Recommenders & Recommendations

For most applicants with several years of professional experience, the best recommenders are past and current supervisors. They are in the best position to judge your professional abilities and answer the questions that most MBA schools ask. Their recommendations serve to confirm and expand on the information included in your essays. It’s really that simple. Ensuring that happens though is not simple since you don’t have control over what your recommenders’ write. My advice is: get control, as much as possible anyways. I’ll come back to this later.

The most basic rule when selecting recommenders is also simple: choose the people who know you the best because only they can provide detailed examples to support their claims. Choosing someone who doesn’t know you well simply for their title or position, or for their status as an alum will almost certainly backfire on you because the adcom will see you as more interested in surface than substance. Even worse, they may think you were unable to secure a recommendation from someone who actually knows you. Another good rule is to choose recommenders who can say different things about you, i.e. people who are not going to cover the same topics/accomplishments as each other.

Applicants are not always in a position to ask their current supervisors, especially when doing so might put you in an awkward position. Adcoms know this. It should not count against you either as long as you can find someone who knows you well. However, you should find someplace in your application to explain the situation. You could use an optional essay for this or you could even ask one of your recommenders to explain in his or her letter.

If you haven’t been working long or are applying directly from university then consider professors, bosses from part-time jobs or internships, volunteer coordinators, etc. The basic rule of using people who know you well still applies.

As much as possible, work with your recommenders. Let them know what accomplishments you are describing in your essays and ask them to confirm them. Direct your recommenders to cover different aspects of your career so that they are not duplicating each other, which is a waste of a letter. And while adcoms frown upon it, some recommenders will ask you to draft a letter for them to review and sign. If they give you the option, take it. Not only will you be able to manage the content, you’ll also have more control of the timing and will worry less about your recommenders meeting submission deadlines. Here too, work with your recommenders. Try to “interview” them with a standard set of MBA LOR questions in hand. The more feedback you get, the easier it will be to draft.