10 Steps to Getting Great Recommendations
1. Select recommenders that know you well. Nothing is more important – certainly not titles or alma matters – than selecting recommenders that know you well. If the recommender doesn’t know you well, you’ll end up with a letter that reads like a laundry list of generic virtues and ambiguous platitudes. Instead, you need someone that can provide first-hand accounts of how you have grown in your professional, academic, or volunteer capacity.
2. Select recommenders that will be honest. Having a recommender who is overly complimentary can be nearly as bad as having one who doesn’t think terribly highly of you. It can come across as disingenuous or lazy, neither of which are good. The former may raise the admissions committee’s suspicion, and the latter may demonstrate to the admissions committee that you don’t have recommenders who are eager to invest in and support your future. Instead, if you pick someone that knows you well, they’ll be honest about your strengths and weaknesses, and that’s precisely what the admissions committee wants to read.
3. Pick people that support your decision to pursue an MBA. If your recommenders express concern to you about your decision to head to business school, or if they tell you that you might be aiming too high with your choice of schools, think twice about whether that person is the right one for the job.
4. Prepare a few talking points. The best recommendations come with specific stories that demonstrate your leadership capabilities. If you can provide your recommenders with a few prompts or anecdotes that they can write about, it’ll help ensure your recommendation is more than just a boring list of commonplace attributes.
5. But don’t write it for them. Admissions committees are extremely good at what they do, and they will be able to see right through it if you write the letters for your recommenders. You want the letters to come across as genuine. If one of your recommenders asks you to write a draft for them, consider whether it’s a person you really want as an ambassador of your brand.
6. Make sure your recommenders understand the big picture. Give them an idea about the qualities you are trying to demonstrate and the narrative you are trying to tell. Make sure they know what you’re writing about in your essays. That will help ensure that they don’t repeat a story you’ve already told and that they are reinforcing the ideas you are trying to convey to the admissions committee.
7. Select people from different aspects of your life. As with any part of your application, you want to present yourself as a multifaceted candidate who can add value in a number of different ways. Presenting recommenders from different parts of your professional, community, and academic life will ensure you’re demonstrating just that to the admissions committee.
8. Help recommenders understand what business schools want. The one big advantage to having alumni write your recommendations is that they understand the qualities and attributes business schools are looking for in their applicants. If your recommenders aren’t too familiar with business schools or their admissions processes, make sure you take the time to convey to them the salient details.
9. Check in periodically. Writing letters of recommendation takes work, and it’s helpful to have a little reminder now and then. Make sure to check in with your recommenders periodically – every week or two – to ensure they are staying on task, understand when the deadlines are, and don’t need anything new from you.
10. Give them plenty of time. Ask your recommenders early in the process to ensure that they have some time to think about what they want to say and aren’t jammed with the request at the last minute during what could be an otherwise busy time for them.
Our Experience – From the Founders
Kyle’s Experience: In choosing my recommenders, I was extremely careful to pick three people that represented the spectrum of my accomplishments, one from each period in my life. They were people that knew me well and would be able to tell specific stories about my growth and leadership. One, my boss, was an alumna of HBS, and another was an alumnus of the school’s exec program.
I also was careful to prepare two documents for each recommender. The first document was identical for all three. It had a little background about the program I was applying to, the qualities the program looked for in applicants, and some other details about the process like due dates, resources, and details around logistics. The second document was tailored to each recommender. It had a few themes I hoped they could specifically touch on as well as a list of accomplishments and anecdotes they might speak to if they wanted. I hoped this would make the brainstorming process easier for them, improving the quality of the ideas and content. Only one recommender provided me a draft of his recommendation to read, so I don’t know if the others used the information I provided. Either way, I received positive feedback and gratitude from all three for helping to ensure they had the information they needed to make the process as easy on them as possible.
Vincent’s Experience: Finding great recommenders turned out to be a much longer task than I would have expected. I reached out to senior executives who knew me well and remembered some of my most important accomplishments. Because of their responsibilities, these senior leaders took weeks, if not months, to get back to me. Depending on the school I applied to, I tried to get a recommendation from an alumnus who knew me well in a professional context. Although not always possible, getting a recommendation from someone who knows the school well can’t hurt your application.
I also made sure to include a recommendation from a peer at work, someone who not only knew me in a professional manner but also had interacted with me outside of the office. Admissions committees are interested in your professional achievements, but they also care a lot about who you are in “real life” as they try to admit well-rounded individuals.
Keep in mind that you do not have to get a recommendation from your CEO. Make sure to pick recommenders who will have the time to go through the process of writing the letter (it is very time consuming, so be upfront about it), who know you well, and who can write positively about you (ask them whether they are comfortable with your request). Allow plenty of time between the moment you first contact them and the time they have to submit the letter of recommendation! Don’t write the letter for them, but put a package together with your current resume and your main achievements from the time you worked with them.