The Best MBA Recommenders, Ranked

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The Best MBA Recommenders, Ranked

by [email protected] » Fri Oct 25, 2019 6:45 am
You've got a dozen people willing to write you a letter of recommendation (LOR)-great! Unfortunately, most people applying to an MBA likely ALSO have a bunch of recommenders to choose from. You're all ambitious, successful professionals who shine compared to the people around you, which means the difference between a winning and losing LOR is usually not whether the writer likes you, but which writer you pick.

This is where most applicants stumble. There's a lot of advice about who makes the best recommender, but in our view it's really fairly simple. Here is our rough ranking of recommenders, from best to worst.


1. Your Immediate Supervisor
This one is a gimme. Your boss should be writing you a recommendation letter for you MBA. Period. This is the person adcoms are most interested in hearing from, because he or she has a close view of your work, attitude, professional qualities, and potential to rise through the ranks at your current company. That last one is particularly important: in most companies, your upward movement will involve spending some time in your current boss's role. Who better to judge your qualifications than someone who already has that job?

If you can't get this recommendation for whatever reason, adcoms usually give you an opportunity to explain in an optional short answer or essay. There are only a few explanations which are acceptable: 1) You've just started your current job (think, less than six months-use your boss from your prior job); 2) You have no boss (you lead a start-up for example); 3) Your boss is a family member or has a similar conflict of interest; or 4) Telling your boss about your MBA plans would risk your current position at work. The last one is least compelling, because it suggests to adcoms that you are not 100% committed to leaving for an MBA, and that you are sneaking out of your current position.

2. An Indirect Supervisor
A recommendation from someone higher up the chain of command can be productive, but only if that person has worked with you closely on some projects. The single biggest mistake we see in recommender selection is applicants choosing a bigwig at their company who clearly has no direct exposure to their work. A recommender with a big-sounding title is only as impressive as what they can say about you.

3. A Client
This category is meant to encompass both internal and external clients-basically anyone who receives and judges your work product, but doesn't have hiring/firing/managerial authority over you. Client recommenders are essential for founders or freelancers with no bosses, and can also be a good second recommender for people trying to pivot careers. Applicants who currently work in one industry and want to pivot to their client's industry, can use a client recommender to demonstrate their chops in that target sector. We see this often with tech workers who want to transition to the business side of fields like consulting and finance.

4. A Partner
If you must use a recommendation from someone of the same approximate rank in the hierarchy chart, try and find a "partner" rather than a coworker. This should be someone who worked with you on a specific project, but who comes from a different team/department and doesn't report to the same bosses. In theory, that separation will give the recommender some independence to be frank about your performance. This kind of recommender is still far from ideal, however.

5. Extraprofessional References
The value of a reference from one of your extraprofessional activities is highly variable. Let's say you're an engineer who is also managing the finances of an NGO on the side, and that job inspired a career pivot toward NGOs or the finance function. In that case, a references from your boss at the NGO could be valuable evidence of your passion for your goals. However, if you're highly active in your local church, but don't have any plans on making that your career, a reference from there is basically irrelevant to your application. The often-missed point is that it's not how much time you spend in the extraprofessional role that matters-it's how much the role relates to your future goals. You could spend 20 hours a week working at a local church, but that make a reference from the pastor useful unless your work at the church clearly relates to your reasons for getting an MBA.

6. Academic References
The "break glass in case of emergency" option, an undergraduate professor can provide some insight about your potential in the classroom. MBA classrooms are very different from undergraduate classrooms though, so there's very little value to be gained from this.

Never: Teammates, Family Members
Avoid these types of references entirely. Peer recommenders have a clear incentive for quid pro quo-"I'll write you a good recommendation if you do the same for me"-and can't offer the managerial perspective that adcoms are looking for. Family members (even if they are also your supervisor), have a deep conflict of interest since they may stand to benefit from your success.


So there you have it-the Admissionado ranking of recommenders from best to worst. There will be exceptions from time to time, but following the list above is best practice 95% of the time. One final concern we'd like to address: what if following this list leads to a recommender with less impressive writing ability? Is it better to go with an internal client over an immediate supervisor if you suspect that the client is a much better writer? No! Writing talent is not really what adcoms are looking for in letters of recommendation, but more to the point you will likely be surprised by the letters of recommendation your normally inarticulate boss can produce. Letters of recommendation are a common enough part of most bosses' job that they likely have a bunch tucked away to draw on if they need inspiration.

If you're weighing your recommender options, and have a question for the Admissionado team, sound off in the comments below!
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