Recommendation Letters do’s and don’ts

We have received a number of questions, with regard to recommendations. The following covers those issues.

Number of recommendations
Most schools require two recommendations, and it is certainly not the case that more is always better. Some candidates will want to have additional recommendation forms submitted, but this is only advisable if the additional recommendation comes from a different perspective and therefore can add a different component to the application. An example might include getting a recommendation from someone a candidate has worked with closely in a community service capacity, yet the recommender is not able to offer real insight into all the areas the recommendation form asks. (If the latter is the case it might therefore be a good primary recommendation.)

Who to choose?
Most schools prefer recommendations from a professional perspective (rather than academic). Those who have worked closely with the candidate, and have supervised the candidate, would make obvious choices. Most schools are not looking for a recommendation from the most important / influential people the candidate knows, but from those who can answer the questions asked with depth and substance.

There are instances where the candidate cannot select the obvious choices (confidentiality over leaving / not enough time in current role) or there are no obvious choices (family business / entrepreneur). In these cases then the choice of recommender should likely be explained in the optional essay so the school can understand the constraints surrounding the choice. Note that as schools evaluate recommendations, the schools are not only looking at the content and what they can learn from it, but they will also look at the judgment with respect to the choice of the recommenders. Other potential sources of recommendations are clients, business partners (objectivity may be called to question, much like using family members if working in a family business), mentors, community service supervisors etc.

MBA Schools are also asked about whether using an alumni would make sense for a recommendation. The answer is yes, only if all other things are equal in terms of choosing this person over someone else. An alumni may well be able to add additional perspective over ‘fit’ for the program. However it is a mistake to compromise the overall quality of a recommendation in order to seek out an alumni to perform this task.

Quality of recommendations

Making the right choice in terms of who to choose as recommenders is critical in ensuring quality recommendations. The B-schools are looking for added insight over and above what they have learned from the essays (and data forms etc.). They expect each answer to also add additional perspective, depth and substance, to the application. They expect recommendations to be about 2 – 3 pages in length, if all the questions and answers were compiled into one document.

How to prepare recommenders.

Bear in mind this is the part of the application a candidate has least control over. This can therefore be a little unnerving. Once selection of the recommenders is accomplished then it is wise to prepare them so they will understand the extent of the MBA application process as well as how important the recommendation is to the candidate’s overall application. Make sure your recommenders knows your goals and therefore why you are applying to the program. Make sure they have a copy of your CV; some candidates will also provide drafts of essays in order to provide the context to which the recommendations will be reviewed. Be careful however, if a candidate e-mails draft essays to a recommender the recommender may well decide to copy and paste some of the content directly to the recommendation which clearly will be inappropriate (b-schools will simply assume the candidate wrote the recommendation in a case like this).

Finally you may want to tell the recommender you need the recommendation at least one week before the deadline so you can avoid the anxiety of worrying about whether your application is pushed to a later round simply because a recommender was called away on urgent business the week of the deadline, and the business is in a remote place with no access to the internet (or similar story).


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