Part II of Building your Business School Application: The sum always has to be greater than the parts

Conversation with mentor

A holistic approach is key to every successful admissions campaign. You must ensure that all of the pieces of your “story” — academic, personal and professional — are tied together. A strong GPA and stellar GMAT will never compensate for the lack of a cohesive, compelling story about your past, present and well-planned post-MBA future. And, conversely, a great story won’t offset poor grades or lackluster test scores.

A comprehensive consultation with The MBA Exchange will help you “mine” your background and then deliver a cohesive story by maximizing each component of the application: resume, recommendations, essays/video statements, and application materials and interviews. This blog series highlights each of these components. Up now … recommendations.

Part 2: Your MBA Recommendations – and Recommenders

Like your transcript, test score, resume, and essays, recommendations are a vital piece of your application. Recommendations bridge the “facts” of your resume with the “feelings” of your essays. And, depending on how well they are developed, recommendations can either add credibility or raise doubts about your candidacy.

You may be wondering, “How can I relinquish control of 20% of my application to other people?” Know that careful planning and confident action can result in recs that add substantial value and help you make a positive impression on the admissions committee.

1. Choose Wisely

So, who makes the “best” recommender? Each option has pros/cons:

Top officers at your company
Pro: Having the CEO or Managing Director endorse you might make you feel good.
Cons: Likely doesn’t know you well enough to provide specific examples of your key strengths; likely won’t have the time to do a great job and may ask you to write it yourself.

Direct supervisor
Pro: Most b-schools ask for a rec from this person because he or she works with you very closely and knows you the best.
Cons: May hold it against you if your MBA plans are perceived as a lack of commitment or loyalty; some bosses can even be jealous of a subordinate who shows greater career potential or ambition than they do.

Long-time friend
Pro: Great for sharing personal insights about you.
Cons: Probably can’t speak to your professional depth and breadth; will most likely carry less weight as admissions committee members know that buddies don’t say bad things about buddies.

Alumnus of targeted business school
Pro: Makes you look like an “insider.”
Cons: Almost every applicant knows someone who is a graduate of the MBA program. So, this is more of a tiebreaker than a differentiator.

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.

2. Prepare Thoroughly

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 by myself.” 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. A recommender usually welcomes 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 will raise a red flag with the adcoms. 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 can make the recs more authentic.

Bottom line: Unless you’re one of the fortunate few where the recommender shares the rec they submitted with you, you’ll never know for sure if your recommendations helped or hurt your admissions chances. 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!

Up next: essays and video essays