3 Ways Your Letters of Recommendation Can Kill Your Candidacy

by on May 18th, 2010

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!


  • Is it myth or the truth?
    Higher the post of recommending person ,better it is for you...or greater than change of being selected?
    or which counts?
    a good letter from lecturer or principal
    letter from some top renowned politician or writer of the country...?

    I am having very hard time choosing person?

    any suggestions?

    • How well your recommender knows you matters way more than how big your recommender's title is. The reason is the second point above: Unless you've worked with him or her directly, a CEO's or a politician's letter recommendation will lack specific details (and may even lack enthusiasm). Knowing someone important or "on the inside" rarely helps at all, and usually only really helps when they're REALLY someone (e.g., someone who has buildings named after him at the school)... And those people are few and far between.

      Very often we have clients come to us who say, "Don't worry. I can have a congressman write me a letter. My neighbor knows him." The admissions committee will say, "Who cares?" It's far more effective to have your recos come from someone who's worked with you and evaluated you in a work setting (more than an academic setting). That's what admissions officers look for!

    • Thanks,
      well as a programmer i have worked with and work for many so called high professional of the country including prime minister of the country.But mostly it is business relation and mostly envolves working with their subordinates.So,i also feel their recommendation letter will be nothing more than fact that i some how know them....

      where as lecturer of my college better knows me ,may be so does my ex supervisor at work(but know body knows about them).
      So,i am in dilemma what to do as i have choice.

      Seems like it will better to get recommended by a person who knows more about you rather than from a someone whom many knows.


  • > Seems like it will better to get recommended by a person who knows
    > more about you rather than from a someone whom many know.

    Yes, you're thinking about it the right way. I couldn't have said it better myself!

  • So regarding the 3rd point,

    One of my profs wrote that "i was interested in brain imaging" (referring to work I did with her a year ago) in her recommendation but I'm applying to graduate school for something different.

    Is it a big enough discrepancy for me to be worried about (because she wrote i WAS)? Can I just use this to my advantage by also how i chose/why i am interested in the area i am applying to?

  • Carmen, you definitely want to make sure that what you say is consistent with what your recommendation writers say in their letters. I'm not sure how big the difference is in this case, but if she's writing about X and you're now applying to study Y, then you may want to think about getting a new reco from her (or from someone else).

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