Analyzing the Applications: the HBS Recommendations (PART I)

By Kyle Watkins (last updated: December 17, 2013)

Strong recommendations are more important than ever now that the HBS admissions committee has scaled back the number of recommenders to two and reduced the number of essay questions to one. What’s more, HBS recommenders only have about half the word count that they had last year, which means they need to make the space that they do have count that much more.

Before analyzing each of the two recommender questions, it’s worth reflecting on what HBS wants to get out of your recommendations more generally. Ultimately, there are really two qualities they want to see. First, the recommendations test your self-awareness. How closely does what your recommenders think about you mirror what you think about yourself (in your essay and interview)? Consider the importance of self-awareness to the school’s curriculum: after I was accepted to HBS (but before I matriculated), I had to solicit a handful of people to complete a survey about my strengths and weaknesses, which I also completed myself. During FIELD, we reviewed the survey results to see how closely others’ opinions of us aligned with our own self image. Suffice it to say that the two didn’t always align for my classmates or myself. Self-awareness was also a consistent theme in classes like LEAD, LCA, ALD, and others. That’s why it’s important to, in part, view the recommendations as an attempt by the admissions committee to screen out any candidates that are too far disconnected from reality.

Second, the recommendations test whether you inspire other people. After all, the school’s mission is to educate business leaders who make a difference in the world, and it’s awfully hard to make a difference in anything if you can’t inspire others along the way. I’m not saying your recommendations need to be pledges to follow you to the ends of the earth or anything quite that dramatic. So long as the HBS admissions committee senses some admiration in your recommendations, all will be achieved.

If you’re going to get either of these qualities out of your recommendations, you absolutely must heed the advice iterated time and again by HBS: select recommenders that know you well. Once you’ve done that, it’s worth looking at the two public recommender questions for the Class of 2016 application:

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. (300 words)

This question is really just a combination of the first two questions from last year’s application. The intent is twofold. First, did you do what the admissions committee asked and select recommenders who know you well? Hence the question’s emphasis on “specific examples.” Second, this question is your recommenders’ best opportunity to convey your ability to inspire others. To achieve this, the best approach is the one I took when I applied in 2010 (described in detail here): provide your recommenders with a few good anecdotes that they can rely on to illustrate your strengths rather than forcing them to lean on a list of vague platitudes.

Additionally, as we mentioned in our post analyzing the new HBS essay question, if your application has a particular weak point (for me, it was a lack of significant quantitative experience), the recommendation, not the essay, is the best place to mitigate it because you can have a credible source address it on your behalf. Focus the anecdotes you provide your recommenders on examples that demonstrate strength where your weaknesses may be; it will go a long way to assuaging any concerns the admissions committee may have.

Part two of this post continues here and looks at the second recommender question (the more important of the two) and provides some additional advice on how to make your recommendations count…

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