MBA Recommendations: It’s more about “What and How” than “Who”

Recommendations are a critical, often undervalued component of the overall MBA application process. Recs are central to your profile as an applicant because they bridge the facts of your resume and the feelings of your essays. Depending on how well they are developed, recommendations can either add credibility or raise doubts about your candidacy.

Like your transcript, recommendations are a key piece of the application that you really can’t control — or can you? Careful planning and confident action can lead to recs that add substantial value and help you make a positive impression on the admissions committee. In fact, we feel it’s so important that we help our clients develop recs even before starting to work on their essays.

There are several popular theories abound about who makes the “best” recommender:

Top officers at your company? Having the CEO or Managing Director endorse you might make you feel good, but he or she probably doesn’t really know you well enough to provide specific examples of your key strengths.

Direct supervisor? Most b-schools ask for a rec from this person, but he or she may hold it against you if your MBA plans are perceived as a lack of commitment or loyalty to the job. Some bosses can even be jealous of a subordinate who shows greater career potential or ambition than they do.

A long-time friend? Great for personal insights about you, but probably can’t speak to your professional depth and breadth. Also, ad comms know that buddies don’t say bad things about buddies.

Alumnus of targeted b-school? This is more of a tie-breaker than a differentiator. Almost every applicant knows someone who is a graduate of the MBA program. So, don’t overemphasize alumni status when selecting the best possible recommender. That’s not enough.

So, who do you choose? The best recommender is someone – regardless of title or background — who knows you personally and professionally and is “invested” in your MBA admissions success. Someone who has the objectivity to assess your candidacy and feels the obligation to help you succeed. To make sure that they choose the right recommenders, we provide our clients with proven selection criteria so they can rank order the potential choices.

Start as early as possible to cultivate a personal/professional relationship with your recommenders. We encourage clients to be candid and straightforward from day one; as soon as it seems appropriate, be direct and ask if they’d be comfortable providing you with a glowing rec. It’s better to hear “no” early in the process while you still have options.

The mechanics of producing recommendations pose another challenge. At one end of the spectrum, your recommender could say, “You write it, I’ll sign it.” At the other end is, “Don’t give me any input, I’ll handle it alone.” Neither of these two extremes is good, and both are risky. The ideal approach is collaboration, and here’s how to achieve it:

Topics and examples. Recommenders tend to be very busy people and probably don’t recall all of the details about the applicant. So, a dedicated recommender usually welcomes such written guidance when presented tactfully by the applicant. We help our clients develop “input outlines” that help to structure this development process.

Authenticity and sincerity.
With the outline complete, let the recommender write the rec in his or her own voice. Recs that look and sound too much like your essays raise a “red flag” at the admissions office. And don’t worry about imperfections in grammar or style. Recommenders aren’t being judged by their writing abilities. In fact, a few rough edges here and there only make the recs more “real.”

Bottom line: You’ll never know for sure if your recommendations were the key to your admission. However, if you approach this component of the application strategically and thoughtfully, the outcome is far more likely to be positive. And, if all goes well, someday you’ll be the successful business leader and MBA graduate writing recs for your subordinates!