How to Secure the Best Letters of Recommendation

January 15, 2018 | by Jessica Chung, Fortuna Admissions, Best Letter of Recommendation

Ensure your MBA letters of recommendation are poised to tip the balance in your favor – from selecting your recommenders to preparing them to champion your candidacy.

Your MBA letters of recommendation offer business schools a third-party perspective on your management and leadership potential, interpersonal skills, teamwork abilities, and fit and readiness for their program. Because your recommenders will give the admissions office valuable insight to into how you’re seen by others, the individuals you choose to be your outspoken champions – and the strength, thoroughness and enthusiasm of their endorsements – are an essential component of your overall narrative.

In my current role at Fortuna Admissions, and as former Associate Director of Admissions for UCLA Anderson, I’ve read thousands of recommendation letters and I can attest that a well written one can tip the balance in your candidacy. Many of these first-hand testimonials delivered the puzzle piece that confirmed a candidate’s great fit, while others disappointed with banal platitudes or scant detail that did little to enhance an applicant’s file. Too often, it was as simple as not having the right examples, not substantively backing up the abilities and strengths a candidate mentioned themselves, or lacking in sufficient detail.

So who should you ask to write your letters of recommendation? And what can you do to ensure the best possible outcome?

Here Are Five Top Tips On Securing Great Letters Of Recommendation For Your Mba Application:


# 1. First and foremost, pick someone who knows you well.
Your recommender should speak to your specific accomplishments and achievements, the high quality of your work, and your potential to excel in business school and beyond. Make sure that your recommender is someone who will take the time to write a thorough and supportive letter, detailing examples that speak to your teamwork, presentation skills and leadership potential. This person should be a direct supervisor, ideally. But if you can’t ask your supervisor, choose someone you’ve worked for in the recent past with insight into your qualities, assets and potential. This can be an indirect supervisor – a manager from another department, someone who has overseen a project you’ve supported, or a client (especially if you’re self-employed). Alternately, someone you’ve worked with on a pro bono or volunteer project where you made a significant impact (i.e. outside of your regular job) can also bring a great perspective to your application. Such insight can really underscore that you’ll be a great contributor to the community during your time in business school.

#2. Don’t get overly concerned about titles.
For example, it’s a mistake to push for a recommendation from the CEO you’ve never worked with personally – even if she thinks you do good work and remembers your name. While those individuals might offer a positive recommendation, their letters tend to be generic. If you actually work closely with the CEO or a C-suite executive, of course it’s a great person to ask, but if he or she can’t provide specific illustrations of your performance, or discuss your potential and strengths in any depth, go with somebody who can. Business schools aren’t impressed by fancy titles or big names when it’s evident that you haven’t worked together closely.

#3. Follow the instructions.
Some programs ask explicitly for letters from a current supervisor, or someone who has known you for a certain length of time. So make sure you read the instructions carefully and that you’re choosing recommenders your schools are looking for, as the nuance can vary from program to program.

#4. Once you choose your recommenders, get together and coach them.
Your recommenders may be accomplished professionals, but don’t make the mistake of assuming they know exactly what they’re supposed to do. Set them up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details and anecdotes to address your contributions and cite specific situations. This doesn’t mean scripting them on what to write – you want your recommenders’ authentic voices to come through in their responses. But you also don’t want them to dive in without context – especially if they’re unfamiliar with what writing a business school letter of recommendation entails. It’s unfortunate when someone assumes it’s enough to write positive yet generic phrases like, “Sally is the top performer on my team.” Business schools want substance, with stories that credibly back up the fact that you’re an incredible person and top employee with enormous future potential.

Meet with your recommenders and walk them through your resume, refreshing their memories on your achievements and the ways you’ve demonstrated excellence. (Remember – everyone is busy, so don’t assume they’ll just recall every time you did a good job.) Share your goals and why you think business school will help you achieve them. Having the conversation on the front end is critical to ensuring consistency and coherence across your application. The additional plus is this kind of dialogue may elicit insights you haven’t heard about how your contributions or abilities are perceived, offering perspectives on your candidacy you may not have considered yourself.

#5. Stay in regular touch.
Stay connected with your recommenders as deadlines approach by maintaining consistent communication, following up to ensure they’re aware of your deadlines. Everyone is juggling competing priorities, so you’ll want to stay front of mind (without becoming a pest!).

Finally, circle back with your recommender with a timely and sincere appreciation for their support – no matter the outcome. If you’re accepted, they’ll want to celebrate with you, and if not, you’ll want to affirm their continued support if you elect to reapply.


Learn more about Expert Coach Jessica Chung. A version of this article was originally published by Jessica in Poest&Quants on December 19, 2017. 

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