Do These Things to Ensure Your MBA Recommendations Are Stellar!

As an MBA hopeful, you are undoubtedly aware that your MBA applications require letter(s) of recommendation to support your candidacy. You may wonder, how important are they to the admission committee’s evaluation of you? What, exactly, are they hoping to glean from your recommendations? And most importantly, how can you ensure that you get the most glowing letter(s) possible?

At the root of it, admissions committees use recommendations to corroborate that the picture you’ve painted of yourself throughout the application is consistent with how others view you. Do you truly take initiative, collaborate well with others, and have innovative ideas like the stories in your essays describe?

Particularly for those from overrepresented fields (finance, consulting), they are also looking for an assessment of how you compare to your peers. Top MBA programs are not looking for those who can ‘do the job’, they are looking for people who redefine what the role entails and have a meaningful impact on the organization.  

So, how do you ensure your recommendations hit on these things and more?

Choose the Right People

The first and most critical step is choosing the right recommenders in the first place!

It can be tempting to target a very senior leader within your organization, particularly one who graduated from one of the programs to which you are applying. However, the first ‘filter’ I always encourage clients to consider is how well a potential recommender knows you. Regardless of pedigree, a surface level, nonspecific recommendation will never add much to your application.   

The key is to find people who are truly going to champion you in this competitive process. They should have 3-4 (or more) strong, detailed stories about your work together and be able to communicate them in a clear, enthusiastic way.

Another thing to consider is how the two recommenders you select (assuming your target programs require two) fit together. Taken in combination, their recommendations should clearly be describing the same person (you!) but it’s great if each one can hit on slightly different skill sets. Perhaps one recommender is your direct manager and the other is an executive with whom you worked while leading an internal employee resource group (e.g., a women’s or LGBTQ network). The former could speak to your ‘hard skills’ like analytics, while the latter could highlight your ‘soft skills’ like influence and teamwork.  

It’s possible or even likely that whomever you choose will have pros and cons to consider as you weigh whether they are the best fit to be your recommender. Perhaps you know they think highly of you, but they tend to get busy and procrastinate. Nobody is perfect and that’s ok. The key is to make a list of possible options and, all things considered, decide who is likely to present you in the best light.

Support Them Appropriately

Once you’ve selected your recommenders and gained their buy in to support you on your MBA journey, the next step is to prepare them. How you do this will look slightly different depending on the person (think back to the pros and cons of the individuals you’ve selected) – some will need more education on exactly what top MBA programs are looking for, while others may know this already but need occasional nudges so the deadlines don’t sneak up on them.

That said, nearly every recommender can benefit from (and will likely be thankful for!) a well thought out ‘prep packet’. Note that we definitely do not recommend writing your own recommendations. Not only is this potentially unethical, but admissions committees can often see through it.  A ‘prep packet’ should describe the differentiating strengths you plan to highlight in your application and provide a concrete example or two to support each one.

Another thing you can do, if your recommenders are comfortable with it, is ask them to let you review what they’ve written before they hit submit. When I help clients with this process, my main objective is not to influence the content of the recommendations so much as it is to ensure that they’re clearly and specifically supporting claims they’ve made about the applicant. The strongest recommendations use detailed examples whenever possible and point to the specific (and even quantified) impact an applicant has had on a team or organization.  

At the end of the day, strong, detailed, and genuine sounding recommendations can truly set you apart from the competition. Don’t forget to give the process of selecting and preparing your recommenders the focus it deserves.

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