Recommenders: Does Prestige Matter and Mistakes to Avoid

June 24, 2015 | by Matt Symonds

Would your chances of gaining admission to a top MBA program be improved if you had a recommendation letter written by the President of the U.S.?

Although it might seem like a good idea to have one of the most powerful leaders in the world write on your behalf, our team at Fortuna Admissions debated this issue when a prior client suggested this option for his MBA applications. After in-depth discussion amongst the team, our advice was to not use the American President as his recommender. In the end, our client used a different recommender and ended up gaining admission to a top U.S. business schools and even received a generous scholarship.

So what was the rationale behind our recommendation? For us, an important rule in selecting recommenders is to choose someone who knows you the best on a professional level, not the person with the most impressive job title. The Fortuna team includes former directors and associate directors from prestigious MBA programs, and we recall reading applications from applicants with recommendations from CEOs, university presidents, TV stars, well known entrepreneurs, and novelists.

Although a letter from a country president sounds impressive and will get the attention of someone in Admissions reading the file, it won’t carry much weight if it’s short on detail or lacking in substance. Often it appears that such letters written by someone famous are actually written by someone else, such as a deputy chief of staff or an assistant. While this isn’t always the case, of course, sometimes someone from the admission office will make a follow-up enquiry to validate the authenticity of the letter.


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 U.S. 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 of 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.

You’re probably wondering who you should ask and what other advice can we provide to help guide you? Here are a few mistakes to avoid as you get started thinking about your letters of recommendation.


Mistake #1: Selecting someone with a very senior job title who barely knows the candidate. 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: Unless you are already in a masters or doctoral program, it’s best to avoid using a former college professor as your recommender since the admissions committee already has other tools to evaluate your academic performance. Plus, admissions committees 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, NYU Stern William R. Berkley Scholarship program, or similar applications aimed at 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: Expecting your recommenders to write your letters over the course of a few days or over a holiday break.  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 and get their final sign off but we think this is a bad idea for several reasons. It not only goes against what the school is asking but file readers can also easily identify 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.

In the next blog we’ll present six smart tips to follow when it comes to your recommenders.

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