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MBA Recommendations:  Selecting Recommenders

Paul Bodine, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting

Paul Bodine, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting

By Paul S. Bodine, Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting

While you wait for business schools to release their applications for the upcoming admissions season, now’s a good time to start thinking seriously about your recommenders.

Ask a roomful of admissions officials what they value most in a recommendation letter, and you’ll probably hear two words: candor and examples. They want to know that the recommender is being honest with them, and they want the honest assessment to be backed up by concrete anecdotes. In other words, they want credibility. Does this really mean that schools will favor an applicant whose recommendations discuss “areas of improvement” over one whose recommendations deny any weakness? It does. No one is perfect, and a recommendation that offers no negative comment loses believability. Elite business schools don’t admit applicants because they have no blemishes. They admit them because their many positives are so consistently striking and substantial as to outweigh their few faults.

The question of whom to ask for your recommendations can get complicated, but the following screening steps may help:

  • Start by listing up your direct supervisors from your current and previous jobs, going back no more than, say, five years (include supervisors in your community involvements). “Direct” means you reported to this person and interacted with him or her regularly, such as several times a week (though hopefully more).
  • Next, ask yourself which of these people knows you best, through intensive or continual interaction over a sustained period (ideally, six months or more).
  • Then ask yourself who is likely to provide a truly enthusiastic endorsement. Who knows about or would not be appalled by your business school plans and basically thinks a lot of you?
  • Next, ask yourself who is the best writer.
  • Now ask yourself who understands the recommendation letter process best, as in, has experience writing letters, preferably successful ones.

These “screens” should give you a manageably short list of potential recommenders. If your list is still too long (you should be so lucky), you could add additional screens like, who has an MBA, who has an MBA from your target schools, and who is “famous” or has the most august  job title.

Business School RecommendationsKeep in mind that one of your goals in choosing your recommenders is to arrive at a set of letters that presents the broadest range of your skills, experiences, and themes. This breadth will not only portray you as the kind of well-rounded applicant schools covet; it will also enable you to minimize the overlap between the stories each recommender tells. Although it’s fine if two recommenders refer to one or two of the same achievements, they should provide a different perspective on each.

One way to achieve breadth is by choosing recommenders from different periods of your recent career: for example, current supervisor and previous supervisor. Another approach is to choose recommenders from your current or recent employment who have each seen different sides of you: your current direct manager, a current manager in another department whom you worked for regularly in a different capacity, an external client or customer who glimpsed another side of you over an extended period.

A third approach to ensure breadth is to choose a mix of recommenders from your professional and nonprofessional activities (though always lean toward the professional). A manager from work will obviously have seen you in a very different context than your supervisor at Make-A-Wish. Only choose this third path if your current direct supervisor has managed you for several years, your previous direct supervisor last managed you a long time ago, and/or you have a very strong profile of extracurricular leadership and impact.

By continually keeping the criteria of enthusiasm, direct knowledge of you, and breadth in mind you will maximize your chances of identifying the most effective mix of recommenders. If you’re shrewd in your choice of recommenders–and they come through for you–you’ll have taken a crucial step toward convincing the admissions committee that you deserve a spot.

One of America’s most experienced admissions consultants (serving clients since 1997), Paul Bodine has helped hundreds of applicants worldwide gain admission to such elite business schools as Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Chicago, Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Columbia, Dartmouth (Tuck), Berkeley (Haas), Michigan, London Business School, INSEAD, Yale, New York University, Duke, Cornell, and Virginia, among many others. Click here for more information about Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting.