Personal Reference Letters for Business School – Tips & Templates

Obtaining outstanding recommendations for applications to MBA programs involves a complex and challenging multistep 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 concerning some of the hottest and most controversial aspects applicants will face when pursuing outstanding reference letters. Ultimately, “these letters help to humanize MBA applicants,” says Stacy Blackman, owner of an MBA consulting firm for applicants aspiring for admission to Ivy League business schools.

The trend toward authentic, honest assessments that are actually written by references as opposed to students themselves has prompted many business schools to adopt a relatively uniform, simplified recommendation format.

Bearing this in mind, we break down the new format adopted by these schools, and lay out specific, concrete tips for applicants looking to ensure that their MBA recommendation letters are as thoughtful, accurate, and effective as possible, given the more concise appraisal framework.

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Requested Appraisals

At most of the better business schools, and especially at highly selective business schools that include the super-elite M7, admissions committees request very consistent sets of information from recommenders. Poets & Quants even 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. Harvard and Dartmouth use exactly the same form; Stanford uses a somewhat more detailed variant, which Northwestern also uses. Most other schools ask about qualities similar to those requested on the two forms used by these four schools.

These forms ask recommenders to rate the applicant on various personal qualities. Studying these forms can be useful for candidates since they provide valuable insights into what qualities candidates would be wise to emphasize to these schools in their application essays and the instructions the candidates provide to their recommenders on qualities to accentuate when writing letters.

The schools typically 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/Dartmouth form asks for ratings of self-awareness, quantitative aptitude, and even humor.

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 Dartmouth. The University of California at Berkeley, 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 Harvard/Dartmouth form asks for a creativity ranking as well, in its “imagination, creativity and curiosity” quality.

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

The Business School Recommender Dilemma

The essay questions business schools ask recommenders to comment upon, known as narrative “prompts” in MBA admissions lingo, are standardized to a remarkable extent. For example, of the top 16 MBA programs ranked by Poets & Quants in their survey, twelve of these schools asked the same two questions. In fact, in many cases, the wording these elite schools chose for their two questions was absolutely identical. Furthermore, in general, the schools that didn’t ask these “magic questions” did ask about the same topics using different language.

Below, we provide analysis and tips related to questions like these. But first, readers might wonder why so many of these schools are essentially asking the same questions—and why so many schools only ask two of them.

In short, this developed as a response to a common issue in working with recommenders: the dilemma faced by a candidate 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 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.”

To combat this “you write, I’ll sign” (YWIS) trend, in mid-2014, six schools (Columbia, Wharton, Yale, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and the University of Virginia) decided to institute a common recommendation format. The new system, similar to that used by law schools for decades, kicked off a trend towards reducing the number and length of the reference 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 schools in that group anyway.

By 2017, only Wharton had defected from the original group. The school had substituted two of its own essay questions for the common prompts, and had also substituted a “pick three” personal qualities assessment list instead of a grid form. But for the other five schools (and many more programs that have since followed suit), the same two questions continue to account for most reference letter prompts.

The Magic Questions: Intent and Language

Essentially, these prompts boil down to requests for example-supported performance evaluations covering only two topics:

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

Here are Harvard’s versions 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)

Tips for Outstanding Recommendation Letters

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

Start Early

Admission consultants often receive panicked calls days before an application deadline from candidates whose recommenders won’t be able to file reference 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. The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants provides an Advice to Recommenders guide in eight languages to assist applicants in asking their referees for specific salient comments.

Know What Admission Directors Seek In Reference Letters

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

For instance, at the Poets & Quants 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 “raving fans” profile cited by management gurus like Ken Blanchard and Tony Robbins. Because the quality of a recommendation letter mostly depends on whom the candidate selects to write it, their enthusiasm level amounts to a crucial benchmark and a major decision 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. However, most business schools require at least one reference letter from a manager who directly supervises the candidate, usually either the candidate’s boss or boss’s boss. Preferably this supervisory responsibility should last about a year, and this should be recent experience, if possible, 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 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. In these cases, the next best options 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 why they did not ask their current boss to write their letter in their application essay.

Many applicants assume that someone with a prestigious title 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 letters, recommenders need to have directly supervised candidates, and know them and their work well. Admission committee members want to see multi-page 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 lengthy 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 [one’s] development and growth first hand.”

To be polite in these situations, a prestigious executive often will accept a candidate’s letter request but will generally submit a form letter full of vague, general, and empty platitudes which 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. Business school 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.

The Importance of Collaboration

Because this project typically requires several work sessions, ideally, a recommender will be someone the client can work with in person. For many of these meetings, Skype video or phone sessions can work. However, as mentioned above, 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 writers are busy people, 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:

  • The list of the schools to which the candidate will apply
  • Leadership evaluation forms and reference questions or narrative prompts from each school
  • A concise statement of objectives
  • The business school application resume the candidate will file with the schools
  • A bullet-point summary outline with reference letter aspirations, strengths and weaknesses, relevant personal information, and proposed examples for tricky prompts (e.g., responses to critical feedback)
  • A proposed schedule of meetings, milestones, and deadlines

The candidate can refer to portions of this brief during their initial meeting—possibly reformatted as PowerPoint slides on a laptop computer—especially the statement of objectives. Again, 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 the brief, the candidate should schedule a strategy session with them. During this second meeting, candidates can review this document with the recommender in more detail. Karen Marks of North Star Admissions Consulting 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 toward 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 letter writing, one may need to book an hour appointment on their calendar for this purpose. Upon arrival, say hello and ask if they need anything else before writing the letter.

Outstanding Reference Letter Advocacy

Candidates need to know what makes for a great reference letter and share their aspirations with their recommenders. An excellent reference letter displays these 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.

MBA Recommendation Letter Templates

Aringo MBA Admissions Consulting provides seven example reference letters, including letters submitted to the business schools at Stanford, Northwestern, and Columbia. Although some 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 letter satisfies the hallmark criteria for outstanding advocacy presented in the previous section.

Rewarding Recommenders

Is it any wonder why so many recommenders ask candidates to draft their own letters? The recommenders who wrote the above seven letters probably invested substantial time and effort in their work. Yet recommenders don’t receive extra compensation for writing letters in most cases. 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. First, consider that candidates who don’t win admissions during round one must ask their recommenders to write additional letters during round two. Furthermore, recommenders can repurpose their writing during this process into letters recommending 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 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

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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