Best of the Web: MBA Recommendations

As we come up to the business school application deadlines, thousands of aspiring MBA students are asking their bosses, former bosses, senior colleagues, and even clients for recommendations to business school. It’s tough to navigate, but there are resources out there, and most of them are on the web. Below are some excerpts and links to some excellent, easy-to-follow guidance on how to manage the entire process, from picking recommenders to putting together their briefing packages. If you click and read through all the links, particularly the link to Palo Alto for Awhile, you’ll find actionable advice to that can help you get stronger and ultimately, more helpful recommendations.

Take Admissions Officers at their Word
You can find many opinions about how to strategize MBA recommendations all over the web. But why go for conjecture when you can find real answers from the schools themselves? Admissions officers have come right out on their websites and told students what they are looking for in a recommendation, and I encourage you to take them at their word.

A classic article on this subject can be found on the Stanford Graduate School of Business website. Kirsten Moss, the GSB’s former Director of MBA admissions, offered clear advice for all applicants, not just Stanford. She purports that the recommendation is “about about bringing this person alive. How, if they left tomorrow, would [the] organization have been touched in a unique way.“

Note too, that admission committee members reading your letters of recommendation don’t want everything to be stellar. If all the recommenders say that the applicant is wonderful for the same reasons, or if the student looks like a demi-god, “it loses its authenticity.” says Stanford’s Moss.

Derrick Bolton, Dean of Admissions at Stanford’s MBA program also guides students with ideas to make the letters specific:

You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information.

And from Harvard Business School…
Dee Leopold, the very experienced and candid ex-Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific. Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples,” she explains. “What we are hoping for are brief recounts of specific situations and how you performed.” Her blog is not indexed, so I recommend searching for her posts of August 13, 2012, Aug. 24, 2009 and June 17, 2008.

The always articulate Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, allays fears that your recommenders must write perfect prose. “We won’t be evaluating your recommenders’ writing skills. We will be looking for content that helps us understand who you are as a professional and … the impact you had within your organization.” She also offers the following four specific tips

1. Choose substance over title (in other words, don’t ask your CEO)
2. Go with professional relationships
3. Make it easy for your recommender (For example, remind them of examples, in context)
4. Provide ample lead time

I’m a fan of Julia Campbell, from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business, who highlights an important point: make sure the recommender likes you.

Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many candidates have letters of recommendation submitted by people who write just a few words (“She’s really great.”), come up with poor examples (“One time we had a problem with a client, and she handled it well”, or clearly just don’t think that highly of you (“She performs equally well when compared to her peers at a similar level.”  You might as well have asked a perfect stranger to write it and it probably would have come out better.

Really Useful and Excellent Resources: 
Several students and former students have chimed in on the MBA recommendations process. One of my favorite applicant blogs, Palo Alto For Awhile, thoughtfully offered a very specific step-by-step guideline for the recommendation process. [One caveat to her recommendations — use first person always when writing a memo for a recommender.  If you write suggested anecdotes in third-person, then it might look like you wrote the recommendation.]

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who was on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and graduated from the JD-MBA program. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, “Highlight Why You Picked Them.”

Indeed, organizing and managing the recommendation process can be a challenge, especially if you are applying to a number of different schools. But it’s a lot like managing a project at work: you’ve got to get buy-in and meet the deadlines.

Ready? Now let’s go and get some professional love letters.


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