Asking for a recommendation is stressful. You are making yourself vulnerable and possibly learning what people really think of you. The news isn’t always good, but it’s crucial to pay attention to what your potential business school recommender is actually telegraphing. Here are signs that you have chosen the wrong business school recommender, and should ask someone else:

  • They seem super surprised.

If you hear any of these phrases, please choose another recommender. Worrisome reactions include but aren’t limited to: “Really, are you sure?” “Aren’t there people who know you better?” “We haven’t worked together for a long time, I can’t speak to your current skill set.” Although it may seem like you can still convince the recommender that they are a fabulous choice, you really don’t want to. They are trying to let you down in a nice way, and are also telling you that they can’t fully endorse you.

  • They ask you to write it.

This happens a lot, and sometimes the potential recommender really does think that you are great. Nevertheless, if someone tells you that they don’t have time to write your recommendation you need to find an alternative. It’s dishonest to draft your own letter, and potential grounds for rejection or revocation of admission. In addition, you need an advocate who can enhance your candidacy with additional insight and perspective. If you write the letter yourself your application will lack this critical spark.

  • They don’t understand why you are going to business school/don’t believe in MBA’s.

Many people apply to business school from non-traditional fields where MBA’s aren’t common, or have bosses who have excelled without the degree. If this is the case your potential recommender may not be sold on your plans. Although I would put this flag in the “maybe” category – meaning that you might be able to convince them that it’s a good idea for you to go to business school – please be aware that their inherent skepticism about the degree may come across as skepticism about YOU, as a candidate. The committee doesn’t know that the recommender doesn’t value the MBA degree, they will just read a lukewarm review and think that you aren’t all that compelling.

  • They say no.

Sometimes you ask your beloved mentor for a recommendation and they unexpectedly say no. Although disorienting, if this happens, please remember that it isn’t always about you. Your mentor might also be applying to business school, or their wife or sister might be applying. They might be having personal or health problems, be ready to quit or about to get fired. Regardless of the underlying reason, these are all still red flags! If your chosen business school recommender says no, please thank them graciously and move on.

Just because it was hard to ask does not mean that you should stick with a bad choice. Pivoting can make the difference between acceptance and denial. After all of your hard work, please pay attention to what they are telegraphing, and listen to your gut. Don’t let the wrong business school recommender derail your candidacy.

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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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