MBA Letter of Recommendation Questions and a HBS Letter of Recommendation Sample
Letters of recommendation play a vital role in MBA applications. These letters, crafted by trusted individuals who have witnessed the applicant’s journey, validate what applicants assert about themselves and provide additional context about their accomplishments, character, and potential. When we first speak with clients about this component of the application, they are often unclear what the MBA letter of recommendation questions are exactly and what a strong letter of recommendation looks like. So that’s what we’re covering today. In this article, we share the most common MBA letter of recommendation questions, provide links to the specific letter of recommendation requirements for some of the top MBA programs, and offer a successful sample letter of recommendation for HBS.
Common MBA Letter of Recommendation Questions
Recommendations are submitted via each school’s online application system. The applicant provides the recommender’s name and contact information to each school, and the school sends the recommender an email explaining the process with a link to the recommendation form. Each school requires that recommenders answer their specific questions. That said, most of the questions are similar between schools so recommenders can use similar content across recommendations.
The questions and suggestions that follow are a general guide to the types of things schools look for recommenders to cover. It is crucial, however, to thoroughly review the specific instructions provided by each program. Following the schools’ specific requirements ensures that the recommendation aligns with their evaluation criteria and provides the most relevant and impactful insights into your candidacy.
Getting to Know the Recommender
Most recommendation letter forms begin by gathering information about the recommender. The recommender can expect questions like:
- Name, position, and contact details
- How long have you known the applicant, and in what capacity?
- Are you an immediate supervisor or someone who has closely worked with the applicant?
Exploring the Applicant’s Qualities
Next, schools typically look for recommenders to assess the applicant’s strengths, skills, and accomplishments. Here are some questions the recommender may encounter:
- What are the applicant’s key strengths and areas of expertise?
- How does the applicant stand out among their peers or colleagues?
- Can you provide specific examples of the applicant’s leadership abilities and potential?
Assessing Interpersonal Skills
Teamwork and collaboration are two interpersonal skills MBA programs value the most. As such, recommenders should be prepared to answer questions that touch on the applicant’s ability to work effectively with others:
- How does the applicant contribute to a team environment?
- Can you provide examples of the applicant’s teamwork skills and their ability to foster collaboration?
Analytical Thinking and Problem-Solving Abilities
Given the rigor of MBA coursework, recommendation letters frequently inquire about the applicant’s analytical and problem-solving prowess:
- How does the applicant approach complex problems and find solutions?
- Can you share instances where the applicant showcased strong analytical thinking?
Effective communication is essential for success in business (and business school). And so, recommendation letters often inquire about the applicant’s communication abilities:
- How well does the applicant articulate their ideas and thoughts?
- Can you provide examples of the applicant’s written and verbal communication skills?
Assessing Character and Ethics
Business schools highly value integrity and ethical conduct. The recommender might be asked to evaluate the applicant’s character:
- How does the applicant demonstrate ethical standards and integrity?
- Can you comment on any instances where the applicant displayed a commitment to ethical practices?
Numerical Scoring Sections
In some cases, recommendation forms include ancillary sections where recommenders are asked to rate the applicant numerically. These sections may focus on attributes like leadership, teamwork, or problem-solving skills. Note that any response with all perfect scores will not be considered. There should be a good mix of areas for development and strengths. If the candidate was perfect, then there would be no need for an MBA, so recommenders should feel free to be honest and reflective.
Many MBA letter of recommendation questions include one that asks recommenders to share a piece of constructive feedback they’ve provided to the applicant as well as the applicant’s response to that feedback. This can be something that the applicant absorbed and has improved upon or a skill set that they still need to develop. In the case of the latter, the constructive feedback will often tie to why the applicant is pursuing an MBA. The recommender should be honest but gentle. They should avoid strengths disguised as weaknesses – e.g., overachiever – and also ensure that the opportunity area is truly something that can be addressed in business school. Often cited weaknesses include decision making under pressure, confidence, management skills (e.g., for larger teams, micromanagement, etc.), ability to leverage quant skills into strategy development, etc. Skills like time management, ability to prioritize, ability to maintain and develop relationships with team members, and some level of strong communication skills should already be developed prior to applying.
Word Limits and Formatting
Most MBA programs impose word limits on recommendation letters to ensure consistency and fairness. It’s crucial to adhere to these limits to meet the program’s requirements. Typically, the limit ranges from 500 to 1,000 words. The best letters of recommendation include multiple and specific examples of the recommender’s experiences working with the candidate, so the more detailed, the better within the confines of the school’s requirements.
School Specific MBA Letter of Recommendation Questions for Top MBA Programs 2023-2024
Although the questions we listed offer a general guide, it is still necessary to check each school’s unique set of requirements and direction about what should be included in MBA recommendation letters. To make your life easier, here are links to the MBA letter of recommendation questions for the top 20 MBA programs:
- University of Chicago (Booth)
- Northwestern University (Kellogg)
- University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)
- Harvard University
- Dartmouth College (Tuck)
- Stanford University
- University of Michigan–Ann Arbor (Ross)
- Yale University
- New York University (Stern)
- Columbia University
- Duke University (Fuqua)
- University of California, Berkeley (Haas)
- University of Virginia (Darden)
- Cornell University (Johnson)
- University of Southern California (Marshall)
- Emory University (Goizueta)
- Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
- University of California–Los Angeles (Anderson)
- University of Texas–Austin (McCombs)
Closing Thoughts and Then a Strong Example
We hope this article provided helpful context as to the typical MBA letter of recommendation questions. Armed with this information, you’ll be able to choose the best people to write your recommendations with passion (here is some additional guidance on choosing and coaching your recommenders) and make your MBA applications the strongest they can possibly be. If you have more questions about MBA letters of recommendation or would like tailored advice on your MBA application journey, request your free consultation today.
Sample Letter of Recommendation for Harvard Business School
To demonstrate what a strong letter of recommendation looks like, below we’ve shared a privatized version of a past client’s HBS recommendation. You’ll see that the questions were answered completely, concisely and with plenty of detailed examples.
How does the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
Among a class of highly accomplished and intelligent recent college graduates from top tier schools, Candidate has truly stood out. As someone who has observed Candidate’s work over his entire tenure at Our Firm and has been the Manager on his team for the last seven months, I can confidently say that Candidate exhibits extraordinary intellectual curiosity, top notch analytical skills, and professional maturity beyond his years. These characteristics that enable him, time and time again, to deliver thoughtful, creative, and well-supported solutions for his clients. For example, on a recent engagement Candidate directly advised senior executives at a Fortune 500 company for several months on how they could innovate their business model by adopting successful practices in adjacent industries – a role rarely given to others of his tenure.
In this way, not only does Candidate consistently perform incredibly rigorous and complicated quantitative analysis, but he also commits himself to developing a nuanced understanding of his clients’ needs and the complex environments in which they operate. Not content to simply answer the questions laid out in front of him (as many others at his level are), Candidate is dedicated to challenging both himself and his teammates to understand better, think harder, and be more creative in delivering actionable solutions for clients.
As a result of his accomplishments and embracing roles beyond the scope of most Associates, Candidate has received an “Outstanding” rating – the highest – in his last several consensus reviews and earned an early promotion – an uncommon occurrence that puts him on an accelerated career development path. Candidate is always in high demand by Managers and Managing Directors for new projects when they are given the choice over whom to staff on their cases.
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)
I have worked with dozens of Associates in my time at Our Firm and Candidate rises to the top in terms of his quantitative and analytical skills. That is why I specifically asked to have Candidate on my project and assigned him the role of creating a first-ever performance analysis for a $25 billion client. After our first week, Candidate created output that the newly appointed CEO commented was “The best he’s ever seen.” This was a big boost for our team and established early credibility as we worked alongside competing consulting firms vying to establish the same quality of reporting insight.
I then gave him increased responsibility to manage larger bodies of work that required him to not only complete the analysis but also lead sessions with executives. In the first series of interactions, it was clear that Candidate was so versed in the underlying analyses, he was having some difficulty conveying the message in a way that highlighted the key insights in a digestible way. Sensing some of the sessions were off to a rocky start, Candidate approached me for advice . As I shared my feedback, Candidate actively listened and took notes.
In the next several sessions, I was really impressed with how quickly Candidate adapted . He took time to establish context, interjected more thoughtfully, and listened more. The discussions were more conversational, Candidate was more empathetic, and he achieved genuine buy-in during an important phase of our project.
(Optional) Is there anything else you would like us to know?
On a personal level, Candidate is a wonderful, unique, talented, and caring person. He is a prize to have on your team and someone I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to work with.
There is no doubt in my mind that Candidate would make an incredible contribution to the HBS Class of 20XX, and that we can all expect great things from him in the future. Please do not hesitate to contact me with any further questions about Candidate.