Since many of our readers are just beginning the business school application process, we wanted to offer some basic tips on a critical variable in the MBA admissions equation: recommender selection.
When choosing your recommenders, remember that it can be seen as a test of judgment – selecting a recommender whose letter is ineffective or who appears dubious about your qualifications may raise doubts about your ability to judge your interactions with others or to select the right person for a job. In order for your letters to be as effective as possible, you should look for several qualities in a recommender. First, your recommenders should have greater seniority than you unless the school specifically asks for a peer recommendation. The adcom gives greater weight to statements made by your superiors rather than by a peer because a peer is assumed to be essentially a friend and therefore predisposed to write a positive recommendation.
As we discuss in greater depth with our clients, the most persuasive recommendation letters are those which contain specific examples and anecdotes. Because of this, you should select recommenders who are very familiar with your work and with whom you interact(ed) on a regular basis. This usually means that you should choose current or former direct supervisors, rather than someone whose title you think will impress the adcom. Choosing a recommender based on their name or title can imply that you put an undue emphasis on such qualities instead of thinking about who would be the best person for the job. In addition to picking people who know you well, you should also pick recommenders with whom you have a positive relationship, since if they like and respect you, their letters are likely to be much more positive and persuasive.
When deciding amongst your current and former supervisors or mentors, there are several factors to consider. First, the people you select should be able to provide the adcom with a fairly comprehensive and up-to-date perspective on your professional experiences. Often, it makes sense to ask your current supervisor and a supervisor from the job you held immediately prior to your current position. If you find that it works best to choose two recommenders from the same employer, you should make sure that they can talk about different aspects of your experiences so as to provide letters that are complementary rather than repetitive. In such a case, you should talk to each recommender about the anecdotes and traits each of them would like to cover. Alternatively, if you decide to choose a recommender with whom you worked some time ago, you should choose a person with whom you have maintained a strong relationship so that they can speak positively to your continued professional development as well as to your past accomplishments.
Ideally, you would also choose recommenders who can write well and who are receptive to input. Strong writing skills are obviously important because an articulate letter is more effective than an inarticulate one. In addition, an openness to input is important so that your recommenders can build upon and reinforce the general message of your candidacy.
These tips should offer a good starting point for readers who are beginning to think about recommendations. For those candidates looking for more guidance, we direct you to the Clear Admit Recommendation Guide. After years of one-on-one work with clients in coaching their recommenders in producing the most supportive endorsements possible, we’ve made our MBA recommendation best practices available to the applicant pool at large. The Clear Admit Recommendation Guide will teach you to strategically select the best possible recommenders, help them understand the characteristics of a strong recommendation, and exert some influence over the content of their comments to arrive at complementary documents that reinforce the strengths of your candidacy and alleviate its weaknesses. This 23-page PDF file, which includes a set of guidelines you can print and share with your recommenders, a list of frequently asked questions and two full sample recommendations, is available for immediate download. Buy this guide
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