Category Archives: Recommendations

Should You Get a Business School Recommendation from an Old College Professor?

Unless your target business school specifically asks for a recommendation from a college professor, before you go ahead and reach out to that old professor from your past, read the rest of this article! Even if you are one of the few students that had a great relationship with a professor, worked individually with them throughout your college years (versus just taking a class or two) and still keep in touch, while congratulations on this accomplishment, it STILL isn’t the right thing to do.

The average applicant to a full-time MBA program is in his or her mid- to late-twenties, meaning college was at least 5-7 years ago, if not longer. While most MBA programs only accept two or three recommendations, submitting a recommendation from academia suggests that you can’t find two (or three) people from your workplace to provide a recommendation for you. If you are just graduating and haven’t had any work experience yet (hence considering the academic recommendation), you may want to consider whether schools will think you are too young or inexperienced.

Further, most professors are unable to answer many questions on the recommendation form (and a lot of “not applicable” response won’t make you look great, either) as most of their knowledge of you will be from a classroom setting versus a workplace setting.

If you are having trouble finding recommendation writers — or don’t want your current manager to know that you’re applying to business school — consider some other potential writers like a client that you have worked extensively for, an indirect manager or team lead, a former supervisor/manager, your boss’s boss (as long as they still know your work well enough) or a manager at a non-profit organization you have volunteered for consistently for a few years.

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!

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!

How to Lead Your MBA Recommendation Writers Astray

Putting forward excellent letters of recommendation in your MBA application is a challenge: You’re asking someone who probably knows very little about the business school admission game to argue persuasively that an MBA admissions officer should take a chance on you instead of another ultra-impressive candidate. We’ve written before about how you can boost your chances significantly by choosing someone who knows you well and by arming that person with specific examples of your past deeds to illustrate just how terrific you are. Doing these things can dramatically improve your ability to stand out vs. other applicants.

How can you manage to sabotage your own recommendation writers? Here are three ways:
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How to Decide Who Will Write Your Letters of Recommendation

Every business school application requires you to submit at least one letter of recommendation, and usually more than one. 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 get a letter from your boss for some reason?

What most MBA programs want, more than anything, is to hear 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 usually the ideal 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:

Has your recommender worked with you in the past year?
We frequently talk to business 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 (even better) still works with you now.

Does your recommender know how to evaluate people in a work 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, even-handed-sounding (but still glowingly positive!) review of your candidacy.

Does your recommender know you well, and not just as your buddy?
This person must have worked closely with you for some period of time; otherwise, they don’t really know your professional abilities and potential. We wrote “non-social” to make clear that this person needs to be more than an acquaintance, but we stopped short of saying “professional” since this person may come from outside of your job. 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.

Does the person in question have enough time to do the job?
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.

It’s critical that your letters of recommendation provide all the clues that schools look for. Not only should your recommendations reflect your most marketable skills and traits, 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.

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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!

Options When Your Supervisor Can’t Write Your MBA Letter of Recommendation

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

For more MBA admissions advice, be sure to subscribe to this blog and to follow us on Twitter for more advice on the business school application process!

Round Two Admissions Advice from Chicago Booth

Earlier this week Rose Martinelli, Chicago Booth’s Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions, posted some advice for applicants who are trying to hit today’s Round 2 deadline. Here’s what she covered:

  • The school will accept letters of recommendation as late as January 13. As long as YOU get your materials in by 5 PM CST today, Booth will accept your application as part of Round 2 even if your recommenders are a few days late. Note, however, that the admissions committee won’t start reviewing your application until they receive both letters of recommendation.
  • Chicago Booth only requires an official transcripts after you have been admitted. All you need to submit with your application is a scanned copy of your transcripts.
  • Similarly, you only need to report your own GMAT score in your application by the deadline. Assuming you’ve let the test providers know that Booth is one of your target schools, the school will receive the official score reports. This does not need to happen by the deadline.

Good luck to all of our readers who are applying to Chicago Booth in Round 2!

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