VP Weekly Three: Top Three Questions About MBA Letters of Recommendation

Letters of recommendation can be a tricky aspect of the MBA application process, particularly if you’ve just changed jobs or don’t plan on telling your employer that you’re applying to business school. We often speak with applicants who are unsure who to ask to write their recommendations or are wondering if the adcom will read into who didn’t write a letter of recommendation (i.e. their managers). So, we’ve included below our responses to the three most common questions we receive on this topic.  

1) Does my current supervisor have to be one of my recommenders? Not necessarily. Many schools explicitly state that they prefer that one of your letters of recommendation come from your supervisor. Why is that? Because your manager is usually in the best position to speak to your professional strengths, achievements, character, and potential because they work closely with you and are already in a position to evaluate your performance. However, there are many valid reasons why your manager cannot (or should not) write your recommendation and you don’t need to panic over that situation! The adcom understands that individual circumstances range dramatically and won’t penalize you for that. However, you should explain your rationale in your application – either in a section dedicated to the letters of recommendation (in the online data form) or via the optional essay. We recommend simply and factually explaining the reason why your direct supervisor cannot write a recommendation on your behalf and then explain why the individuals you chose are in a position to provide similar feedback and insights on your work. Remember, it’s ultimately more important “what” your recommenders write about than “who” they are.  

2) A partner at my firm is a [top school] alum. Should I have him or her write my letter of recommendation? That depends. As we explained above, the content of your letters is far more important than the title or accolades of the author. (The adcom has seen it all and likely won’t be impressed by titles alone.) If the partner at your firm is a prominent alum of [top school] but barely knows you, and therefore will only be able to answer the recommendation questions in generalities, then he or she likely isn’t the best choice. A great letter of recommendation is not only positive and passionate but is specific and detailed in order to bring your personality and accomplishments to life. Someone who has only interacted with you briefly likely won’t be able to bring those elements into their writing. However, if you’ve worked closely with this partner and feel confident in the relationship you have developed with him or her, then they could be a great advocate for you. Their knowledge of the program could focus their writing on those key contributions you would make to the school and precisely explain why you would be a good fit. So, all that goes to say, select your recommenders first and foremost based on your relationship with them and their ability to write the best possible letter on your behalf. Maybe that means a partner writes your letter or maybe it doesn’t. Either way, content is king.

3) I really want my manager to write my letter of recommendation but he’s super busy so he asked me to write the letter and he will edit it. Is that OK? As tempting as that is, we always advise against that approach for several reasons. First, you’re missing the opportunity for a fresh perspective on your actions and character. Even the most self-aware person can’t see themselves through someone else’s eyes and often things we take for granted about ourselves are those that stand out the most to others. The intent behind letters of recommendation is to get to know you through the lens of someone who has intimate knowledge of both your strengths and weaknesses. By writing your own letter, you’re missing the point of the exercise. Second, authenticity and genuine passion are critical in a great letter of recommendation. By writing your own letter in the third person, it’s very tough to come across sincerely. Often, we’re either too modest or too complimentary of ourselves and that happy medium is very tough to find. So what you end up with is a letter that falls flat or isn’t taken seriously by the adcom. Third, the adcom reads applications for a living, and their BS detector is very sensitive. It won’t take much for them to detect your voice and writing style in the recommendation and quickly discount it altogether. It could then lead them to wonder why your recommender was so uninterested and uninvested in your success that they couldn’t go to the trouble of writing the letter themselves. We’ve even heard of an applicant getting rejected because the adcom determined that they wrote their own letters of recommendation. We’re not saying that will happen every time, but is it worth the risk? We’d say not. Lastly, writing your own reference letter simply goes against the spirit and intent of the process. As future business leaders, we hope you will hold yourself to the highest ethical standards. And that applies to the MBA application process as well.

Have other questions about recommender selection or the process of prepping your recommenders to write a killer letter for you? Please let us know. We’d love to hear from you at vantagepoint@vantagepointmba.com

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