MBA Recommendation Letter Tips - Professional Reference Samples for Business School

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Compelling MBA recommendation letters convey indispensable “social proof” because these endorsements of skills and leadership form the only business school application component candidates don’t provide.

However, securing convincing reference letters involves a complex and challenging multi-step process. This process tests the candidate’s tact, diplomacy, perseverance, persuasiveness, organizational skills, emotional intelligence, and integrity.

In this article, we don’t provide a comprehensive guide to the entire process but rather actionable tips and insights concerning some of the hottest and most controversial aspects applicants will face when pursuing outstanding reference letters.

The trend toward authentic, honest assessments that are actually written by references instead of MBA applicants themselves has prompted many business schools to recently adopt a relatively uniform, simplified recommendation letter format known as Common LOR. We break down this new format adopted by more than 40 of these business schools. Then, we lay out specific, concrete tips for applicants looking to ensure that their MBA recommendation letters appear as thoughtful, accurate, and effective as possible within this newer and more concise appraisal framework.

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The Appraisals MBA Programs Request

At most of the better business schools, and especially at highly selective business schools that include the super-elite M7, admissions committees have traditionally requested very uniform sets of information from recommenders. Poets & Quants demonstrated these surprising similarities when they published a survey of the recommendation appraisals requested by the 30 top business schools in 2016.

First, most of these schools ask recommenders to check boxes on an evaluation form, sometimes called a “grid,” to rate their impressions of the candidate. These forms ask recommenders to rate the applicant on a wide variety of personal qualities.

Studying these forms can be useful for candidates. That’s because the forms provide valuable insights on what qualities candidates would be wise to emphasize to these schools in their application essays, along with the instructions the candidates provide to their recommenders on qualities to accentuate when writing reference letters.

Typically the business schools euphemistically give these forms a title relating to leadership, such as “Leadership Evaluation.” However, many of these qualities amount to personal attributes which arguably have little or nothing to do with leadership per se. By illustration, the Harvard Business School form asks for ratings of self-awareness, quantitative aptitude, and even humor.

Instead, many of the traits assessed relate to emotional intelligence, a highly valued skill that’s increasingly become a trendy, sought-after quality at schools like the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. The University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business—long known as a business school with an unusual emphasis on principles and values—seems to be one of the more progressive programs in this respect, asking for ratings on open-mindedness, the ability to question the status quo, the ability to influence others without authority, and even empathy. Moreover, the HBS form even asks for a creativity ranking, in its “imagination, creativity and curiosity” quality.

Emotional intelligence and creativity encompass two of the qualities considered by a recent World Economic Forum survey as high-value skills critical for all workers starting in 2020. Check out the BSchools analysis and commentary in our recent piece, Which Business Skills are Most Valuable?

The MBA Applicant’s Recommendation Letter Dilemma

Like the grid forms, the MBA recommendation letter questions, known as narrative “prompts” in MBA admissions lingo, have traditionally been standardized to a remarkable extent. Of the top 16 MBA programs ranked by Poets & Quants in their survey, twelve of these business schools asked the same two questions. In fact, in many cases, the wording these elite business schools chose for their two questions was absolutely identical. Furthermore, in general, the business schools who didn’t ask these “magic questions” did ask about the same topics using different language.

Below we provide analysis and tips related to prompts like these. But first, readers might wonder why so many of these MBA programs have traditionally asked the same recommendation letter questions—and why so many business schools only asked two of them.

In short, this practice developed as a response to a common issue in working with recommenders: the dilemma faced by an applicant working for a direct supervisor who says, “I’m just too busy to write your reference letters. You write them, and I’ll sign them.”

In 2013, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) commissioned a study that blew the lid off what some had called “the reference letter sham” when it disclosed recommenders had asked 38 percent of the candidates themselves to write their own recommendation letters. That proportion soared to half of all applicants with finance and accounting backgrounds and a whopping 61 percent of candidates in Japan. A 2014 Poets & Quants article reported “most admission consultants believe the number is much higher, with as many as six of ten letters being written by MBA candidates.”

One discussion forum comment from an MBA student at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University mused, “Sometimes I feel like I’m the only person who didn’t use an admissions consultant and didn’t write any of his own recommendation letters.”

“It definitely happens and the survey proves it,” Alex Kleiner, a Harvard Business School student, told Fortune. “It’s something I would never feel comfortable doing. But if you’re an admissions director, I don’t really know how you combat that. You could be more explicit and say, ‘If we find out, your application will be rejected automatically.’ Other than being really tough, I don’t think you can stop it.”

To combat this “you write, I’ll sign” trend, in 2014 six business schools (the Columbia Business School, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, the Yale School of Management, the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, and Northwestern Kellogg) decided to institute a common MBA recommendation letter format. Their system, similar to that used by law schools for decades, kicked off a trend towards reducing the number and length of the recommendation letters supporting MBA applicants.

The intention announced at the time was that common appraisal requests would reduce the burden faced by recommenders and enable more credible candidate evaluations—in other words, it would stop MBA program applicants from writing their own letters over their supervisors’ signatures.

Another rationale involved making it easier for recommenders to write letters in support of candidates applying to several schools since many candidates—especially those planning careers in investment banking or finance—applied to at least three of the six business schools in that original group anyway.

Common LOR: An MBA Recommendation Letter Standard

Two years later, the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) collaborated with the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan to develop their own common MBA letter of recommendation format, branded as the Common LOR. The first two business schools to join the consortium were New York University’s Stern School of Business and the SC Johnson School of Management at Cornell University. But by October 2020, 42 business schools had adopted the Common LOR. Here’s the current list:

  • Asia School of Business, in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management
  • Boston College, Carroll School of Management
  • Boston University, Questrom School of Business
  • Brandeis International Business School
  • Carnegie Melon University, Tepper School of Business
  • College of New Jersey
  • College of William & Mary, Mason School of Business
  • Cornell University, SC Johnson School of Business
  • Dartmouth College, Tuck School of Business
  • Duke University, Fuqua School of Business
  • Emory University, Goizueta Business School
  • Fudan University School of Management
  • Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business
  • Georgia Tech University, Scheller College of Business
  • Indian School of Business
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Sloan School of Management
  • New York University, Stern School of Business
  • Northeastern University, D’Amore-McKim School of Business
  • Notre Dame University, Mendoza School of Business
  • Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business
  • Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business
  • Sabanci University, Sabanci School of Management
  • Santa Clara University, Leavey School of Business
  • Simon Fraser University, Beedie School of Business
  • Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business
  • Stanford Graduate School of Business
  • University of California at Davis, Graduate School of Management
  • University of California at Irvine, Merage School of Business
  • University of California at Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management
  • University of Florida, Warrington College of Business
  • University of Georgia, Terry College of Business
  • University of Kansas, School of Business
  • University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
  • University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School
  • University of Rochester, Simon Business School
  • University of San Francisco School of Management
  • University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business
  • University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
  • Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management
  • Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School
  • Yale School of Management

It’s interesting to note the way these business schools have shifted their alliances. Two of the business schools that previously mirrored the grid forms at HBS and Northwestern Kellogg—Dartmouth Tuck and Stanford’s Graduate School of Business—have switched to GMAC’s Common LOR, including its grid form.

Furthermore, Virginia Darden and the Yale School of Management defected from the original “Gang of Six” and now also require the Common LOR. By 2017, the Wharton School had also defected from the original group but went its own way. Wharton had substituted two of its own recommendation letter questions for the common prompts and had also substituted a “pick three” personal qualities assessment list instead of a grid form.

Nevertheless, at most business schools, the same grid form accounts for most personal quality assessments, and the same two essay questions continue to account for most MBA recommendation letter prompts. What do these forms and questions entail?

The Common LOR Grid Form

The grid used by the 42 Common LOR business schools is much more comprehensive than the grids used by many MBA programs. The Common LOR Leadership Assessment Grid asks for detailed ratings of 12 character qualities and competencies grouped within five categories:

Achievement

  • Initiative
  • Results Orientation

Influence

  • Communication, Professional Impression & Poise
  • Influence and Collaboration

People

  • Respect for Others
  • Team Leadership
  • Developing Others

Personal Qualities

  • Trustworthiness/Integrity
  • Adaptability/Resilience
  • Self-Awareness

Cognitive Abilities

  • Problem Solving
  • Strategic Orientation

This is a behavioral assessment, consistent with the current trend towards behavioral interviewing. The form asks recommenders to select the button corresponding with “the behavior that you have seen the applicant most consistently exhibit.” It concludes by asking the recommender for ratings that compare the applicant with their peer group and then rank the relative enthusiasm of their recommendation.

The Magic MBA Recommendation Letter Questions

Essentially, the most frequently asked prompts boil down to requests for example-supported performance evaluations covering only two MBA recommendation letter topics:

  1. Comparisons with comparable individuals in similar roles, and
  2. Response to criticism (i.e., the applicant’s response following the supervisor’s most important feedback).

Here is Harvard Business School’s version of the two magic questions:

  1. 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. (300 words)
  2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)

The Common LOR prefaces their embodiments of these two questions by asking for a 50-word synopsis of the relationship of the applicant to the recommender. Then the Common LOR presents its interpretation of the two magic questions:

  1. How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (E.g. what are the applicant’s principal strengths?) (Up to 500 words)
  2. Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Up to 500 words)

Yes, the response word limits are severe constraints, especially in Harvard’s versions. But notice how the Common LOR prompts give the recommender roughly double the room of the HBS prompts, even though HBS asks for a much broader interpretation of performance than the Common LOR does.

The Common LOR then asks an optional question, “Is there anything else we should know?” There’s no word limit for this prompt.

Tips for Outstanding MBA Recommendation Letters

Now that we’ve presented the most common grids and prompts, let’s consider a few tips that should contribute to outstanding reference letters.

Start Early

Admissions consultants often receive panicked calls days before an application deadline from candidates whose recommenders won’t be able to file recommendation letters on time. No MBA program applicant wants this predicament.

About four months before the application deadline, candidates should be thinking about possible recommenders. By three months ahead, candidates should have decided upon their recommenders and should map out a timetable for managing them consistent with the events we describe below.

Recognize What MBA Admissions Directors Seek In Recommendation Letters

MBA program candidates often hold preconceived notions of what admission committee members (“adcoms”) look for when analyzing these recommendation letters that differ from what those readers actually expect. We present some examples in our analysis and tips below.

For instance, in this video from Poets & Quants’ 2018 CentreCourt MBA fair in San Francisco, Stanford’s Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions Kirsten Moss offered these remarks:

Recommendations are particularly important—it’s one time we can get someone’s outside opinion looking in, other than your own, of what you’ve actually accomplished. . .I am looking for those fine details about what did this person do, how are they distinctive? There are 50 different ways to be a leader but tell me a couple of them. . .For us it doesn’t matter what their title is, whether they’re an alumni or not. It really is, who can tell us, and show us, the scope and scale of those accomplishments.

Know the Hallmark Characteristics of Great Recommenders

A great recommender is a candidate’s champion. They need to fit the profile of the “raving fans” cited by management gurus like Ken Blanchard and Tony Robbins. Because the likelihood of a great MBA recommendation letter mostly depends on whom the candidate selects to write it, their enthusiasm level amounts to a crucial benchmark and a major deciding factor. When considering different possible recommenders, applicants should compare their enthusiasm levels.

One way to gauge a potential recommender’s enthusiasm level would be to ask them during an in-person meeting, “Can you write a strong reference letter on my behalf?” Then watch their nonverbal gestures carefully and listen closely. The next few seconds should disclose whether one can count on them to write a glowing letter. Candidates should never select someone who isn’t likely to write a wildly enthusiastic recommendation.

Ideally, a solid recommender will be the candidate’s present supervisor or a recent one. Most business schools require at least one reference letter from a line manager who directly supervised the applicant, usually either the candidate’s boss or boss’ boss. Preferably this supervisory responsibility should last about a year, and if possible, this should be recent experience within the past 12 to 24 months.

Ideally, recommenders also need to be experienced persuasive writers as well. After all, the purpose of their letter is to persuade a skeptical admissions committee to throw the applicant’s file in the “accept” stack, and writing compelling recommendation letters of this type requires seasoned writing ability.

Situations can develop where it is not feasible to obtain a strong recommendation from a current supervisor. Nobody should put their job at risk to obtain a business school recommendation. The next-best options in these cases might be recent former supervisors, current clients, or board members.

A third but far less desirable option involves officers of professional societies or nonprofit organizations who have supervised the candidate or with whom they have collaborated closely. In cases like these, the candidate will need to explain in their application essay why they did not ask their current boss to write their letter.

Many applicants assume that someone with a prestigious title—such as a chief executive officer, chief financial officer, or chief marketing officer—would amount to a fabulous choice as a recommender. However, it is unwise to select someone like this—even if they are a well-connected alumnus of the school—when it will be obvious to the adcoms reading the letter that such an executive ranks way too high above the candidate on the organization chart to have directly supervised their work.

To write great recommendation letters, recommenders need to have directly supervised MBA candidates and know them and their work well. Admissions committee members want to see letters full of compelling, detailed examples supporting contentions that applicants performed better or offer greater leadership potential than most comparable individuals in similar roles. Someone who doesn’t know a candidate very well won’t be able to fill a letter with these detailed examples.

Besides, Karla Cohen of Fortuna Admissions points out that it’s important to select one who can comment on an applicant’s progress, especially a recommender:

. . .who’s actually witnessed your development and growth first hand. Someone who has been responsible for that development and growth and can comment in detail. . .is by far your best bet. If they can’t speak about you with both substance and specificity, they aren’t the right person for your recommendation.

To be polite in these situations, a prestigious executive often will accept a candidate’s letter-writing request, but will generally submit a form letter full of vague, general, and empty platitudes that the adcoms will consider useless. In some cases, this result can actually damage an otherwise stellar candidate’s overall impression.

Candidates should not select university professors to serve as recommenders, even those from graduate programs. MBA admissions committees will consider such references tangential and discard them.

And applicants should never, under any circumstances, ask a spouse or family member to serve as a recommender. Providing such a letter can damage the credibility of one’s entire application.

Manage the MBA Recommendation Letter Collaboration Effectively

Because this project typically requires several work sessions, ideally a recommender will be someone with whom the client can work with in person. For many of these meetings, online video or phone sessions can work, and during the Covid-19 crisis, these probably will amount to the only options with which most recommenders will agree. However, during periods not encumbered by a pandemic, the first crucial meeting in which a candidate meets with a potential recommender should probably take place in person, even if the candidate needs to book a flight.

The best recommendation letter-writers are busy, and anything candidates can do to save them time and effort and limit the scope of their work will help. Candidates should write a well-organized document called a recommendation brief containing these sections:

  1. The list of the schools to which the candidate will apply
  2. From each school:
    • The leadership evaluation grid form
    • The reference questions or narrative prompts
  3. A concise statement of objectives
  4. The business school application resume the candidate will file with the schools
  5. Four bullet-point summary outlines:
    • Reference letter aspirations
    • Strengths and weaknesses
    • Relevant personal information, including previously undisclosed facts
    • Proposed examples for tricky prompts (like responses to critical feedback)
  6. A proposed schedule of meetings, milestones, and deadlines

The candidate can refer to portions of this document during their initial meeting’s presentation—possibly reformatted as PowerPoint slides on a laptop computer—especially the statement of objectives. It’s helpful to simplify the pitch for the recommender by pointing out recurrent themes and overlap. At the end of the meeting, the candidate can then leave this document on the recommender’s computer.

After the recommender has received an opportunity to review this document, the candidate should schedule a strategy session with them. During this second meeting, candidates should review this document with the recommender in more detail. North Star Admissions Consulting’s Karen Marks recommends brainstorming:

Tell them more about your strengths and weaknesses as a candidate, so that they can offer details that help you present an optimized profile. Share relevant personal information that they might not have known, like the fact that you were a varsity athlete or the first in your family to go to college. Finally, offer to help them think about powerful illustrations for some of the trickier questions, like how you handle feedback or conflict. It’s really important not to write this content down for them, even in bullet form—the responses need to be in the recommender’s own words.

It may also make sense to specifically appeal to the recommender to refrain from any tendency towards critical evaluations on grid ratings since unenthusiastic rankings can red-flag the application.

To avoid stress and awkward dynamics, Marks also recommends setting clear deadlines. She advises that, “It’s completely legitimate to tell your recommenders that you plan to submit the week before the application is due. . .and that your application isn’t complete without their recommendation.”

With extremely busy recommenders who may delay recommendation letter writing, one may need to book a one-hour appointment on their calendar for this purpose. Upon arrival, the candidate should say hello and ask if they need anything else before writing the letter. Then, after chatting for a few minutes, the applicant should leave them to finish writing and file the final draft with the admissions office.

Encourage Outstanding Advocacy

Candidates need to know what makes for a superior reference letter and share their aspirations with their recommenders. A great recommendation letter displays these advocacy hallmarks:

  • Super Enthusiastic – These letters are glowing, rave reviews that spotlight some areas where the candidate is outstanding, and exploit every opportunity to say the candidate is the best, either interpersonally or technically.
  • Personal – They demonstrate the recommender knows the candidate well. The recommender comments on the candidate’s objectives, motivation for pursuing an MBA degree, and personal background aspects that demonstrate remarkable character and potential.
  • Detailed – The narrative shares examples with specific details to which adcoms can relate, complete with vivid, memorable anecdotes, presenting additional insight into qualities that make the candidate stand out.
  • Strength-Reinforcing and Weakness-Mitigating – The letter compensates for deficiencies, like in cases where candidates with technical backgrounds have low verbal GMAT scores but write articulate and persuasive reports.

Example MBA Recommendation Letter Samples

Aringo MBA Admissions Consulting provides seven sample reference letters, including recommendations submitted to the business schools at Stanford, Northwestern Kellogg, and Columbia. Although some of the examples appear to follow older prompts and formats, their “MBA Recommendation Letter Example #7” appears to be a recent example that emphasizes the two magic questions. Note how each recommendation satisfies the hallmark criteria for outstanding advocacy we presented in the previous section.

Rewarding Recommenders

Is it any wonder why so many recommenders ask MBA applicants to draft their own letters? The recommenders who wrote the above seven letters probably invested substantial time and effort in their work. Yet in most cases, recommenders don’t receive extra compensation for writing letters. And usually, tasks like these aren’t written into their job descriptions, so they don’t count in their performance evaluations that can determine promotions and greater compensation.

Yet many reasons exist to keep recommenders happy. Keep in mind that MBA candidates who don’t win admissions during Round One may need to ask their recommenders to write additional letters during Round Two. Furthermore, recommenders can repurpose their writing during this process into letters that recommend candidates for jobs upon graduation.

It’s vital to transform what seems to many recommenders like a thankless job into a rewarding and satisfying experience for them. Every interaction with a recommender needs to be positive, encouraging—and if possible, even fun.

Probably the least one can do to express appreciation to a great recommender is to take them out for lunch or dinner. And in an era of electronic communication, nothing comes close to a thoughtful, handwritten note of thanks conveying appreciation for all the support they’re providing.

Douglas Mark
Douglas Mark
Writer

While a partner in a San Francisco marketing and design firm, for over 20 years Douglas Mark wrote online and print content for the world’s biggest brands, including United Airlines, Union Bank, Ziff Davis, Sebastiani, and AT&T. Since his first magazine article appeared in MacUser in 1995, he’s also written on finance and graduate business education in addition to mobile online devices, apps, and technology. Doug graduated in the top 1 percent of his class with a business administration degree from the University of Illinois and studied computer science at Stanford University.

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