Letters of recommendations can be tricky to navigate, but MBA applicants need not worry as much as they need to. You will find a great deal of not-very-conflicting information on the web from admissions directors and other experts. In fact, I wrote a blog post with the best of the web on MBA recommendation letters with great advice from the admissions office at Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School.
Dee Leopold, head of admissions at HBS, and arguably the most experienced admissions officer on the planet, has tried to clarify some of the obvious questions about recommendations. You'll find most of her comments in her blog, and here's the most recent contribution, shamelessly reposted below:
Every so often something happens in an information session that causes a giant light bulb to go on in my head. As I'm sure you realize, we do tend to get asked the same questions over and over and I know I can be guilty of jumping too quickly to "my answer" and not listening as closely as I might to the question. This summer, something finally clicked about this issue of recommenders, particularly "The Third One."
Our instructions have been clear, but possibly only to us. We ask for three recommendations and we've pushed out guidance that we'd like two to come from professional sources. Thus, we've often been asked the question, "so who should write my third recommendation?" We've said all the normal and sensible things, like "ask someone who knows you well enough to answer the questions we pose to recommenders." That's true. Really, truly, true. But I think we have unintentionally signaled that this mysterious "Third Recommender" should come from a place in your life which is not the workplace. So the questions we were being asked were really trying to puzzle out if we wanted them from a professor, from community service, from trusted family friends. Who knew?
So, in the hope that this will add clarity, let me re-phrase our guidance: we are fine if ALL the recommendations come from the workplace. Even from the same firm. We are not trying to add the additional hurdle of needing to hear a voice from every phase of your past and present life. If it's not possible to get ANY recommendation from your current workplace, you may wish to explain this situation briefly in the Additional Information section of the application. This is NOT an unusual occurrence - we don't expect every boss in the world to be excited about losing top talent to business school. As is always the case, use your best judgment about this.
It's true, we are not a School which asks for a recommendation from a peer. However, if there is an important part of your candidacy which can only be validated by a peer (a start-up, for instance), that's a fine choice.
Meanwhile, the old standard wisdom is still true: if you're wondering about whether a choice is a good one, take another look at the questions we pose. If the person you are considering can answer the questions, you're on the right track.
That's all... if the Admissions team were asked for our three most substantial accomplishments this season (which we all know is So Last Year), clearing up this confusion might make the list.
Note: in the weeks ahead, I'll try to have a post here every Monday to address Round One issues and concerns.
Wishing you well...
Any questions? please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org!