What makes letters of recommendation so challenging is that they represent the one part of the MBA admissions process over which you have the least control. The GMAT can be scary since it all comes down to how you perform in a few hours in one sitting, and it can take dozens of hours to perfect all of your admissions essays, but you have direct control over these things. When it comes to letters of recommendation, however, you’re putting your future in someone else’s hands. Even if that person adores you and desperately wants to help you get into a top-ranked MBA program, he may have no idea of what he’s doing when it comes to helping you get in!
While a lot of factors go into creating a terrific letter of recommendation, here are three ways in which recommendations frequently go wrong for business school applicants:
Not Enough Enthusiasm
It is far too easy for your recommendation writer to unknowingly damn you with faint praise. While your recommendation writer shouldn’t sound like a raving lunatic, he should sound as if he really, really cares about whether or not you get into the target school. If this person is so invested in whether or not you get in, clearly he must care a great deal about you, and business schools want applicants who forge strong ties with those around them. If your recommendation writer seems indifferent about whether or not you get in, or doesn’t think you’ve earned the highest possible ratings (for recommendations that ask the person to rate the applicant on a scale), MBA admissions officers will wonder if you’re the type of person who just leaves a trail of “blah” in your wake. No business school wants that, especially when it has literally thousands of other applicants to choose from. The more that your recommendation writer shows that he really cares about your success, the better that reflects on you as an applicant.
A Lack of Specific Details
Some recommendation question prompts will ask for specific examples of leadership, teamwork, problem-solving abilities, and so on. Many won’t ask for specifics, but that doesn’t mean your recommendation writer doesn’t need to provide them. Which do you think is more compelling? “This applicant is a great leader,” vs. “This applicant is a great leader, as demonstrated by the time last year when he identified a potential issue and rallied his co-workers to creatively solve it before it became a serious problem that hurt the company.” Specific examples help to make these important traits more concrete and believable in admissions officers’ minds. In this way, your letters of recommendation are quite similar to your own admissions essays — specifics help a ton.
No Consistency With the Rest of Your Application
This mistake is perhaps the sneakiest of all, since your letters of recommendation may individually be terrific, but as part of your overall application they actually do more harm than good. If your essays stress how much you want to leave behind the management consulting world to pursue a job in green energy, but your supervisor writes about how she knows how badly you want an MBA so that you can become a partner at your consulting firm, that will raise a red flag for admissions officers. Either you’re not being honest with the school, or you’re not telling your supervisor your true intentions. You can avoid these kinds of red flags by outlining your key application themes and walking your recommendation writers through them early in the process.
Whether a letter of recommendation comes from your current supervisor, or you need to get it from someone else, avoiding these three traps can significantly boost your chances of admissions success!