For those of you kicking off round 2 MBA applications, it is time to select your recommenders (if you have not already done so)! Who you select to write your letters of recommendation is a key decision in the application process. It can be tempting to select the person with the most prestigious resume or the person easiest to discuss your business school plans with. I encourage you not to take this approach and to instead carefully weigh your options.
Here are the guiding principles I advise when selecting recommenders:
1) Do not just look for impressive titles.
This is not to say that impressive titles are a bad thing, but title should not be a primary selection criterion. Admissions committee members will see right through a strategy to have the CEO of your company, with whom you sat in on one meeting, write a letter for you. Not only will they not be able to explain the most important aspects of your candidacy, but it may not be a very credible letter if it is clear you don’t have a strong relationship with the recommender.
2) Look for someone who will take the time to write a great letter.
This addresses two very important criteria. It is best to select someone who is not only a good writer, but who will take the necessary time to write a great letter. Not everyone is great at writing and similarly, not everyone realistically has time to draft a carefully thought out letter. The quality of the writing is important in demonstrating your candidacy. That said, do not worry about English proficiency. Letters are not evaluated based on grammar.
3) Select someone who knows you well.
This is one of the most important pieces of advice I can provide. It is crucial that your recommender be familiar with your work, your character, your strengths, your weaknesses and your career aspirations. The best letters show intimate familiarity with the candidate. The use of specific examples will be important (more on that in my next blog) and the better the recommender knows you, the easier and more genuine these will be.
4) Select someone who can compare you to other candidates (if possible).
A good letter will compare you to other candidates, putting your accomplishments in perspective. For that reason, an ideal recommender will have the experience and exposure to compare your strengths and weaknesses to those of your peers. While this may not always be possible (and that alone is not a reason to eliminate a recommender), if you are comparing two similar candidates, this is an important factor to keep in mind.
5) Ask non-professional references if you have strong extracurriculars and/or weak recommendation options at work.
While the general advice is to select professional supervisors to write your letters of recommendation, there are some exceptions to this rule. If you have taken a major role in an activity outside of work, such as a leadership role in a sizeable charitable organization, you might consider asking a colleague/supervisor in this organization to write on your behalf. If you devote a considerable amount of time to this activity, particularly if it requires strong leadership, this person should know you well and be positioned to write a strong letter. Further, they will be able to provide a different perspective on your candidacy.
Similarly, if you do not have a suitable professional reference option, perhaps because you absolutely cannot tell your supervisor you are applying to business school or because your company is structured such that you do not work closely with one particular person, you may be best suited selecting a non-professional reference.
6) Use additional influential / alumni letters in some cases.
While I said title should not be a factor in selecting your recommenders, some candidates might be lucky enough to have a close relationship (even a personal one) with someone who has strong ties to the school of their dreams. In this case (and you never know what connections you might actually have until you inquire), it is worth taking the time to consider them as an additional recommender. Again, this is a case by case basis and I am happy to advise clients on this specific situation.
Remember, regardless of who you select to write your letters of recommendation, early notice is key. Do not wait too long to make these requests.
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