12 Steps on How to Apply to B-School – Step 10: Letters of Recommendation
Fortuna Admissions has been asked by The Economist to write a multi-part series explaining how to improve your chance of getting into a top business school. Our experts from Wharton, INSEAD, Harvard Business School, Chicago Booth, IE Business School, Kellogg, and UC Berkeley have contributed to this series. We have updated the original series to include points that are relevant for the 2015 – 2016 application cycle.
In this step we’ll discuss a very important component of your application: letters of recommendation. Every MBA application requires candidates to submit letters of recommendation, which provide the admissions office with valuable insight into how you’re viewed by others. The recommenders that you select, and the strength, thoroughness, and enthusiasm of what they write is a critical component to your file.
Who to ask?
Above all, make sure that your recommender knows you well and will take the time to write a thorough and supportive letter, detailing your performance with specific examples rather than general statements. What doesn’t impress an admissions committee is when candidates choose big job titles when it’s clear that you haven’t worked together closely. If they’re unable to talk about your strengths and potential in any depth, or provide specific illustrations of your performance, don’t ask them. Similarly, don’t pursue colleagues who are graduates of your target school if they’ve had little professional interaction with you. While they may be in a good position to identify the qualities required of a successful student at their schools, the lack of knowledge about you will be obvious.
Therefore, the ideal letter is from a current or recent supervisor. If you feel that asking such a person will jeopardize your job situation, and you would prefer to ask someone else ‒ a client, for example ‒ you may want to include a sentence about this in your optional essay. Admissions officers understand such circumstances, but would rather know why you made the decision rather than having to figure it out on their own.
Another common oversight is not including a recommendation from someone you’ve worked with fairly recently. Don’t go too far back in time to find a recommender (unless you have a very good explanation) as it may raise questions.
Don’t assume your recommenders know what they’re doing. We’ve seen too many candidates disappointed by poor recommendations, probably unintentionally, because the recommender didn’t know what was expected, and only wrote a few sentences. (Schools ask that recommenders submit letters directly to them. Although students may legally ask to see what’s been written, schools usually ask that this right be waived. Failure to agree will probably make them think that you’ve something to hide.) Again, details and depth matter, with anecdotes of specific situations and how you performed. Comments such as “he’s a real team player” or “she has great leadership qualities” will not leave a lasting impression. An example of your contribution to a project and the impact on client satisfaction, or a description of a certain problem you solved, is far more compelling.
Many schools are now using the standardized recommendation questions so think about examples you can share to help them respond to these questions. One of the standardized questions asks for examples that compare your performance the performance of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles, while the other standardized question asks about constructive feedback that you have received, and your response. You should therefore take the time to prepare your recommenders and give them helpful information related to these questions. We suggest meeting with your recommenders before they write the letter, so they really understand why you’re applying to a particular school and what criteria they’re looking for in a student. You may also want to remind them of recent projects you have excelled at, or ways in which you’ve demonstrated leadership. Don’t assume that just because you report to someone they recall every single time you did a great job.
With regard to the question about constructive feedback that you have received, a key element of this question is what you have done in response. You want to show that you are proactive in working on ways to improve yourself and that you are open to constructive feedback. If, for example, your presentation skills were mentioned as an area needed for improvement, it would be great to show that you have since taken a presentation skills class and that you have asked for opportunities to practice presenting more in meetings. This would show that you’re taking the initiative to invest in yourself and that you are responsive to feedback from others. It also shows a high level of self-awareness.
Ensure you give your recommenders plenty of time to write their recommendation before your application deadline. Requesting a letter two weeks before your deadline can make it very stressful for both you and them. We suggest a six to eight week lead time, with follow ups after three weeks and then seven days before due date. The onus is on you to manage your recommendations from start to finish.
Finally, remember to follow-up and thank them for their support. There’s nothing that makes a recommender happier than knowing the outcome of your application. Keep them apprised of your progress and send them a handwritten note to express your gratitude. Treating them with respect and showing your appreciation can really help to make this a good experience for both of you.
As the next step of this series, we’ll discuss how to prepare for the interview.