How to Best Coach Your MBA Application Recommendation Writers

How can you make sure your business school recommendation writers say what you need them to say? How much coaching is too much, and what do you do if you’re afraid that your manager can’t write an effective recommendation? It depends on several issues.

Why Not Just Write Your Own Recommendations?
Outside of the ethical reason not to write your own recommendation, chances are that you’ll struggle to write a letter as well as a good recommender would. We’ve found that recommenders can come up with examples that we’ve long since forgotten. Also, avoiding the self-written recommendation allows you to steer clear of the “how positive sounds too positive?” dilemma. Just as it’s an uncomfortable experience to stand in front of a group and extoll your own virtues, writing about how great you are can be very awkward, and you will tend to downplay your own strengths and accomplishments. It’s just human nature. So, make sure the letter of recommendation is in your recommender’s own words.

But what if your boss says, “I’m too busy. You can go ahead and put it together and I’ll be happy to sign it,” leaving you to write it on your own? One option is to simply find another recommender, but odds are that you picked that person for a reason. Your other option is to try to make the process as easy as possible, and you can do that by providing the recommender with substantial background information, which we will show you how to do.

Coaching Is the Key
Next, it’s a question of how comfortable you are coaching your recommenders. Again, it needs to be written in their words, but you can help your chances a lot by at least suggesting some stories from your work history that can illustrate your key application dimensions. Even better, create a game plan, as shown in Chapter 6, and share that with your recommenders. Also, try to provide them with a sample essay or two that provides additional details on your career goals. Review the plan with them and discuss how important the recommendation process is. In those discussions you will inevitably end up doing a lot of self-promotion, so take some time now to get comfortable with the fact that you will be tooting your own horn, or at least asking others to toot it for you! It can also be helpful to provide your recommenders with a sample recommendation, such as the one shown below, to give them an idea of the level of quality that you are expecting.

You can decide for yourself how much detail you want to include in the game plan you share with your recommenders. The idea is to give each recommender enough information so that she can make a statement about you and then back it up with a short, illustrative story. Ideally, you will give each recommender a different set of stories, so that you don’t have three people all writing about the same things. This requires some extra coordination on your part, but is an important step to ensure that each recommendation adds something new (and that they don’t all sound like they were written from the same template). Fortunately, once you do this exercise for one school’s application, it’s not too difficult to replicate for your other applications.

Make It All Fit Together
Remember that not every recommendation needs to sell 100 percent of your skills; it is most important that your recommendations all work together to present a complete picture of you as a well-rounded applicant. So, if one really stresses your teamwork skills and one puts more emphasis on your leadership skills, that’s fine. In fact, it’s ideal in that it helps keep your letters of recommendation from all sounding the same as one another. Of course, you may never see what each of your recommenders writes, but you can definitely influence their output by carefully controlling the inputs that you give them.

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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