Letter of Recommendation: A comprehensive guide
Most MBA programs ask for letters of recommendation from 2 professional recommenders who you’ve worked with. Candidates often find it tough to find the right recommenders and managing them. This guide answers the most common applicant queries should help you to effectively manage your LORs.
What the recommenders should say?
In terms of content, there are 3 key points that a strong letter of recommendation should touch on:
1. The recommender should qualify themselves: State explicitly how long they’ve worked in the industry and how long they’ve worked with you. For instance, they could mention how many people like you they’ve managed over the years. This way the admissions committee can clearly see your recommender knows what they’re talking about.
2. The quality of your work to date: Business schools assume, 'past performance is indicative of your future potential.' The admissions committee wants to hear how you’ve performed in your role.
But it’s difficult for the adcom to compare the performance of applicants in different fields, particularly those from unconventional sectors. For example, they won’t necessarily know the “standard” promotion schedule for your industry, so If you were promoted early, your recommender should state so explicitly.
The clearest way for your recommender to convey your outperformance is by benchmarking versus peers. For example,
3. Your ability to receive feedback: During an MBA you’ll be bombarded with feedback, so the admissions committee wants to know that you’ll respond positively to this feedback. A recommender is best positioned to reassure them on this.
So dig out an old performance evaluation and highlight a point of feedback you received. Then think of how you took on board this feedback and acted upon it. Pass this material to the recommender to write about.
Which recommenders you should choose?
When deciding who to choose as a recommended, ask yourself:
"Will this recommender vouch for my performance, and have they given me feedback?"
Don’t be tempted to snag the biggest hitter possible. If you’ve never worked with your CEO, they won’t be able to speak to these key points and their recommendation would actually be weaker than one from your direct manager.
How can I manage my recommenders?
Raising the topic: For many applicants, asking for a letter of recommendation is essentially the same as handing in their notice. Companies know that very few MBA graduates return to their former employer after graduation.
Nevertheless, you should ensure that the recommender doesn’t take your departure personally. Treat the request for a recommendation as a personal honour, flattering the recommender.
“Dear recommender, given your tremendous experience and success it would be impactful for my application if you could be the one to recommend me”.
Provide bullet points and content but don’t write it for them: The most common reaction from recommenders is something like “Sure! If you write it for me, I’ll sign it”.
Although this sounds like the ideal response, it’s not. Writing a recommendation for yourself in your boss’s words is extremely difficult. Much harder than writing your own essays.
A good compromise is to provide the recommender with the content, and maybe even a framework, but ask them to put it into their own words.
Fighting recommender fatigue: Be sure that your recommenders understand the work involved and the timeframe. Recommender fatigue is generally the main factor limiting the number of schools to which applicants apply. So, explain to them your application plan, for example, 4 schools in R1 and 3 schools in R2. This way they won’t disappear midway through the process, leaving you scrambling.
Weaknesses: Don’t be tempted to avoid all weaknesses. By touching on your weaknesses, the recommender actually gives themselves more credibility when discussing your strengths. Remember, you’re not expected to be the finished article - if you were, you wouldn’t need an MBA.
Common letter of recommendation: Many schools use a “common letter of recommendation” format, asking the same questions. Using this, you can simplify the task for your recommender and maximise the number of school applications.
A suggested framework for recommender:
Qualify themselves: I have worked in the industry for 14 years, including 4 years as a partner of our firm, and worked with [applicant] for the last 3 years. I was [applicant]’s manager for the last 2 years on two major projects where we
Project A: Digital transformation of industrial business
Project B: Digital marketing campaign for a retailer
During that time [applicant]’s responsibilities were…
Scoping the project
Liaise between internal departments A, B and C.
Impressed with [applicant]’s performance. Particularly with how they managed a dispute between X and Y.
Feedback: After Project A I gave [applicant] feedback that they were letting themselves down in face-to-face client meetings due to unclear communication. [Applicant] took action by enrolling in our internal communication program and is now one of my go-to presenters.
A technical weakness that [applicant] is still working on is programming in Python, to automate manual processes, which some peers have mastered.
Overall performance: I can confidently place the applicant in the top 5% of people I’ve worked with.
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