Why MBA Letters of Recommendation Matter

Why do letters of recommendation matter so much in the MBA admissions process? It’s simple: Admissions officers know that your supervisor and colleagues in the workplace are the best judges of your performance and your potential. Just as employers rely on top MBA programs to find the best and the brightest future business leaders, business schools’ admissions officers rely on recommendation writers to help them find them in the first place.

When employers are pressed for why they tend to recruit MBAs from the same top business schools, their answer often boils down to: “The schools wouldn’t have admitted them if they weren’t great, so we know we’re fishing in a pool of highly skilled talent. The schools make it easy for us to find a lot of great potential hires in one place.” That’s not a new idea — yes, getting one’s “ticket punched” at a top MBA program can sometimes seem to be the real value in earning an MBA — but it cuts right to the heart of what employers must deal with. When a company wants to hire a few dozen newly minted MBAs, they simply can’t recruit at every business school around the world. They don’t have the time or the money. Iinstead, they put their trust in the top schools admissions offices to do their jobs right, and to keep their classrooms stocked with A-level talent.

So, how do the MBA admissions officers do it? They have to sift through thousands of great essays, GMAT scores, and resumes to separate the wheat from the chaff. (HBS alone had to sift through more than 9,500 applications this past admissions season.) Even after interviewing some or all of the applicants, how can tell who’s great vs. who merely talks a good game?

Their jobs are made easier, in part, by great letters of recommendation. We recently heard an admissions officer say, “Recommendation writers have seen the applicant in a variety of situations, and knows him far better than we can after reading a few essays. They know the applicant’s true grit, and they’re communicating that to us. A well-written letter of recommendation makes our jobs much easier in this way.” It’s the same exact dynamic at work in both instances: The person in the decision maker’s seat needs to make an important decision without having perfect information. So, they need help from someone else who knows you better.

When business school applicants talk about the admissions game, they spend a lot of time talking about the GMAT and their essays. Their letters of recommendation seem to reside in a place in their minds somewhere below their essays and above the data sheets — important, but not quite as exciting as some of the headliners in their application. Nothing could be further than the truth. Although your recommendation writers most likely (you hope) support your candidacy, what they say about you  is critically important for an admissions officer who needs to make a decision on your candidacy.

So, find recommendation writers who know you well and will be very enthusiastic about your candidacy. Spend as much time as you can preparing them with specific examples to support their answers, and drive home the message that they should communicate nothing less than 100% passion about your candidacy. When MBA admissions officers see these elements in a recommendation, they know they’re on to something good. They can only learn so much about you from your test scores and essays, so this “second voice” is a critical voice in the evaluation process.

Use it to your advantage, and you can put admissions officers at ease as they review your application, because they’ll know that someone else has done the work for them in finding a terrific young professional.

For more help with your MBA letters of recommendation, take a look at Your MBA Game Plan, one of the world’s most popular books about MBA admissions. And, be sure to subscribe to this blog and to follow us on Twitter for more advice on the MBA admissions process!


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