The MBA Letter of Recommendation (LOR)
For most applicants with several years of professional experience, the best recommenders are past and current supervisors. They are in the best position to judge your professional abilities and answer the questions that most MBA schools ask. Their recommendations serve to confirm and expand on the information included in your essays. It’s really that simple. Ensuring that happens though is not simple since you don’t have control over what your recommenders write. My advice is: get control, as much as possible anyways. I’ll come back to this later.
The most basic rule when selecting recommenders is also simple: choose the people who know you the best; only they can provide detailed examples to support their claims. Choosing someone who doesn’t know you well simply for their title or position, or for their status as an alumni, will almost certainly backfire on you because the adcom will see you as more interested in surface than substance. Even worse, they may think you were unable to secure a recommendation from someone who actually knows you. Another good rule is to choose recommenders who can say different things about you, i.e. people who are not going to cover the same topics/accomplishments as each other.
Applicants are not always in a position to ask their current supervisors, especially when doing so might be awkward or even imperil their job. Adcoms know this. It should not count against you either as long as you can find someone who knows you well. However, you should find some place in your application to explain the situation. You could use an optional essay for this or you could even ask one of your recommenders to explain in his or her letter.
If you haven’t been working long or are applying directly from university then consider professors, bosses from part-time jobs or internships, volunteer coordinators, etc. The basic rule of using people who know you well still applies.
Developing the Content
As much as possible, work with your recommenders. Let them know what accomplishments you are describing in your essays and ask them to confirm them. Direct your recommenders to cover different aspects of your career so that they are not duplicating each other and thereby wasting a letter. Good LOR should cover the topics listed on your resume and described in your essays, expand on them, and not overlap each other too much. Visually, they should look like this, with the red circles representing your LOR:
While adcoms frown upon it, some recommenders will ask you to draft a letter for them to review and sign. If they give you the option, take it. Not only will you be able to manage the content, you’ll also have more control and will worry less about your recommenders meeting submission deadlines. Here too, work with your recommenders. Try to “interview” them with a standard set of MBA LOR questions in hand. The more feedback you get, the easier it will be to draft.
In particular, ask your recommenders for specific examples to support their answers; examples are the only way an adcom can comprehend and judge vague terms like “strong leader” or “creative team player”. The examples only need a fraction of the detail included in your essays. However, they should be clearly identifiable, and at the same time distinguishable from your essays. If you have to develop the content without your recommenders’ input, think of specific examples when your recommender saw your work directly or heard of your performance from others.
Most LOR forms include a table of qualities and measurements that look similar to this:
While you may be tempted to mark “Truly Exceptional” for everything, don’t do it. It’s not realistic and adcoms will think your recommenders didn’t consider their choices deeply. In fact, some MBA schools like Tuck, Cornell and Wharton ask for specific examples to support any top rankings. Overall, the rankings need to be positive, but at the same time balanced and realistic. In the case of the table above, I would recommend placing most of your rankings in the top three columns (Good, Excellent and Truly Exceptional).
Also keep in mind that almost every LOR asks your recommenders to describe your weaknesses. Those should be coordinated with the table rankings as well. For example, if your recommender writes that your “written communication skills” need improvement, then that would merit an “Average” ranking or “Good” at the very highest.
Lastly, if you are having difficulty defining your strengths and weaknesses, the qualities listed in the tables can provide a valuable starting point and insights into what different MBA programs value.