Posted on January 29, 2015

Choosing Recommenders for MBA Applications

Letters of recommendation are a critical part of the MBA application package. They provide the only outside information to the admissions committee about you. A recommendation can validate claims you have made in your essays; it can add stories that you cannot fit into your essays, and it can also further build on the stories you have shared in your essays. A great recommendation paints you in a positive light and complements your application.

Who should be your recommender?

However, choosing a recommender who can write a valuable letter for you can sometimes be extremely challenging for the applicants. Your recommendation should come from people who know you very well, who are very familiar with your work, and with whom you have interacted on a regular basis.  These people are capable of writing a letter that discusses your talents, accomplishments, potential, personal and professional traits. Your peers should not be approached for recommendation letters because they are assumed to be essentially friends who will generally write a positive recommendation.

Your letters will have more credibility if they are written by people who are senior to you and are in evaluative positions. Your direct supervisors are familiar with your working style, work ethic, accomplishments, and your contribution to the company and are in a position to substantiate them with powerful examples. The most persuasive recommendation letters are those which contain specific examples and anecdotes.

If your prospective MBA program asks for two letters of recommendation, then you should approach two of your recent supervisors, with one ideally being your current supervisor and the other your supervisor from the job you held prior to your current position.  In such a case, you should talk to each recommender about the anecdotes and traits you would like each of them to focus on.

However, things are not as simple as they appear to be. Even though your direct supervisor knows you well, he still sometimes may not be the best person for you because not everyone who knows you and your capabilities well will make a good recommender. Therefore, you need to do your homework before making a decision about the person you would like to entrust with the important job of writing a letter to the Admission committee about your candidacy.

Ask yourself the following questions before choosing your recommender:

1. Are you confident that they like you?

First, you should be confident that your potential recommender likes you and will write a positive letter for you! Whether you choose a current direct supervisor or the one for whom you worked before your current job, you should choose a person with whom you have maintained a positive relationship. If they like and respect you, their letters are likely to be much more positive and persuasive and they will speak well about your accomplishments, leadership roles, and work ethic.

2. Can they write well?

You would also choose a recommender who can write well and is receptive to input.  Strong writing skills are important because if they are not articulate in their responses to the questions asked by the school, their recommendations will not add any value to your application. I often get to review recommendation letters that simply provide a laundry list of adjectives and do not answer the question adequately.

3. Will they devote the effort and time necessary to write a letter that will really shine?

Another key factor in choosing your recommender is his/her approach to your letter. It is important for you to know how committed he/she is in helping you with your candidacy. Does he understand the importance of his letter in your admission process? Do you think he will spend sufficient time and effort in writing a strong recommendation letter for you that will match your impactful essays? If not, then you may not offer him this important responsibility because a person who is not willing to  put any effort and time in writing a letter for you is sending a clear  message,“ I don’t care about this candidate.”

I have often seen some of my students having a hard time with recommenders for various reasons. Some have recommenders who present sketchy letters that hardly add any substantial value to the application, while others are procrastinators who think the applicants have all the time in the world to keep reminding them of the deadlines. In Round 1 this year, I worked with an applicant who had his resume and essays ready well on time, but he still couldn’t apply in the first round because his recommender was too busy celebrating ‘Dussehra’ (an Indian festival).

4. Are they aware that they will need to write a personalized letters for each school?

Your recommender needs to be aware that writing a recommendation letter for business school applicants doesn’t mean creating a single template and sending it to all your target schools.  It is your job to apprise him beforehand that each letter must be personalized as per each MBA program’s questions and their response to each question needs to be substantiated with specific examples. Recommendation letters filled with tons of adjectives minus specific anecdotes from your professional experience will fail to create an impact. Please note that a well written personalized letter from an interested party will benefit you more than a poorly written letter from your supervisor.

Thus, choosing a recommender demands your time, effort, and intelligence. You should spend time with your recommender so that they truly understand what themes (goals, accomplishments, strengths, weaknesses, etc.) you are discussing in your essays and how much this means to you. They are busy people, so you should give them as much time as you can because you don't want a missing recommendation to be the reason your application wasn't accepted. If you plan ahead and start engaging your recommenders early on in the process, you will not only save yourself unnecessary anxiety before the deadline but will also succeed in getting stellar recommendations.

Note: This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of  Valley India Times.

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