Let’s Talk About…Letters of Recommendation:

by on August 7th, 2011

Recommendations were, without a doubt, one of the most stressful parts of my MBA application experience.  Why, you may ask?  Easy: because I am a Type A control-freak who wanted to micro-manage every single aspect of my applications, and it was completely contrary to my nature to have to step aside and just let my recommenders do their thing.  Don’t get me wrong – there are definitely some things you can (and should) do to support your recommenders and proactively prod them in the right direction (I’ll list these out in a moment), but the fact of the matter is that 99% of the work involved in getting a kick ass recommendation is already done.  It is predicated on your doing an amazing job at whatever it is you may have been doing in the months and years leading up to asking your recommender to serve as your reference.

I also stressed out about who to ask.  As a management consultant, I had worked with lots of different teams on lots of different projects, so had lots of people to pick from, all of whom had seen me doing different types of work in different types of team settings.  If you are coming from a more traditional work background (e.g., you report to one or two people on a consistent basis) figuring out who to pick may be a no-brainer.  It all depends on where you are coming from.

The other thing that I struggled with was exactly what I wanted my recommenders to contribute to my applications. I was still in the process of figuring out what my “story” was / what I was going to write about for my essay when I had to secure recommenders, so it was tough to conceptualize exactly where I wanted them to fit in.  Did I want people who could speak primarily to my analytical abilities?  Did I want someone who was very familiar with my community service work?  Did I want someone who had seen me lead a team?  I wanted to make the best use possible of my recommenders, and wanted to ensure that we did not both spend valuable application space writing about more or less the same thing.  I felt like I needed to figure my own stuff out before I brought someone else in, but didn’t have time to do this because I wanted to give my recommenders a solid 6 weeks before round 1 due dates to start thinking on it.

As you can see, I spent a lot of time wigging out about recommenders, and as a result have several tips and lessons learned that I’d like to share:

1. Plant the seed early. If you know that are you going to be applying to business school in the coming months / years, go ahead and ponder who may be a good recommender / mentor in general, and proactively build a relationship with that person.  Try to get on his or her project; do extra work for him or her; ask for guidance; share your professional goals; in short, do whatever it takes to get that person invested in your development.  Once business school applications start to loom, tell the person that you are going to apply and that you’ve love to talk about the possibility of recommendations at some point in the future.  This way, the person knows a recommendation request is likely coming at some point; if they know this in advance they can make a point to jot down a note to remind them about that awesome presentation you gave, that flawless meeting you ran, etc. 

2. Follow the freaking directions. Seriously.  Just do it.  If they specifically ask for a recommendation from your direct supervisor, give them a freaking recommendation from your direct supervisor!  If they ask for a peer recommender (like Stanford does), make sure that person is truly a peer (e.g., AT your level; not above or below).  I will note, however, that sometimes people do not want their employers to know they are applying, and hence don’t want to ask a direct supervisor or other close colleague because it could be detrimental to their career.  Schools know this, and tell you that, if you deviate from the instructions, to just write a quick explanation in the “additional information” section of your app.  Another note on directions – if they specifically say that recommendations are due by 12:00 EST on such-and-such date (like HBS does, for example), you had better make damn sure it is submitted by then.  If you application is not complete by the stated deadline, admissions will frequently roll you into the next admissions round, which will force you to wait months and months to hear back and likely wreak havoc on your mental health. 

3. Title schmytle; ask someone who really knows you. Absolutely go with the lower-ranking title who knows you really well / has worked with you on a day-to-day basis over the fancy title who doesn’t really know exactly what you do at a detailed level.  This is one of those pieces of advice that comes up all the time from admissions directors, so please please follow their suggestion!  The key is that they need to be able to readily supply stories and examples regarding your personality, work ethic, leadership style, blah blah blah when answering questions about you (more on this in a moment), and I highly doubt that your company’s CEO has the knowledge (or time) to paint a vivid and nuanced picture of you.  That being said, I would advise that, unless it’s a peer rec, you make sure that any recommender of yours is someone who is several levels your senior and has had the opportunity to directly manage you and your work output.  Your recommenders should also be credible (e.g., the school needs to feel that they are qualified to be recommending you to them).  Title is one thing that can help to establish that credibility.  If they have an MBA or other grad degree, that is important information, too.  Lastly, your recommender must be a passionate advocate for you.  They need to want to write something on your behalf.  A recommendation request should be viewed as an honor, not a burden, so pick people who know and like you and will view it that way!

4. Give them the chance to say no. This is a big one that people often overlook.  Just because you’re psyched about your business school applications doesn’t mean that everyone has hours and hours to put into it!  Never assume that someone wants to write a rec for you, and always give them a clear opt-out opportunity up front  For example, when I asked my recommenders to write something for me, I always did it waaay in advance and gave them the option to think about it, look at what was coming up for them work-wise in the months before deadlines, and let me know if they thought they could really put their all into it.  I promise you that it is better to have someone decline the chance to write something on your behalf than to have them write a hurried or lukewarm recommendation.  Also, DO NOT ever write your own recommendation.  If a recommender asks you to do this, you should find someone else, end of story.

5. Don’t overburden any one recommender. A general rule of thumb is that three recommendation (e.g., for three different schools) is about as many as you can ask one person to take on.  Four, maybe. Five, absolutely not.  Each recommendation is different because the schools ask different questions, and if you have the right people writing them for you, chances are good they’re going to spend a ton of time on each.  Remember, the world does not revolve around you, so don’t act like it does.

6. Give them at least six weeks. Absolutely do not spring a recommendation request on someone at the last minute (e.g., within a couple of weeks of the deadlines).  It will not work out well for anyone.  If at all possible, allow for at least six weeks. 

7. Give them their “angle.” Once you have your recommenders confirmed, take them out to coffee or lunch to talk them through your business school “story” (e.g., what you are going to convey to admissions committees).  Their recommendation is a critical component of your application, so don’t be scared to tell them how you envision them fitting into the overall picture that you’re painting.  For example, I decided to differentiate myself from the millions of other consultants applying to schools by focusing on community service / international work in most of my essays.  I left descriptions and vignettes of my professional accomplishments to my recommenders.  It was important for them to know that their recs were pretty much the main way I was going to convey my consulting experiences within my application, and they took that into account when writing for me.

8. Provide support and regularly check-in. As a rule of thumb, the more guidance and support you can provide (up to the point of being obnoxious), the better.  For example: when I had secured my recommenders, I made each his or her own individualized packet (based on the “angle” that I wanted each to take) to support the process.  I included a brief overview of what school I was asking them to write a rec for / why I was applying there / why I thought I’d be a good fit.  I also included my resume, overview of my professional experiences to date (listing of projects, high level description of my role), results of mid-year and year-end performance reviews, what I saw as my current top strengths and weaknesses, and high level goals for after business school.

I also listed out the questions asked of recommenders for that particular school, and under each I brainstormed (at a very high level) possible examples and stories that they could use to answer it.  I’d like to stress that I did not tell them exactly what to write.  They had 100% control over the recommendation; I just did some of the initial brainstorming work so they wouldn’t have to sit and think through every interaction we’d ever had.  If possible, put together something of this nature (or maybe a slightly less ridiculous version) and then buy your recommender coffee or lunch to casually talk them through it.  In person is always best.  After that, they should be ready to go!  I checked in about every two weeks leading up to deadlines to see if they “needed anything from me” (aka have you started writing it yet? Have you finished? Am I going to get in?!!!).  I also requested that they submit it a week before the application deadline to be safe.  Sound crazy?  It is…but it worked!

9. Show, don’t tell! Your recommender should fill your letter of recommendation with detailed examples about all of the times you have done fabulous things; make sure that what he or she writes is personalized and does not just say generic things like, “so-and-so is a great leader with a strong work ethic.”  They need to illustrate when you were a great leader, or talk about a specific time that your fabulous work ethic shone through.  Remember, however, that this is their letter, so you have to walk the fine line between providing useful guidance and inserting yourself too much into the process.  I actually found a solid example letter of recommendation in a business school book that did a great job of embodying the show don’t tell theory, and printed it out and gave it to my recommenders as a reference. 

10. Say thank you! Please, please don’t forget to tell your recommenders how much you appreciate their time and investment in your application process.   A hand-written note is definitely in order, as is a nice bottle of wine, gift certificate to a favorite restaurant, etc.  Show some appreciation!!

Whew, that was a long one!  Hope this was helpful!!

5 comments

  • can you please share your profile here? GMAT score, total work ex etc..I know it's little out of the way to ask this question under this post but just for my information pls.

    thanks for this article. I'll make sure that I follow the similar approach. 

  • Great advice here. Well written.

    I especially like the "bug them, but know your limit" advice. I'm definitely walking a fine line with this process right now.

  • What could be the remedy if a recommender makes a mistake of using another school's name in the recommendation letter. a human error.

  • Great advice and very well written. You mentioned that you actually found a great sample of letter of recommendation in a business school book , I would really appreciate if you could share the name of the book. Thanks !!!

  • Hi,

    I have a questions regarding a letter of recommendation. Since I am applying a couple of schools and it's time to give a guideline for the letter (a bit late though), I wonder how the recommendation template in application module does look like. For example, can my recommender use one template that covers all questions of the schools I am applying (Type 1) or she just has to anwer each question (Type2).

    To be more specific

    Type 1
    A general lecommendation like
    To whom it may concern ~~~

    or

    Type 2
    Q1 - Answer
    Q2 - Answer

    Thank you for your response in advance!

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