Great MBA Recommendation Letters: Tips and an Example

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: January 1, 2015)

This year’s MBA applicants face fewer required essays and shorter word counts than any recent class of candidates. But applicants haven’t been the only ones facing the squeeze over the past few years. Recommenders, too, have found themselves with less and less space to make an impact: over the past several years, schools not only reduced the number of recommenders a candidate was allowed to have, it also cut the word count allotted to those recommenders. Many of the top programs have also converged around the same two recommendation questions:

  1. How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
  2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. 

What does this mean for this year’s MBA applicants? First and foremost, applicants need to pick the right recommenders to advocate on their behalf. Second, applicants need to make sure they are adequately preparing those recommenders to write great recommendations.

In this blog post, I’ll illustrate the keys to getting great letters of recommendations for MBA applications by revealing a few snippets of a real recommendation from my own business school applications.

The Keys to Getting Great Recommendation Letters for MBA Applications

Each part of your MBA application should demonstrate different qualities to the admissions committee. Your resume is a place to tell your professional story and to illustrate your accomplishments; your essay is a place to show the admissions committee who you are and what you value. Your recommendations, then, must be reserved to demonstrate characteristics that you yourself cannot credibly speak to:

Are you likable? Are you fun and nice and interesting? The MBA interview has, from time to time, been referred to as a “jerk test” – essentially an opportunity for the admissions committee to weed out candidates that might be arrogant, mean, or even awkward. If the MBA interview is the test itself, then your MBA recommendations are the pre-test: an opportunity for two professionals to say on your behalf that you are, indeed, a good person. This is one of the reasons it is important to pick recommenders that know you well over those that are more senior in the organization or those that are program alumni.

Are you a team player, capable of following as well as leading? Many applicants make the mistake of confusing leadership with formal authority. They feel that they lack leadership anecdotes because they’ve never formally managed other colleagues, never had employees report to them. Ironically, business schools are far more attracted to candidates capable of demonstrating leadership in the absence of formal authority – candidates that can inspire those around them to follow their lead not because they have to do so but because they want to do so. Here is a snippet, submitted by one of my recommenders as part of my own MBA application, which illustrates this nicely:

“My initial surprise at [Kyle’s] youth was quickly assuaged when I witnessed him in action, directing a diverse group of people many years his senior. His ability to motivate older volunteers was remarkable…I was particularly impressed with his ability to solicit contributions, never being obsequious or pushy, from much older community figures by cogently presenting arguments.”

Your recommenders can also powerfully advocate for your leadership credentials by describing your ability to know when to follow, collaborate, and defer. While you might be able to describe a situation like this in your essay or resume, a recommender will have a lot more credibility if he or she can do it on your behalf.

Are you curious, humble, and teachable? MBA admissions committees have, in recent years, converged on a similar set of recommender questions. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Booth, Ross, UCLA, Kellogg….First, the admissions committees ask:

1. How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.

Then, they ask the recommenders to describe the most important piece of feedback that they’ve given you:

2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. 

Consider this second question an opportunity for the recommender to demonstrate that you are curious, humble, and teachable. Essentially, it’s an opportunity for your recommender to prove that you are willing and eager to learn – since, after all, you are applying to school. MBA programs are burned every year by admitting know-it-all students more interested in adding the school’s brand to their resume than in learning or growing as a leader. If your recommenders can demonstrate that you are willing to listen to and grow from feedback that they’ve provided, it’s a good sign to admissions committees that you’ll be willing to do the same in business school.

I have two rules when working with applicants and recommenders answering this feedback question:

  1. First, when working with your recommender to figure out what piece of feedback he or she can describe, choose a genuine piece of feedback – something focused on correcting a real weakness. Again and again, when I am working with applicants, they’ll suggest the same piece of feedback to me as something their recommenders could talk about: “the applicant focuses so much on getting every detail right that they lose site of the big picture.” It’s a ridiculous compliment masquerading as feedback, essentially saying that the applicant is so perfect that they just can’t let go of the finer details and nuances. If you did what the admissions committee asked and chose a recommender that knows you well, you should have a genuine example of a weakness that you’ve worked on with the recommender’s mentorship.
  2. Second, don’t choose a piece of feedback that demonstrates poor interpersonal skills. Remember that your recommendations are, in part, intended to demonstrate that you are a good person and a good leader. You don’t want to choose a piece of feedback that works against those goals.

Outside of those two rules, almost any piece of genuine feedback will do. Again, the admissions committee is far more interested in whether you are curious, humble, and teachable than in the specific piece of feedback your recommender chooses to discuss. In that vein, the recommender shouldn’t focus on the feedback itself or the situation that prompted it; he or she should focus on how you reacted to it and how you grew as a result of it.

Are you capable of building close professional relationships and mentorships? Finally, admissions committees want recommendations to demonstrate that an applicant is capable of building close relationships with colleagues more senior than themselves. If a boss is willing to invest real time in your recommendation, it shows how much he or she is invested in the applicant’s success, and that only happens when the applicant is a truly capable and affable leader. This, ultimately, is another reason to choose a recommender that you know well over a recommender that is senior in your organization or an alumni of the MBA program. If your recommendation reads like it was written in 30 minutes, it won’t speak highly of your candidacy. Instead, you want to see sentences like these written by one of my own MBA recommenders:

“I introduced [Kyle] to a number of my professional colleagues who were also very impressed…Our friendship has grown into a mentor/mentee relationship where we remain in weekly contact with each other.”

Not only did my recommender invest significant energy and effort in writing my recommendation, he also spoke about his willingness to introduce me to his professional network and adopt me as a mentor.

Two Keys to Getting Great Recommendations

If the four questions above are what admissions committees want your recommendations to answer, then as an applicant, you should be focused on how to help your recommenders succeed in doing so. There are two easy ways to do this:

First, schedule a time to have an uninterrupted conversation with your recommender. Talk about these four questions and any other qualities that you think would be good for your recommender to speak to. Get input from your recommender on what he or she wants to speak to in the recommendation.

Second, after you’ve talked with your recommenders, make sure you provide them the preparatory materials they need to succeed. I think these materials fall into three buckets:

  1. First, general information about your relationship with the recommender: how and when you met, projects you’ve worked on together, dates, names, etc…
  2. Second, an overview of what themes you are focusing your application on, why you want an MBA, and what you plan to do post-MBA.
  3. Third, and most importantly, anecdotes and stories that the recommender can refer to in order to illustrate the qualities he or she claims you possess. This is so critically important; it is the primary differentiator between good recommendations, which talk about qualities an applicant possesses, and great recommendations, which describe situations in which the candidate demonstrated those qualities.

Coming up with these anecdotes and stories, particularly one about a situation where your recommender provided you genuine feedback, can be difficult. It is time-intensive and often exhausting, but it is well worth the effort, particularly because recommenders, who are often busy professionals in their own right, don’t always have the time or energy to invest themselves.

As always, we are happy to help you in this exercise. Feel free to reach out to us through our free consultation service, or stay tuned to this blog for more on MBA applications.

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