A letter of recommendation can make or break your MBA application

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THROUGH Sydney lakeSeptember 02 2021, 02:00

MBA applications are demanding. Between collecting the transcripts, taking the GMAT and / or the GRE, writing the essay answers and conducting the interviews, the process turns out to be a multi-month effort for candidates.

The only chance applicants have to have someone to champion their cause is the letter of recommendation, required by many MBA programs. This enforcement element has the power to make or override admission decisions, says Natalie Lahiff, a former admissions counselor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. And with thousands of applications arriving each year, an admissions committee doesn’t have much time to really get to know the candidate, she adds.

“Obtain a third party perspective on [applicants] it’s really important to understand their personalities, their passions and their goals, ”says Lahiff, who is now an MBA admissions consultant with Solomon Admissions. “The recommendation will either boost this application or it could go the other way.”

Some schools like Yale University School of Management and Vanderbilt University (Owen) allow recommenders to use the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) common letter of recommendation form. This streamlines the process of writing recommendations by asking a set of questions that stay the same in each school’s application system so that “few significant changes” are needed from school to school, according to GMAC.

Other schools are waiting for more specific responses to their own MBA program. Take New York University (Stern), for example, which asks for two of what it calls EQ endorsements. Those recommending here are encouraged to provide examples of the candidate’s emotional intelligence and how “the candidate’s performance compares to that of other well-qualified people in similar roles”.

Whatever type of recommendation letter your school requires, this is one of the most important and revealing parts of the application process.

How to select your recommendations

It can be tempting to seek out a senior manager or alumnus of the school to write your letter of recommendation, but MBA admissions experts agree that it’s more important to have someone who knows you well to speak up. in your name.

Applicants should apply to a direct supervisor or colleague with whom they have worked closely. For applicants who are concerned about asking a boss who might not support their decision to take a full-time MBA program, experts suggest asking a former manager or client if they’ve worked in a consulting setting.

“It’s always best to choose someone who is ready to fight for you, because they are the ones who will take the time to write a very thoughtful letter,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, a Harvard Business School graduate who is the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm.

Aggarwal and Lahiff both suggest having a face-to-face conversation when asking someone to be a recommender. This is your opportunity to discuss your reasons for attending business school, your career aspirations, and applicable examples that would fit well into a letter of recommendation.

For schools requesting more than one letter, applicants should make an effort to request recommendations that would offer additional information and perspectives, Aggarwal adds. “It’s really a wasted opportunity if both recommenders write about the same things,” she says.

Before approaching a potential recommender, consider whether they will likely support your decision to pursue an MBA.

“If you have any doubts that this person is going to have negative comments about your entry into business school, don’t even approach them,” Lahiff warns. “They’re not going to write you a good recommendation.”

And yes, negative letters of recommendation do exist, confirms Lahiff.

What a bad letter of recommendation looks like

Not-so-stellar letters of recommendation are those that are vague, highlight negative personality traits, or don’t match what a candidate has presented in other admission materials.

If a recommender does not provide specific examples that corroborate how a candidate describes themselves, this can set off red flags for the program’s admissions committee. This can cause an admissions counselor to question whether the recommender really knows this candidate, Aggarwal says.

Many business schools provide prompts for the recommendation letter, often asking writers to rank applicants on a scale of 1 to 5 for traits such as leadership and teamwork. If a recommender ranks a candidate low or includes a comment that says or suggests that a candidate is arrogant or does not work well with others, it can confuse the admissions committee as well.

Lahiff has seen recommenders making negative comments in letters. “That puzzles me,” she said, “because why would you want to ask someone who is going to write a recommendation like that? “

Letters of recommendation should address areas for improvement, but tackling those is no easy feat. “Weaknesses and negative comments are two completely different things in the recommendation letter,” says Lahiff.

Applicants for admission often seek to attend a business school to address and improve their issues, and recommenders should explain how the applicant is working to address any lack of qualities or skills.

“Everyone has weaknesses,” says Aggarwal. “The key is to show how someone tackles these weaknesses. This is really what the schools are trying to see. Can you take constructive criticism and can you apply it? “

… and what does a voucher include

Strong recommendation letters provide specific examples and stories that exemplify the candidate’s traits and qualities.

Aggarwal suggests that applicants sit down with their recommender and review the projects they have worked on together and discuss specific examples that can be described in the letter. Applicants can also provide supporting documents such as a curriculum vitae and a summary of what they have worked on together to facilitate the recommender’s job. However, applicants should never write their own recommendation letter, Aggarwal says.

Excellent letters of recommendation also address the impact applicants have had on their organizations, Aggarwal says.

“At the end of the day, when you think of business school, it’s all about impact,” she says. “They want people who are a little more humble and self-aware and who can take constructive criticism and apply it in a positive way.”

Find out how the schools you are considering landed in the Fortune rankings for the best full-time executives, and online MBA programs.


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