Here’s How Top MBA Admissions Committees Judge Your Recommendation Letters
Ex-Harvard admissions expert details what top b-schools expect from your recommendation letters
By Chioma Isiadinso
It’s fair to say that MBA programs have been around for a long time, the very first going back to 1908 at Harvard. Business schools in the US go back even further, to 1881 when the University of Pennsylvania established The Wharton School.
With over 100 years of history behind them, business schools have had ample time to hone their application process. And while every element of the modern-day MBA application is important, some parts are significantly better-understood than others.
You probably already realize that you'll need recommendation letters to get into business school. However, have you given much thought to why admissions committees require them – and how they view them in the context of the rest of your application?
Understanding their view of recommendation letters can help you choose the right recommender, and secure the letter that’ll get you into business school.
Why do admissions committees value recommendation letters?
The different elements of an MBA application are designed to help admissions committees get a clear, well-rounded view of each candidate.
Transcripts and resumes paint a picture of your experience; admissions essays help outline your goals, values, and perspectives, and test scores give them a relatively objective sense of your potential compared to your peers.
Recommendation letters, however, are their first chance to get a third-party perspective on you in a more nuanced way than test scores and transcripts can give.
An effective recommendation letter should give them a sense of how you are viewed professionally, and what people who know you have to say about you.
How can I fix common recommendation letter mistakes?
Recommendation letters tend to be one of the most misunderstood parts of the MBA application process. It's common for students to misjudge its importance.
Many applicants make the mistake of thinking that recommendation letters are essentially interchangable.
Thinking everyone’s letters will say good things about them, these applicants conclude it doesn’t matter who they get to recommend them, so long as they praise them and say they have leadership potential.
Some make the mistake of thinking that the job title or alumni status of their recommender gives them an advantage. While a letter from the CEO might look great, it means little if they can’t really speak to the quality of your work.
You’ll need to choose the right recommenders for you, and manage the process carefully. Read your target school's requirements for recommenders carefully, and be sure that you understand what they will be asked.
Writing a good recommendation letter takes time and a good deal of thought so you’ll also want to choose someone who’ll happily put in the time and effort.
Your current supervisor should be your first port of call. Failing that, your most recent former supervisor is another good option. You must have at least one professional recommendation, meaning someone who knows your work, your character, your potential.
An indirect supervisor is also acceptable, provided they have worked closely with you. Look at the questions the recommender is being asked, and make sure that you choose someone who can give solid, well-informed answers.
What do top business schools require in a recommendation letter?
Many top business schools have begun to streamline the recommendation letter process in recent years. Recognizing that writing these letters for applicants can be a challenging and time-consuming request, several schools, including Harvard and Columbia, have worked together to create a two- to three-question form that is much simpler for recommenders.
These two questions are as follows:
How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant, detailing the circumstances and the applicant's response.
However, schools like MIT Sloan, for example, ask recommenders to answer seven questions.
These can include asking for examples of your impact on a person, group or organization, of how you interact with other people, and which characteristics of yours your recommender would change.
The bottom line is that if you want a recommendation letter that will improve your chances of going to business school, you’ll have to choose your recommender carefully.
A phenomenal recommendation is not defined by alumni status or corporate title, but by the level of evidence and detail in the examples they give about your characteristics and qualifications.
She's also a former Harvard Business School admissions officer and the author of the Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets.
Chioma publishes on the topics of personal branding, leadership development and business school admissions for college students, young professionals, entrepreneurs and executives.