The MBA recommendation letter is one of the most misunderstood components of the application process. Misconceptions often lead candidates in the wrong direction. To effectively leverage the recommendation letter, follow these guidelines:

1. Select an individual who knows you well. The biggest mistake a candidate can make is to ask someone who doesn’t know them well to write a recommendation letter just because the individual has an impressive title. The best recommendations are personal, detailed and genuine. Admissions committees would rather hear from someone who can endorse you in a nuanced, specific way than from someone higher up in an organization who doesn’t truly know you.

2. Consider how the recommender will answer basic questions. Before you ask anyone to write a letter on your behalf, you should think about how they are likely to answer the questions on the recommendation form. How would they say that you handle stress, and do they know you well enough to support their answer with anecdotes? What would they say is your biggest challenge as a professional? If you cannot begin to imagine how they would respond to the prompts, then you should reconsider your choice. Look for someone with whom you have a richer history and a stronger relationship.

3. Choose an advocate. The best MBA recommendations really glow and clearly convey that the recommender is fond of the candidate and invested in their success. This warmth matters more than you think. Most recommendations are generally positive, but the ones that are taken most seriously demonstrate that the candidate has allies and is an asset to their community.

4. Listen if someone is trying to gently discourage you. If you approach someone to write you a recommendation and they hedge – even for ostensibly neutral reasons, like their schedule – you should not use them. If your recommenders are not overwhelmingly excited about you, it can seem like they don’t truly endorse you at all. A flat recommendation letter can really hurt your chances of admission.

5. Determine how a recommendation letter can support your overall application. Evaluate your candidate profile and find someone who can bolster your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. For instance, if your quantitative numbers (i.e.: test scores, grades) aren’t fabulous, but you work with numbers all day, you should choose someone who can talk about your technical proficiency and analytical skills. If you work 80+ hours per week and do not have time to participate in activities outside of work, find a recommender who can speak to your interpersonal skills and involvement in the work community.

6. Prepare your recommender. You should never script answers – this approach is unethical and ultimately backfires. However, you do want to equip your recommenders with enough information to help you sell yourself. I suggest taking them out for coffee and giving them a packet with an updated resume and some additional reference materials. Explain why you want to go to the schools you’ve selected, relate your post-graduate goals, and discuss what you see as the strongest and weakest aspects of your candidacy. I also encourage you to share anything pertinent about your personal background that they may not know.

7. Follow the directions. It’s simple: If a school asks for a professional recommendation, do not use a professor. If they want a senior colleague or a supervisor, do not use a peer.
The recommendation letter represents a significant element of your overall candidacy. You have more control over how the letter reflects on you than you might think. The key is to be thoughtful and strategic about who you choose and how you prepare them to speak on your behalf.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than $70 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 98% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.
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