Every MBA application requires you to submit at least one letter of recommendation. These letters corroborate your admissions story, providing additional evidence of the leadership skills, analytical abilities, teamwork skills, and maturity that you have highlighted in the rest of your application. The best person to do this is normally your direct supervisor, but what if you can’t tell your current supervisor yet that you’re applying to business school?
Fortunately, admissions officers at top business schools know that many applicants face this situation, and they won’t penalize you for it. Particularly in a rough economy, when job security seems to matter even more than usual, they know that telling your boss that you want to leave can be the equivalent of professional suicide. So, they’re willing to accept recommendations from other sources, as long as they give admissions officers what they need.
What business schools really want to see is an assessment of your abilities by someone who knows you well and has been in a position to evaluate you. That’s why your direct supervisor is your most obvious choice; he or she should spend a lot of time thinking about your performance, making it easy to provide an assessment of you as a young professional. Assuming that person is out of the picture, then you need to find someone else who meets these criteria:
- How well does your recommender know you? This person must have worked closely with you for some period of time; otherwise, they don’t really know your professional abilities and potential. Typically, this will be in the workplace, although it doesn’t have to be. For instance, if you devote serious time to a non-profit organization, someone who has served as a coordinator there may know you very well and may be a good person to provide a letter of recommendation.
- Has this person worked with you recently? We frequently talk to MBA applicants who have a seemingly good candidate in mind, but they haven’t worked with that person for a few years. When you’re a young professional, a few years is an eternity in terms of your development. Ideally, your substitute recommender will have worked with you in just the last year or two, or still works with you now.
- Does he or she have experience evaluating others in a professional setting?If your recommendation writer has never delivered a performance review in any setting, how will he or she be able to speak about your candidacy with authority? This doesn’t mean that your recommendation writer needs to have managed an entire department for years; the point is to find someone who can deliver a fair, professional-sounding review of your business school candidacy.
- Is this person prepared well enough for the task? This question always applies, even if your recommendation comes from your current boss. Too often, the recommendation writer will underestimate the task, or will simply say, “I don’t have time. You just write it for me and I’ll sign it.” Make sure that your recommendation writer understands the task at hand, and devotes enough time to it. You can help a great deal by providing specific examples of your recent successes that he or she may not remember. Doing that makes the recommender’s job easier, and makes the final product significantly stronger.
Remember this above all else: Who your recommender is matters far less than what he says about you, and how enthusiastically he says it. MBA admissions officers keep an open mind about these things, but it is critical that your letters of recommendation provide all the clues that schools look for. Not only should your recommendations emphasize the four dimensions mentioned at the start of this post, but they should also clearly demonstrate the enthusiasm that your recommenders have about you and your business school candidacy. Find someone who can do that, and you will be fine, whether or not your letter of recommendation comes from your boss.
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