How to Maximize the Impact of Your Recommendation Letters
By: Emilie Fournier
MBA applications provide a limited amount of real estate for you to impress the admissions committees of your chosen schools. In our experience, candidates often overemphasize certain components of their application (usually the GMAT) and give little thought to others. Recommendation letters tend to be pushed to the side, with candidates assuming that all recommenders sound the same, that schools believe everyone writes their own recommendations, and that these letters cannot be impactful. We believe this isn’t the best approach to your recommendation letters — after all, this is the only piece of information an admissions committee receives that isn’t coming directly from you, thereby increasing the credibility of claims made in your recommendations. With that in mind, here are our guidelines for using your recommendation letters to their full potential:
1. Complete a thorough analysis of your candidacy first
It goes without saying, but the first step before beginning any part of your application is to do a thorough overview of what you bring to the table. What role will the recommendation letters play in your application? Depending on your amount of work experience, past grades, and job performance, certain topics may be appropriate and lend themselves well to being shared by someone else’s voice. By doing this first, you can approach this (as well as all other parts of your application) intelligently and with focus.
2. Pick the right people
It may seem simple and easy to pick your current boss and your previous one before that but they may not be the right people to appropriately advocate for you. When you think of your potential recommenders, ask yourself the following questions:
Do they seem enthusiastic about your pursuit of the MBA?
Have they generally been supportive of you in the past?
Will they have the time and energy to commit to this endeavor?
Are they familiar enough with you and your work to accurately describe your accomplishments and areas of development in comparison to your peers?
If a no comes to mind for any of the above questions, seriously reconsider this person as a recommender. Another reason to be creative when choosing your recommenders is to show the depth and breadth of your accomplishments. Try to think of whom you’ve worked with that has seen you in a different setting; this could be a less recent past supervisor, or someone in a leadership position where you regularly volunteer.
3. DO inform and help. DO NOT write yourself.
We hear a lot of stories about applicants writing their own recommendation letters and receiving acceptance to the program of their choice. In fact, a 2013 survey from AIGAC found that 38% of applicants were asked to write their own recommendation letters, and admissions consultants estimate that up to 60% of letters are written by the applicants themselves. Even though we feel like writing your own recommendation letter leaves you likely to undersell yourself (not to mention the ethical implications), we do advocate getting involved and supporting your recommenders throughout this process. How does one help tailor and craft the message without writing it themselves you ask? By creating what we call a "recommender package" for your writers — an email or slide presentation detailing what they need to know:
How long you worked for them/interacted with them (with specific dates)
Key achievements during that time period to help jog their memory
A description of how you are trying to portray yourself; your MBA application mission statement so to speak
Any key feedback you received during that time
Actual recommendation questions and format required for each school you expect them to complete
This way, you’re guiding them in the right direction and providing information they need to pen your recommendation letters while allowing them the freedom to use their voice.
4. Spread the focus
Once you’ve selected your best recommenders, think about what experiences, stories, and variety each of them could bring to your story. One approach you could take is having each recommender focus on different aptitudes you want to showcase. Depending the role you held with each of them, one could focus more on hard skills, like analytics, delivering financial results, and strategy development — and the other on soft skills such as leadership, going above and beyond, and speaking in front of senior leadership. If your current and most recent previous supervisor witnessed you performing the same job, they may not bring enough diversity to your recommendations.
5. Use the recommendations for content requiring the most objectivity
This is the most important tip on this list, and the least discussed by aspiring applicants. What are some statements about yourself that may sound disingenuous coming from you? For example, when being compared to others, it won’t sound as true coming from you if you claim to have performed in the top 5% of the company. However, the effect will be completely different if an independent party who witnessed this and has experience with other associates at your level makes the same statement. Anything related to performance relative to your peers, your future potential as a business executive, and achievements that are not backed by hard numbers will sound more authentic coming from your recommenders. These types of statements should be the focus of your recommendation letters.
Additionally, if you have any potential “dealbreaking” weaknesses in your application (low GMAT, low GPA, questionable quant ability, etc.), having your recommender — especially a workplace superior — back up your claims is immensely helpful.
6. Give yourself and your recommenders plenty of time
Don’t let yourself fall in the trap of thinking the recommendation letters will be easy and leaving them to the last minute. Out of respect for your recommenders, give them at least a month’s notice, and more if you can. We found it effective to give over a month’s notice to our recommenders while also scheduling 1-2 checkpoints during the process to make sure things were progressing and to answer any questions they might have. Once you work back from when the applications are due, you need to start early to complete all the steps needed for stellar recommendations. We found it helpful to have them completed and submitted before starting our own essays, knowing that the remaining work was entirely in our hands.