting recommendations. Confirm they have sufficient time to plan and prepare recs without encroaching on their professional or personal responsibilities. This process should not be rushed or pressured. Check back every few weeks to be sure they are making sufficient progress or have any additional questions for you. And be sure to get confirmation when the rec is actually submitted as you don’t want to be watching the clock on deadline day, wondering whether your recommenders have actually clicked the submit button.

By all means, MBA applicants should devote their best efforts when developing the resume, essays and short answers. However, doing so at the expense of recs is risky business. Considering the extra steps and reduced control regarding recommendations, starting early (i.e., now), maintaining flexibility and monitoring status are critical to achieving success in b-school admission.