Your 1st Step to Higher Education™
Just when you thought the countless late nights you spent on your MBA applications were coming to a close - when you finally obtained your ideal GMAT score after weeks of drilling, trimmed your admissions essays to perfection, and tweaked your resume for the billionth time, you are hit with another crucial application task: soliciting great recommendation letters.
Why are Recommendation Letters Needed?
You think: Oh man - another sleepless week! Why do they even need references? Don’t they have gobs of information about me already from the rest of my application?
MBA officers are not just trying to throw another admissions hurdle your way (although one could argue that some adcoms are just a teeny bit sadistic). Recommendation letters do serve a very worthwhile purpose: They provide another, more objective perspective into your potential as an MBA student and business leader. Say you’ve claimed to be a hotshot team leader with exceptional cross-cultural, communication, and technical skills on your essay. Or, you said you were instrumental in doubling revenues for your department. Well, the admissions committee wants to know if your version of the truth or your perception of your competencies is shared by the people around you.
Therefore, although the recommendation letters should not replicate every message and narrative you wrote in your essays, there should be some common themes that tie the entire application together. If you have branded yourself in your essay as a coalition builder with expertise in the Southeast Asian business landscape, your recommendations should also highlight these points.
How Many Letters do I Need?
B-schools differ in the number of letters, or number of outside perspectives about you as an applicant, they want to review. Most programs require you to submit at least one, sometimes even up to three, letters of reference. The specifications for exactly who should compose these documents depend on the MBA program. Most b-schools require you to obtain referrals from individuals who served in a supervisory position to you. Some require a current supervisor to write – and in case you cannot get a current supervisor to vouch for you, they may ask you to pen down exactly why not. Other, more flexible admissions offices will accept recommendation letters broadly from individuals qualified to assess your professional performance. Few schools accept academic references, and often only if you are a recent graduate. Finally, a small handful of schools request a letter from a professional peer.
Keep in mind, however, that many MBA programs have their own specific recommendation letter formats, forms, and questions. This means that if you apply to six schools and have only one main letter writer, you might put a great deal of strain on that individual. Consider expanding your list of writers or, at the very least, make sure your writers feel extremely appreciated.
Who is a Good Recommendation Writer for Me?
The above information should help you narrow down the pool of potential writers, but also remember: The most important consideration for who should compose references for you is how well they know you. Many applicants are tempted to ask for recommendation letters from superiors with impressive titles or from friends who happen to have graduated from their dream MBA program. Although well-written letters with specific examples showing off your competencies from such individuals can be a plus, generic recommendations signal a bright, red flag in admissions officers’ minds.
So who should you choose? Well, just the opposite. Find somebody who knows you so well in a professional capacity that they can provide multiple detailed instances of how you have built and displayed your business-related skills. Approach a superior or colleague who has an idea what MBA programs are looking for in applicants and, if possible, has a flair for written expression. Finally, select a person who genuinely cares about your personal and career development, who is likely to spend significant effort and time to compose an outstanding letter for you.
How Can I Solicit a Better Recommendation?
Although you should not be penning down the recommendation letter yourself and simply having your supervisor sign it, the way you prepare your writer can vastly impact the outcome.
Providing your writers with a succinct but informative packet regarding your career goals and applications can go a long way. Perhaps you can sit down with your writers for 15 minutes each to discuss the recommendation letters and the written information you are providing them. Specifically, include in your info packet:
Both for your writers’ benefit as well as your own, ask for the recommendation letters well in advance – perhaps even a month before the due date. Planning in advance should help your writers produce well-thought-out and effective pieces. Humans being humans, though, it may also be effective to remind your writers of upcoming deadlines two weeks before the event.
What Does an Effective Letter Look Like?
A strong recommendation letter generally begins with an explanation of the writer’s capacity to compare you to peers and their relationship with you. For example, if your supervisor has worked in the industry for fifteen years and has mentored dozens of professionals, he or she is most likely in a strong position to assess you in comparison to other MBA applicants. In terms of the writer’s relationship to you, include information on how long they have known you and in what professional roles. If you’ve developed a more personal connection such as mentorship or friendship, then mention it (unless, of course, that connection was romantic in nature).
Your referee should proceed by highlighting a few unique qualities about you. These qualities should not only distinguish you from peers, but also speak to what the particular MBA program is looking for in applicants. For instance, if you are applying to INSEAD, a program set apart from others for its globalized curriculum and network, it makes good sense to highlight your intercultural competencies.
For each quality about you that your recommender selects, he or she should have a specific story or example to depict. For instance, if the quality selected is maintaining calm in stressful situations, perhaps your writer can narrate a particularly successful crisis management example you took leadership in.
It’s always important to add a touch of objectivity to the letter through quantifying your accomplishments or comparing your performance to that of peers. Perhaps you brought in a million dollar contract for your company or increased workflow efficiency by a certain impressive percentage. Or maybe you are the most vision-oriented thinker that your writer has encountered in his last five years in their sector. Such statements add some realism to the letter, inspiring adcom members to trust the writer more.
If the recommender is instructed to include a weakness of yours, consider the following strategies. Weaknesses that the particular b-school is well-positioned to correct are especially effective. For example, if you are a Chinese banker with experience working with highly international teams but who lacks significant immersion experiences abroad, a degree from IE may be ideal in bridging that gap. Also, a weakness, such as forgetting the broader picture, is often the flipside of a strength, like strong attention to detail. If they write about how seriously you took feedback about your weakness and how you are making an effort to change, your recommender can even illustrate strengths: your ability to take constructive feedback and develop professionally.
End the letter by looking forward to the future. How does your writer feel you will fare with your chosen career goals?
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