Choosing Your Recommendation Writers

by on August 31st, 2012

If you plan on applying to top-ranked MBA programs in Round 1, then you should already be working on your applications. That does not  mean that you should already have drafts of all of your essays, but it does mean that you should already have your MBA Game Plan laid out. That includes knowing who you will want to have write your letters of recommendation.

This is often the toughest for applicants since it is something that’s largely out of their control. Even with all the planning in the world, business school applicants still need to put their fate in someone else’s hands, and hope that their recommenders come through for them. So how do you know who is the best candidate for writing your letters of recommendation?

Without a doubt, the most important thing is making sure that your recommendation writers know you well. You would be surprised how often we have clients approach us and say something along the lines of, “I think I can get my CEO to write a letter of recommendation for me. I should get one from him, right?” If your CEO hasn’t worked with you closely, and cannot write about your strengths and potential in great detail, then this is less of an asset than you might thing. MBA admissions officers are impressed by what YOU have done, not by what your recommendation writer has done.

Make no mistake… There are exceptions to this rule, but the bar is very high. Is your boss an important, influential alumnus who also happens to be a big financial contributor to the school? Well, now you just might have a real asset. But simply knowing someone who has a big title is not enough.

It is critical that your recommenders can provide details and specifics about you. As Harvard’s Dee Leopold wrote in an old blog post, “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Any recommendation written in general terms — e.g., “She has the makings of a great leader… He is a good team player…” — will fail to leave a lasting impression on any business school admissions officer. While your recommendations do not all have to come from the workplace, the best ones are usually written by someone who has evaluated your performance.

Of course, you may not be able to get a recommendation from your current supervisor. This is less of a big deal than you might think. While most schools will ask for a brief explanation if you do not  provide a recommendation from your current boss, they get it. Many managers may not support such a move. If you fall into this camp, take a look at some of our previously posted advice on what to do if you can’t get a letter of recommendation from your boss.

Also, simply knowing current student or grad from your target school usually does not give you any kind of leg up. In some cases it may (we sometimes urge our clients to rely on these sources when they’re fighting to get off of the wait list), but this is rarely a silver bullet. We would not choose a current student or alum to write one of your two or three recommendations for a given school if that’s the only reason you were going to choose them, but if someone meets the important criteria mentioned above and also happens to be a part of your target business school’s community, then they may be an excellent choice.

12 comments

  • This is is great thanks.
    However my problem is not with my current boss but rather one of my orevious college proffessors. I was in a big class and never got to have enough one on one interactions with my professors for them to have know me well enough to write a reccommendation(i didnt have to do a project or write a paper that would warrant a supervisor) The B-school i am applying to requires a reccomendation from a professor. How can i go about this?

  • If a school ask for two letters, can you send three?

  • Juliet, I wouldn't stress over this too much since your professional recommendations will still be more important. Why? For the reason you stated... In many cases applicants don't have a professor who knows them really, really well.

    Having said that, in this case I recommend approaching more than one of your old professors to boost the chances that one says "Yes" and that you can get it done in time for the application deadline.

    Good luck!
    Scott

  • Benjiboo,

    I would only send two. It's rarely the case that a 3rd recommendation will add that much more to your application, and it risks annoying admissions officers if they think you are deliberately ignoring their instructions. Save that 3rd reco writer to use in case you're waitlisted!

    Scott

  • Hello,
    I have 4 years of experience currently in the construction industry and by the time I start B school,it will be 5. Over the period of 4 years, I have worked for 5 people, with the 5th being the current one. Now my work is such that my supervisors typically change every 2 years as we move from jobsite to jobsite. My career took its biggest step 2 years ago with excellent performance and I have 3 managers who will happily support me through a recommendation. So now my question is - Is it okay to have them provide the recommendation? My concern is that MBA admissions will not be pleased if I have letters from people at one jobsite only. Thoughts?

  • Hi Nakul,

    Ideally your recommenders will come from more than one role or jobsite, but the most important thing is that they are recent and they can write about different aspects of your candidacy. If two people write the same exact thing about the same job you held, then one is not adding anything over what the other covers. Make sure, if you use more than one recommender from the same job, that you get them to write about different things, use different examples, etc.!

    Scott

  • Hi Scott,

    Brilliant article.

    Being a start-up founder for the past 2.5 years (straight out of college - had 1 corporate internship at Goldman Sachs before that) I have a few questions. Below are the list of people I am thinking of seeking recommendations from. Can you help me prioritize or suggest which might suit my application better?

    1. Does it make sense to get a recommendation from a client? If yes, what points should he/she be highlighting.

    2. Can the Founder/Mentor/Advisor write a recommendation as well?

    3. Recommendation from the university dean where I studied as I led a major event that ultimately got an official entry in the records book. Is this apt?

    4. Recommendation from the Manager at GS during my internship.

    Thanks a ton!

  • Hi Varun,

    Admissions officers usually "get it" when it comes to the recommendations that an entrepreneur can be expected to produce. From that list above, I think #2 is your best bet, followed by #1. Business partners (both internal and external) and clients are normally great sources for recos in your case.

    Scott

    • Thanks Scott. Appreciate your help.

  • Hi Scott,
    i am associated with my family business after completing my graduation. with my agribusiness background the only options i have for recommendations are 
    1. client
    2. managing director of the company (where my dad is one of the directors)
    3. college professor

    can you help me prioritize my recommendations or suggest if i should opt for some one other than these.

    thanks a lot!!!! 

  • Hi Scott,
    I've 4 years experience in the Telecom/IT industry. I've also been associated with on profit organization in the education sector, in addition to my professional work. I'm in charge of Country Operations. While my professional work doesn't provide me a right opportunity to showcase leadership activities or effective initiatives, I've lead teams, spearheaded initiatives and made an impact in the voluntary work with the NGO.

    Will it be reasonable for me get recommendations from my Non-profit organization, in addition to one recommendation i get from my full time employers ??

  • I definitely recommend that everyone check out this post on the Veritas Prep blog... it should answer most of your questions!

    http://www.veritasprep.com/blog/2011/10/i-cant-get-a-recommendation-from-my-boss-now-what/

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