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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.

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More on MBA Recommendation Letters

Dir. of Admissions at Ross School of Business Soojin Kwon Koh

Dir. of Admissions at Ross School of Business Soojin Kwon Koh

I’ve got a post I refer to everyone called “Wrangling Recommendations,” which is a best-of-the web on MBA recommendations.

Soojin Kwon Koh, Director of Admissions at University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, wrote a blog post that I found very helpful back in 2012. With the ever-changing Internet, this excellent post vanished when Ross refreshed its MBA website.

I wanted to reprint it because it was so good, so here goes:

Be smart about choosing your recommenders


What does this advice mean?

Recommendation letters provide the admissions committee with a valuable perspective on your professional accomplishments, strengths and weaknesses, personal characteristics, and potential fit with our community. Our questions are straightforward in their attempt to gather this information. 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 role and impact you had within your organization.

The key to submitting a solid recommendation lies in whom you select as the recommender. You should pick someone who knows you well, values your work, is committed to your success, and is willing to take the time to write a detailed recommendation that is supported by examples. You may be surprised to know that we occasionally see recommendation letters that are not supportive. This reflects poorly on the applicant, as it shows a lack of self-awareness of how he/she is viewed by others, as well as poor judgment in selecting recommenders.

Here are some guidelines for choosing the right recommenders and helping to ensure they provide quality input to the admissions committee’s evaluation of your application:

1. Choose substance over title: In other words, don’t ask your CEO. Unless you have worked directly with a CEO for a significant amount of time, he/she probably will not know you well nor have the time to write a substantive letter. Instead, focus on finding someone who knows you and your professional strengths and weaknesses. The admissions committee would rather receive a recommendation letter from a mid-level manager that has depth, substance, and supportive examples than a generic recommendation from someone higher up in your organization.

2.          Go with professional relationships: We prefer to receive recommendations from direct supervisors (from both past and present jobs) rather than professors, peers, or family friends. However, we recognize that asking a direct supervisor is not always possible. In these situations, we suggest asking a work mentor, an unofficial supervisor, or a client. Some candidates work for a family business, are entrepreneurs, or find themselves between jobs. In lieu of a direct supervisor, we suggest asking an investor or a major client who has worked with you for a period of time, or perhaps a previous employer. If you are concerned about how we might perceive your choice of recommender, you may want to use our optional essay to address the topic.

3.  Make it easy for your recommenders: Set up a time to meet with your recommenders to give them context on why you want an MBA. Remind them of the projects you worked on together and the relevant project details. Provide a copy of a recent performance review. While the letter must be written in each recommender’s own words, those words will come easier once you’ve provided context and reference information. But don’t prepare your recommenders so extensively that their letters repeat what you’ve discussed in your essays. You also want to ensure that the two recommendation letters don’t sound virtually identical; this would make us question the authorship of the letter.

4. Provide ample lead time: Remember that all parts of your application must be submitted by the application deadline, including the recommendation letters. Since it is more difficult to control the timeline of a third party, give your recommenders plenty of lead time. In fact, ask now if you haven’t asked already. It can be helpful to build in a buffer for yourself by providing them with a deadline well in advance of the actual application deadline. At a minimum, request the letter four weeks prior to the application deadline. You don’t want your recommenders to have only enough time to give one sentence answers to each question (which happens).

Keep the big picture in mind.
Recommendation letters only are one piece of your application. Ultimately, you cannot control what your recommenders write, and the admissions committee recognizes that fact. However, you do control the choice of recommenders and how well you prepare them to write your recommendation. Picking the right people and making the process easy for them will help maximize your chances for success.

…And now some great advice from McCombs MBA admissions staff

This was written by Julia Campbell, Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Texas’ full-time MBA program

Letters of Recommendation: How to Leverage the “Third” Person

 

If you’re like me, asking your supervisor or your colleague to write a letter detailing your virtues makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable.  “So, tell me again how I’m amazing?  And don’t spare any details!”  But a glowing letter of recommendation for your MBA Admissions application is oh-so critical.  Here’s how you can leverage your personal testimonials.

Sure, you’ve worked hard over the past few years and have earned a good praising, but why must you have to ask for it, and in writing? Well, the answer is easy: as an Admissions Officer, I need perspective on your business acumen, your personality, and your leadership and teamwork skills to confirm your claims of awesome-ness from someone other than yourself. Think about it, you have complete control over every aspect of your MBA Application, except for the letters of recommendation.  You’ve already written essays, submitted a resume, took your tests, submitted your transcripts and you may have also been interviewed. Now it’s time for a third party to weigh in and offer us a new perspective that will hopefully add depth and value to your overall application, but most importantly a good recommendation will provide a CREDIBLE corroboration of your positive attributes.

WHO’S THE BOSS?

The best letter of recommendation will come from a Direct Supervisor or equivalent. Nobody knows your capabilities in the business world better than the person supervising you in your current role.  This person should have some sort of oversight or supervisory involvement in the work that you do.  Even better if they write your performance evaluations!  This means they are used to thinking about you and your skill set.  This person should be able to come up with clear examples of these skills, so therefore first-hand knowledge of your measurable success is also crucial.

There are of course some exceptions when asking your Direct Supervisor isn’t the best bet. Perhaps you’re new to the position or your Supervisor may be new to the organization or role. This could be bad news if you or they haven’t been in the role long enough to speak intelligently about your skill set and abilities.  Sometimes, it’s conflict of interest that prevents you from asking your Direct Supervisor for a recommendation letter.  For example, if your Supervisor is also your mother in the case of a family business. (See next section for advice on who to ask instead.)

Lastly, there may be another situation that complicates you asking your Supervisor; they could be opposed to you leaving your position for an MBA (if you’re applying to our full-time program), or in rare situations, you may not have a healthy relationship with your supervisor or you may feel that asking them for a recommendation to business school would jeopardize your opportunity for promotion or a raise.

All of these are valid circumstances you may want to include in the Optional Essay, to give us context and reasons for why you didn’t ask your Direct Supervisor.

WHEN IT’S NOT EXACTLY CLEAR

Other good letter of recommendation options would be a former Supervisor at a previous job, a Project Manager, or a professional colleague. You may also consider a business client, lawyer, accountant, industry mentor or other peer professional if you’re in a family business setting or in a consulting or advertising role. Remember that whoever you choose needs to be able to discuss with us in detail your qualities, skills, and virtues. Also, don’t just pick the CEO or President of the company.  Just because they know your name and you have shared an elevator ride with them doesn’t mean they know you well enough to recommend you for b-school.  We’ve read enough letters of recommendation to know when somebody knows of you, and when they know you.

GET ON THEIR CALENDAR

Make sure to let your recommenders know way in advance you are going to request their help. I would even suggest letting them know a good three months ahead of time if possible, so that you are not rushing them if they haven’t completed it a month out, and you start getting concerned they won’t submit the letter on time. It is also a good idea to meet with them, let them know what your short and long-term goals are and why McCombs is the best school for you, and offer them a copy of your updated resume. That way they can talk about their belief in your direction and goals with some background.

LAST & MOST OBVIOUS TIP

Most importantly, make sure to ask someone who actually 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.”  Yikes.  You might as well have asked a perfect stranger to write it and it probably would have come out better.

Good luck in selecting your recommenders! We look forward to reading these glowing professional love letters soon.

GMAT or GRE?

GMAT test successFor those who are applying to business school,  the question arises: should I take the GMAT or GRE?

Or if you’ve already taken one or the other,  you may be wondering if you should have taken a different test.

In all honesty, I think the answer is either, but it’s not entirely black and white.  These days, just about every top US business school accepts the GRE.  But read the fine print. Not all schools value it equally (UCLA for example) and some even have quirks (Columbia).

You’ll see a list at the end of this article that indicates, at least of this writing, which do and which do not. I’ve also put links to the school websites for further explanation. Things change all the time. The most recent data shows about 10% of students are using the GRE, and the numbers are growing.

Why do schools even take the GRE? Because they are casting a wider net to get more interesting students, and because they realize that lots of students think about joint degree programs.

Harvard Business School was one of the first schools to accept the GRE, because, as Dee Leopold said in 2009

HBS: Since many HBS applicants are also considering graduate programs besides the MBA, there is now no need for them to take the GMAT if they have already taken the GRE. We believe that the GMAT and the GRE meet our expectations of what a standardized test can tell us about a candidate’s ability to thrive in our MBA Program.

The Rumor Mill
Face it, both tests are standardized, and both are computer adaptive.  They are both annoying and require more studying than you want. Most, but not all schools are perfectly happy to take either. For example, this line is from Michigan Ross’s application instructions:

ROSS:Your performance on either exam will be used as part of our assessment of your academic ability, and you are at no advantage or disadvantage by taking one exam instead of the other.

But other schools, such as UCLA Anderson, strongly prefer the GMAT

ANDERSON: We prefer GMAT scores as the common denominator by which we have historically compared candidates, but we accept the GRE now as well.

That means you have to check carefully and rely on what you read and hear from admissions officers, beyond what is on chat boards, and even blogs like mine.

I thought the next few lines were hearsay, but they were just confirmed, May 30, 2014, in person, by senior members of the admissions office at Columbia.

COLUMBIA BUSINESS SCHOOL: If we have a GMAT score, we are going to use that. We will disregard the GRE.

I had a student who took the GRE for Columbia, did well, but felt he wanted to take the GMAT to prove his quant mettle. He didn’t do well because he had an off day, but because he HAD taken the test, Columbia took his GMAT instead of the GRE. What would have happened if he didn’t report the GMAT? Who ever knows? (He went to Yale SOM anyway, his first choice).

Other schools are much more relaxed.  At a May 2014 conference, Isser Gallogly, Assistant Dean of Admissions at NYU Stern, suggested that students try the GRE if they are sub-par in the GMAT.

NYU STERN: If someone is struggling with one test, try the other, the GRE

Your Quant Score
Most admissions officers admit that they want to see a balanced score on both verbal and quant. The general buzz is that around 80% on both is about right, but there’s definitely some give on both sides. So don’t fear if you get a 47 on the quant, which is turning out to be a 78% these days. As for the GRE, the population on the quant side is a bit less numbers oriented, so if you get an 80% in that pool, it’s pretty well known that you are being measured against a different population, usually not as quant-oriented as GMAT test takers. So shoot for a higher percentage, say about 85% on quant.

If you are worried about how you look by taking one test vs. another, I say, don’t worry unless they really make a point of it (like UCLA). All you need to do is get it over the net, and they pretty much tell you what a normal distribution looks like. Get within one standard deviation of the average, and you are fine.

Having said all that, if test taking is not your forte, you really should take a GRE or GMAT course. You don’t know what you don’t know about your own study habits. It’s worth the investment.

Future Employer Preference on GMAT vs GRE

One more thing–and perhaps this deserves a blog post all to itself, employers will take any statistics you throw that them.  At least that’s what representatives of the Career Development Office at Yale SOM stated on May 27, 2014, “Employers love points of data wherever they can find it. So gre or gmat doesn’t matter. They do like the numbers!”

MBA Programs: GRE in addition to GMAT

School GRE? Link
Cambridge YES Cambridge Judge
Chicago YES Chicago Booth
Columbia YES Columbia Business School
Cornell YES Cornell Johnson
Darden YES UVA Darden
Duke YES Duke Fuqua
HBS YES Harvard Business School
INSEAD YES INSEAD
Kellogg YES Kellogg MBA
Mich Ross YES University of Michigan Ross
MIT Sloan YES MIT Sloan
NYU Stern YES NYU Stern
Stanford YES Stanford GSB
Tepper YES Carnegie Mellon Tepper
Texas YES Texas McCombs
Tuck YES Dartmouth Tuck
UCLA YES UCLA Anderson (GMAT Preferred)
Wharton YES Wharton MBA
Yale YES Yale School of Management
Haas YES UC Berkeley Haas (Part-time YES)
LBS NO London Business School
Oxford NO Oxford Said

If you are looking for more schools the ETS link has a full list of MBA programs which accept the GRE.  Further, to confuse, or perhaps clarify you, ETS also has a GRE-to-GMAT converter.

UPDATED: June 5, 2014.

Interested in admissions consulting? Email me at betsy@masteradmissions.com

Just have a question? post it at my Wall Street Oasis forum

Deadlines and Some Inspiration for Those About To Write Essays this Weekend

This is embarrassing. I have been so incredibly busy with deadlines — HBS Round 1 was this past Monday — and metamorphosisalready interview invitations will be sent out Oct 9 and Oct 16. That means you actually COULD apply to Round 1 for other schools if things didn’t work out for you at Harvard. I’m guessing there will be more applicants because of the “easier” and more user-friendly admissions process. I write “easier” in quotes because the open-ended essay format gives people almost too many choices!

Next up is MIT Sloan (Sept 24), which is cool because you can do a one-minute video for the optional essay. Don’t believe me? Check out what the admissions office says about it all at by clicking here.

And then it gets really intense:

Oct 1 – Michigan Ross and Wharton
Oct 2 – Columbia Early Decision, Cornell, INSEAD, Stanford GSB
Oct 3 – Booth
Oct 4 – London Business School
Oct 7 – Carnegie Mellon Tepper
Oct 9 – Tuck Early Action
Oct 10- Georgetown
Oct 11- Cambridge
Oct 15- NYU Stern, UT Austin, UVA Darden, USC Marshall
Oct 16- Berkeley Haas, Kellogg
Oct 18- UNC Kenan-Flagler
Oct 21- Duke Round 2 (sort of)
Oct 22- UCLA
Oct 25- Oxford

So buckle up and for perspective watch this video for some inspiration and a shot of some humility too.

Wrangling Recommendations for MBA Admissions

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. Some might argue that it’s already too late to hit up a busy executive for a b-school recommendation, but if you plan and execute right, the amount of time remaining should be reasonable.

Don’t Overthink
You can find many opinions about how to strategize the recommendations all over the web. I only have three words to say about it: Don’t overthink it. 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 Director of Admissions at Harvard Business School, advises that recommenders answer the questions posed, and be specific (good advice for applicants as well as recommenders!). Furthermore, “Many recommendations are well-written and enthusiastic in their praise but essentially full of adjectives and short on actual examples of how your wonderful qualities play out in real life,” 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 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

More Excellent Resources Available

Several students and former students have chimed in on the 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.

Another generous soul is Jeremy Wilson, who is on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and currently a JD-MBA student there. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. Good question! 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.

I know you’ve got it in you.