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How to Secure the Best MBA Letters of Recommendation, Fortuna Admissions, Best Letter of Recommendation

Select your recommenders with care and prepare them to champion your candidacy.

MBA application essay questions understandably get a lot of early attention and focused effort. (For insider tips and advice for every top 20 business school, view the Fortuna team’s MBA Essay Tips.) But don’t overlook the importance of securing strong letters of recommendation that can help tip the balance of admissions decisions in your favor.

Powerful and persuasive recommendations don’t just happen. You need a solid strategy and process to select and prepare your recommenders. And you need to start early, to avoid a harried rush for you and the people who generously agreed to write letters in your support.

As the only part of your MBA application not authored by you, your letters of recommendation carry weight, because they validate how you are perceived by others who are in a position to judge your candidacy. Their perceptions — and the strength, thoroughness, and enthusiasm of their recommendations — are a vital element of your overall narrative.

I’ve read thousands of recommendation letters, both as a Fortuna Admissions expert coach and as former Associate Director of Admissions for UCLA Anderson, and I can affirm that a powerful, first-hand testimonial can make the difference at decision time. Often a letter of recommendation offered the puzzle piece that confirmed an applicant’s fit.  Other letters disappointed with generic platitudes or lack of detail and illuminating examples. Without that substance and specificity, a letter will not credibly reinforce the abilities and strengths you highlight throughout your application.

So who should select to write your recommendations? And what can you do to ensure the best possible letter of recommendation?  Here are five top tips to help you secure recommendations that work in your favor.

5 Tips for a Successful MBA Recommender Strategy

1. Identify individuals who know you well.

Persuasive letters are filled with specific details and active examples that bring your credentials to life. Your recommender should speak to the high quality of your work, your specific accomplishments and achievements, managerial or leadership growth and your potential to do well in business school and beyond. Ideally, this person is a direct supervisor. (This is particularly vital for your HBS recommender strategy, for example.)

But if you can’t ask your supervisor, look for someone you’ve worked for in the recent past who has unique insights into your strengths, qualities and potential. This might be an indirect supervisor — someone who has overseen a project you’ve contributed to, a manager from another department, or a client (especially if you’re self-employed). You might also consider someone you worked with outside of your regular job in a role or project where you made a significant impact (such as volunteer or pro bono work). Such insight can drive home the fact that you’ll be a great contributor to the community during your time in business school.

2. Ask recommenders to be an “advocate.”

It’s heartbreaking to read a great application that’s diluted by a lukewarm recommendation. One way to position yourself — and your recommender — for success is to frame your request strategically. Rather than ask, “Would you be willing to write a recommendation”, ask them,  “Would you be willing to be an advocate for me.” It’s a significant distinction, and their response (especially if you can witness a reaction in person) will tell you what you need to know.

You want to ensure that the person you choose will take the time to write a supportive and thorough letter, detailing examples that speak to your leadership, teamwork and presentation skills, as well as your character and what makes you uniquely exceptional. You’ll want to nurture your relationship with your recommender;  take time to share a context for your decision to pursue the MBA, your post-grad plans and key themes you intend to highlight in your application.

3. Don’t get hung up on prestige.

You want recommendation letters from someone who knows you and is invested in your success.  That’s why it’s a mistake, for example, to push for a recommendation from a high-profile executive or the company CEO you’ve never worked with — even if she knows who you are and thinks you do good work. While this person may write you a positive recommendation, their letters tend to be generic.

If you truly have a close working relationship with the CEO or a C-suite executive, they are great people to ask. However, if that person can’t provide specific examples of your performance, or discuss your skills and potential in any depth, find somebody else who can. MBA Admissions committees aren’t impressed by big names or fancy titles when it’s obvious that you haven’t worked together closely.

Check out this five-minute strategy session on MBA recommender strategy with Fortuna Co-Founder Caroline Diarte Edwards and Poets&Quants Editor-in-Chief John A. Byrne. 

4. Once you choose your recommenders, coach them.

Your recommenders may be accomplished professionals, but don’t assume your they know exactly what they need to do. For example, if you’re working in the tech sector, it’s not a given that your boss went to b-school (unlike your peers in the consulting industry, for example). Set your recommenders up for success by walking them through the process, emphasizing the importance of depth, details, and anecdotes to address specific situations and your contributions. Give them an overview of the points the letter should cover, and some reminders of times you demonstrated key strengths and skills. (Don’t assume they’ll just remember every time you did a good job; everyone is busy.)

As mentioned above, make sure you share your career plans and reasons for pursuing an MBA, and the key themes about your unique experiences and character that you will weave throughout your application. Ideally, your recommender will echo these themes in their letter, reinforcing and validating your points.

Preparing your recommenders with this information is critical to ensuring coherence and consistency across your application. Another benefit is that the conversation may elicit insights or perspectives you haven’t considered. Remember, having this conversation doesn’t mean telling them what to write; you want your recommender’s voice and authenticity to lead. Rather, you’re coaching them by connecting personally to guide them through your resume and refreshing them on your accomplishments and ways you’ve demonstrated excellence.

5. Allow lots of lead time.

Give your recommenders at least four weeks of notice; more is even better. Don’t assume that your recommender can turn around a letter in a week. Be clear about the deadlines and ask about any potential obstacles in their schedule. Then be sure to stay in contact with your recommenders over the ensuing weeks to make sure they have all the information they need and are clear on how they need to deliver the letter of recommendation.

Checking in regularly is an opportunity to remind your recommenders of the deadline. My colleagues and I have all received that call to the admissions office from a panicked candidate whose recommender can’t submit by the deadline because he’s at a remote fishing lodge without internet access. Ample timelines, frequent touchpoints, and clear communications allow recommenders to shine as your chosen champions. Everyone is juggling competing commitments as your application deadline approaches, so you’ll want to stay front of mind (without becoming a pest, of course).

As my colleague, Malvina puts it, “Among the most vital ingredients to your future success as a business leader are the relationships you nurture along the way.” So no matter the outcome, make time to follow up with your recommender with a sincere appreciation of their support. If you’re accepted, they’ll want to celebrate with you, and if not, you’ll want to secure their continued support if you choose to reapply.

Updated May 31, 2024

Fortuna Admissions Expert Coach Jessica Chung is a former Associate Director of Admissions for UCLA Anderson. For a candid assessment of your chances of admission success at a top MBA program, sign up for a free consultation

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