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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.


MBA admissions Q&A: GPA, Integrated Reasoning score, alumni engagement

Some MBA admissions questions from clients and friends — answers below

On the Integrated Reasoning score

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Q: My overall score was 770, but my IR was only 5….I was wondering if this low IR (integrated reasoning) score would have a negative impact on me please? How do the schools look at IR scores, and are there any that use this as a criteria? Should I retake it?

A:  No! Do not retake the GMAT. At this stage (summer 2016) admissions officers are still pretty agnostic about the IR score. I’ve heard them say in conferences that there is not enough data to make a real assessment on the IR score alone.  I’ve also heard from GMAC people that the IR correlates pretty well with the quant score.  So if you have a high quant score and a low IR, your quant score outweighs it.  If you have a low quant score and a high IR score, that’s actually less powerful, sadly.

On a low-ish GMAT, but from one of the best schools in the USA in chemical engineering

Q: How much does our GPA from undergrad matter, especially if it is lower than the average reported GPA from the business school? Does this significantly disadvantage us?

A: Not all GPAs are alike.  You’ve told me that you have a degree in chemical and biological engineering. That major and those courses will offset courses everyone knows are just not as hard. I was a political science major and I know, (as does every admissions officer) that my GPA in should be discounted against a chemical engineer.

The other thing they look at is the trend.  They are ok if it gets better over time.  Most schools weight your junior and senior years higher than your first 2 years. That makes logical sense as well.

Finally, they do look at the whole picture, and your work experience, international experience, and publishing experience will all play into the whole picture.

If you have one course where you really did poorly, that might require an unemotional explanation in an optional essay.  But that’s really only the case if you got a D, or something like that. I don’t think that a C is really that big a deal.

SPECIAL BONUS: Answered from Tuck Admissions Officer Kristin Roth

Q:  Why is alumni engagement at Tuck so strong?

A: This is an immersive experience, whether you’re on campus in Hanover or around the world for on-the-ground learning opportunities. People don’t disappear after classes are over; they stay together in a living, learning, and social environment. This intimate experience requires students to learn how to engage with each other, support and challenge each other, and work through problems collaboratively. They also experience the support of alumni during their time as students which translates into strong alumni engagement. People pay it forward to the next generation of Tuckies, because they experienced that themselves. It’s a virtuous circle.

What MBA Schools Think of Admissions Consultants

aigac conferenceIt’s natural for MBA students to worry, and indeed they do. One thing they shouldn’t worry about is the use of an admissions consultant. Well, at least an ethical and professional admissions consultant, that is.  So here it is in black and white from one top school: Tuck.  They say it’s really OK. In their words,

Reputable consultants have experience in MBA programs and a broad understanding of the variety of schools out there. Consultants can also assist on the path to reflection and discovery.

See? Nothing to worry about.

Not exactly. Tuck, and every other school I know of is very clear: the work has to be yours. If someone you pay can help you make that hard work more focused, and less stressful, GREAT! If they guarantee they or their method will get you in, RUN! And if they offer to write anything for you, “HANG UP!”

Also, not every admissions consultant will be the right fit for you. I (Betsy of Master Admissions) have one style, and my colleague Candy of MBASpain, has another. And the many experienced consultants at the big firms, like MBA Exchange, have a range of different skills and offerings. It depends on what is right for you.

That’s what Tuck is saying here — the right consultant can help. Read what they say in their own words here. We had a terrifically productive day with the admissions committee at Tuck in June. And we stay in touch with them regularly, to understand what’s new with the school and its value proposition.

Tuck is not the only school who has met with admissions consultants and hosted us. The list is robust, in Boston alone we saw MIT Sloan, HBS, HKS, and had conversations with visiting admissions officers from Wharton, Columbia, Yale, Darden, Texas, UCLA, Babson, LBS, INSEAD, Haas, and more I am forgetting. We’ve been hosted by Stanford GSB in Palo Alto and by Chicago Booth virtually. So yes, if you do it right, admission officers “get it” that using a consultant may just make the difference for you.

Annual San Francisco MBA Admissions Workshop

MBA admissions workshopEvery year in July I organize a workshop for potential applicants. It’s an interactive event — not just me talking, but you helping each other figure out what are the stories and themes in your life that will help you stand out in the competitive MBA admissions process.

The workshop is hosted by the Harvard Club of San Francisco, and has produced successful candidates who have gone on to all of the top business schools: HBS, Stanford, Wharton, Yale, Kellogg, MIT, Booth, Kellogg, Tuck…and more.  Plus, you don’t have to be a Harvard graduate to attend!

I’ll do bit of talking to de-mystify the admissions process, but you will do the work to kick-start your application — not just the essays — and make it shine.


At the workshop, you’ll go through exercises to help you identify unique personal and career successes. You will brainstorm ways to tell your own story in an inviting and compelling way. You will join small teams get to know each other, using both the left and the right side of your brain to identify what makes you stand out from just any old applicant.

We’ll have food on hand to keep you nourished, and by the end of the workshop, you will have at least one story that admissions committees can’t wait to read about.

Date: Tuesday, July 12
Time: 6:00pm – 8:00pm
Place: Sandbox Suites, 404 Bryant St (@2nd St), San Francisco
Cost: $25 members, $30 non-members. Includes food

For more information and registration, please click here.

RSVP requested by July 10

Some Introspection in Advance of Your Application Essays

The business school essays can be intimidating. The questions, ranging from open ended –Stanford’s “What is

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most important to you, and why?” to specific “What are your short and long term goals?”  These essays are hard because admissions officers are looking for the story behind your story. They are looking for ways to determine your character and your personal leadership style – stuff that isn’t quite so obvious from your transcript or your GMAT scores.

I’m writing this blog post at the end of May, when the spring is full of warm weather promise and lengthening days.  Many deadlines for business school applications aren’t even released yet, not to mention essays.  To be honest, with three months until the first school’s first round (HBS, Sept 7, 2016), you really want to do some brainstorming with yourself.

This introspection and brainstorming will help reveal the real you. Not the person you think admissions officers want to see. I recently worked with a student, let’s call her Dora, who had a very strong profile, and in her first drafts of essays, presented a perfect, business oriented go-getter.  I had a long question-and-answer session with her before this draft, and I felt like there was a really interesting person inside.  She made me laugh, made me think about things in a different way, and impressed me with her knowledge of arcane subjects.  But guess what? None of those characteristics showed up in her essays. She was all business in her essays. Miss Perfect Applicant. But no.

Be Authentic. Not Perfect.

Fortunately, she changed it up so that she talked about choices she had made in her life – some easy, and some harder. Admissions committee members want you to understand what makes you tick, which does require going back into your personal history.  Harvard Business School professor and leadership guru Bill George has written at length about authentic leadership, which is based on your own life story. According to George, authentic leaders incorporate their own personal stories. That means talking about where you come from and showing some vulnerability. It doesn’t mean that you need to hang out all your personal secrets, but it does mean that you don’t want to be bulletproof.

It does mean doing the work to get to the honest part, which entails answering tough questions. Those questions are daunting because they ask what makes you tick – for example: What are some of the most challenging choices you have had to make in your life so far? Or, What was one of the biggest things that happened that was out of your control?  These are questions you want to brainstorm on that will help you peel away the layers of who you “should be” to who you are.

It’s hard to be objective about ourselves. Ask friends and family to help you explore your patterns. It’s a process from which most of us shy away; we don’t really want to know the deep dark secrets and we may fear reaching too high.

It’s a risk. But so what? In the words of Talal Khan, HBS 2016, don’t let self-doubt get the better of you.

This is that gnawing feeling inside you, saying ‘But I’m not good enough for this..’ This is all those times when you tried extremely hard and failed miserably, in plain public view. ..On an emotional level, think of the inverse situations – where you had major doubts about your ability to do well, but you went ahead and aced whatever it was you were doing. That arts class. That debating competition. That heroic on sports day. That eternally-un-impressable boss. And add to that, testimony from countless successful candidates, saying that they’ve all felt something similar, at many points, in the application process. So have faith and take the leap!