VIP Recommenders

Who do you think would make the better MBA recommender: A) a hotshot CEO who happens to be friends with your parents and whom you've met a handful of times?

- OR -

B) your direct supervisor who knows you well but whom the adcom has never heard of?

This issue arises at least several times a year, and there are still a lot of people who are surprised when I tell them that B is clearly the better choice and that A could be application suicide.

Even though more MBA programs are using the same recommendation letter questions this year, they are still quite explicit about who you choose as recommenders:

We are impressed by what a reference letter says, not by the title of the individual who wrote it or the writing skills of the recommender.  (Stanford GSB)

Select the two people who really know you and your work, who you believe can best address the questions asked, not the two most important people you know. (Wharton)

Look at the questions we are asking recommenders to complete. Find people who know you well enough to answer them! This should take priority over level of seniority or HBS alumni status. (HBS)

You can't get much more clear than that! But here's my version anyways: The most important factor to consider when choosing recommenders is how well they know you. That's it. Everything else is secondary.

But there will always be applicants (I encounter at least one every year) who just know that they're situation is different and that their family friend is just the grease they need to slip through the narrow doors of GSB or Wharton or HBS. To them, I can only say: beware! MBA adcoms read letters from high-powered and connected people, even alumni, all the time. They don't even blink. And if the recommender in question clearly doesn't know you well, then the adcom has no choice but to conclude that you value surface over substance, and that will never play in your favor.

While I'm on the subject, I'm reminded of a discussion I had last year during a trial consultation. He didn't want to include crucial details in his essays, because he said his recommenders would cover them in their letters. I told him he was taking a big chance on that, because he didn't know what they were going to write, and that he shouldn't rely on someone else to fulfill his responsibilities anyways. A recommender should not be selling you harder than you are willing to sell yourself, if for no other reason than they are not the ones who will be interviewed.