Would it help my MBA admissions chances if I secured a recommendation letter from the President of the United States?
As hypothetical as it sounds, we fielded this question from a prospective candidate during the Obama administration. While it was a subject of much discussion among our coaches at Fortuna Admissions, ultimately, we advised against it. The candidate went on to be admitted to one of the top business schools in the US, where he’d been awarded a significant scholarship.
What drove our thinking?
As former director of MBA Admissions at Wharton, I remember applications from candidates who boasted recommendations from Heads of State, 4-star Generals, Fortune 100 CEOs, famous entrepreneurs and even a rock-n-roll legend.
And as impressive as the letterhead from The White House or the corner office can look, 90 percent of the time the recommendations are thin on detail, and even slimmer on substance. My colleagues and I often assumed the letter wasn’t personally written by the undersigned at the bottom, as it can be a task delegated to an assistant. Of course, that’s not always the case, but prepare for an admissions member to verify the letter’s authenticity with a follow up call.
A Call to Authenticate a Letter From a Military General
When our Fortuna colleague Pete Johnson, the former executive director of admissions at UC-Berkeley Haas read an impressive letter of recommendation for an applicant by a US General, he followed up to find out if the individual who signed the letter was actually the person who had written it. Pete was pleased to find out that the letter was indeed by the individual who signed it and this particular applicant ended up getting admitted to Berkeley Haas.
Most top MBA programs now require applicants to submit two professional letters (although this trend is shifting as more schools ask for a single recommendation). From our experience, the strongest letters are those that provide deeper insight into the applicant as a person and include specific details and examples instead of general comments with common adjectives. It’s not important if your recommender’s English is not perfect but what matters more is the level of depth of the content provided by your recommender. Admissions teams want to know what kind of impact you’ve had on your organization and it’s great when recommenders cite specific examples.
Here are a few mistakes to avoid as you get started thinking about your letters of recommendation.
Six Common Mistakes to Avoid
Mistake #1: Selecting someone with a very senior job title who barely knows you.
When we worked in admissions, it was not uncommon to receive recommendations from C-suite executives who clearly did not work closely with the candidates. Often these letters were short of detail and included general impressions of the applicant, with no substance or concrete examples to provide more insight. Since this mistake came up so regularly, we’re listing it as the #1 mistake to avoid.
Mistake #2: Asking someone biased to write your letter of recommendation.
We sometimes saw this with applicants who worked in family businesses, with recommendation letters from the applicants’ relatives who were not able to write objectively. We even received glowing letters from applicants’ mothers, which were endearing and made us smile, but carried no weight. Think wisely about who you ask if you have personal ties to your colleagues. In many cases like these, clients or other strictly professional contacts will serve as a better choice.
Mistake #3: Asking a former college professor as your recommender.
Unless you are already in a masters or doctoral program, it’s best to avoid reaching back to academia for a recommender. For one, the MBA admissions committee already has other tools to evaluate your academic performance. They also want to learn more about your performance and contributions at your job. In a few exceptions it’s fine to use an academic recommendation, for example for applicant to the HBS 2+2 program or similar deferred admissions MBA programs aimed at college seniors. However, for most cases, plan to ask a recommender who has evaluated your professional work performance and who can comment on your future management potential.
Mistake #4: Not giving recommenders sufficient time.
Most recommenders are extremely busy and you shouldn’t rush them to complete their letters, especially since this can compromise the quality of what they write. Instead plan to give them plenty of lead time and, if necessary, follow up with friendly reminders ahead of the deadline. Keep in mind that many Round 2 deadlines come right after extended holiday vacations so provide your recommenders what they need to complete their recs well before this busy time of year. Each year our admissions teams received frantic calls and emails from candidates whose recommenders were away and about to miss the deadline. Everyone else has the same deadline and exceptions are rarely made so don’t expect someone to bend the rules for you.
Mistake #5: Using references that go back over several years.
Admissions committees are more interested in your most recent performance so try not to go back to more than three years ago. When we’ve seen applications with both recommendations from jobs the candidate held three or more years ago, this makes us question the applicant’s recent performance, unless there’s a good reason that you can explain.
Mistake #6: Writing the recommendation yourself.
It’s not uncommon for recommenders to ask applicants to write the recommendation him/herself then get their final sign off, but this is a bad idea for several reasons. First, the ethics are questionable and it goes against what the school is asking – this is the only part of the application that’s not intended to be written by you. But file readers are savvy at identifying recommendations that don’t come across as authentic, especially if a similar writing style is used in the essays. Instead, we recommend that you provide some brief points in bullet point form but encourage your recommenders to do the writing themselves.
Most schools prefer that one letter of recommendation is from your immediate manager, which can be tricky if he or she is not yet aware of your plans to leave your organization yet, especially if you have not worked there for a long time. If for some reason you do have an issue getting your current manager to write one of your letters, this is something you can address in your application. Hopefully your boss will understand your intentions and reasons for pursuing an MBA.
Want More Advice?
For our must-dos for securing a powerful letter of recommendation, read our related article: How to Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation
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