When it comes to recommendations, the first thing that any applicant needs to understand is how they work and, therefore, how they should handle them as part of the process. We sum up this analysis with something we call “The Rule of 10%”: they count for about 10% of a decision, they should be about 10% of your focus during application season, and you should contribute about 10% of the work that goes into their outcome.
Obviously, these are all gross estimates and generalizations, but it shakes out to about right and its easier to use 10% than “a percentage that is a LOT less than you think it is.” The bottom line is that most applicants assume a much higher level of importance, they spend far more time thinking and worrying about them, and they get far too involved in their production (the biggest issue of all). Let’s work through all three:
1. Letters of Rec Make up About 10% of the Decision.
There are basically two ways to analyze how recommendations work within an admissions decision – one is to think of it from a process standpoint and the other is to consider the “weight” they carry, more or less, and using the former can help us understand why the answer to the latter is “more or less about 10%.”
Within the process, the typical way in which a letter of recommendation is utilized by an admissions officer is as a verification tool. A reader will sit down to review a file (in much less time than you think, by the way) and typically work through the “one sheet” (name, biographical data, test scores, undergrad, major, GPA, age, etc.) so they can get the basics. This frames the expectation going in and is why some of these data points become obsessed over. A low GMAT tells the reader “long shot” (and that’s the best case scenario). An extreme age makes them extra sensitive to the appropriateness of the degree. There are a lot of ways the perception can be framed at this very initial stage, and while nobody’s mind is made up yet, there is definitely an influence on the way the file is read.
Next, it’s the application itself (transcripts are usually skipped or skimmed unless there is something to investigate, like a really low GPA next to a monster GMAT score), which is very quick. The resume brings to life work experience in a snapshot, which is why you must always construct your resume as a sales tool. Now, the reader has a much better sense of how qualified this applicant is, how well this person has done professionally, and so forth – the reader can probably prognosticate admissions chances with about 60% accuracy at this point. The essays are where the variance kicks in. Some who look good on paper will blow it, by either failing to articulate proper reasons for the degree, or writing bland content that they think is what someone wants to read, or for failing to really connect to the school in question. Others will rise far above the initial impression with “great” essays (that do accomplish the things above).
Once the essays are completed, the reader is about 90% of the way there and more or less has decided. The only thing left is to check the recommendation letters to make sure that other people – people who know the applicant better – concur with the assessment. Again, we want to stress that this is about validating an already-formed opinion. If you were an experienced professional who prided yourself on bringing in a great class of students every year and you know what works and what doesn’t, are you going to cede the power of making the decision to someone writing a letter? Of course not, so unless it is an extreme case (like Stanford, where far more stated importance is put on letters of recommendation), you can assume that your letters will account for about 10% of the ultimate decision. Good letters will help affirm a reader’s decision to “admit” (note: this just means you will get an interview invite at this point, but within admissions offices they flag people as admits until they are demoted down to wait list or deny), is basically what it comes down to.
2. You Should Spend About 10% of Your Time on Letters of Rec.
The second Rule of 10% is how much time you should be spending on the letter of recommendation – and 10% might be generous. This is a letter written by someone else, after all. How much time should it really take you? Not much! Note though that we did not say 0% of your time. You do need to take some steps to set your recommender up for success rather than failure.
- First, you should indeed sit down with the person writing your letter and talk to that individual. Thank them for taking the time, solicit their advice on schools and even whether now is the right time (even if you are just doing it to make them feel valued), buy them a cup of coffee – whatever you do, make it personal and don’t just email them a one-liner asking them to write you a letter of recommendation.
- You should also state clearly what you are asking them to do, which is recommend you. This is not a performance evaluation. Ask the person in question whether he or she is comfortable recommending you wholeheartedly to business school. Avoid anyone who caveats the answer or who seems intent on performing a rigorous exercise just to prove how smart they are. You want someone who is excited to help your chances by extolling your virtues.
- Finally, you should provide your recommender with some ammunition. This is admittedly a tricky area, because you neither want to influence the letter too much, nor do you want to overwhelm the recommender with reams of documents that they have to sort through. Our advice is to give them three items: your resume, a “query letter” that formally asks them for this favor and details some of your key accomplishments and interests (2-3 pages, max), and a sample (if they would like to see one) of a good letter. From there, your work is done. Get out of the way and don’t mess with the process.
3. You Should Do About 10% of the Work on Your Letters.
This leads us to our third 10% Rule, which is how big your role should be in the production of the letter. That 10% is already accounted for above – in the prep work to set that person up to succeed. Any other involvement is not only unethical (some schools will ding you for leaving your fingerprints on the letter), but also counterproductive. Remember what these are used for: to verify the findings of an experienced admissions professional. They don’t want to read more essays! They don’t want to see you embedding more statements about how awesome you are in another part of the application (commonly referred to as “synching the letters”). All they want is an authentic, positive letter that says, “yes, I vouch that this person is great – if you liked the application, you will like the actual applicant.”
Now, just to make it clear that we’re not in some utopian society where all recommendation letter writers are created equal, let’s discuss quality. Is there a disparity between a good letter and a great one? Yes, absolutely. A great letter is well written, provides specific examples of discussed traits, offers context for its remarks, and – best of all – establishes a baseline from which to assess this one person (“in all my years on Wall Street, during which I have encountered hundreds of MBA candidates, Timmy is the best…”). However (and this is a key point!), the same disparity does not exist between the value of a great letter versus a good one. Great letters don’t pull victory from the jaws of defeat and magically make your ding an admit, so the marginal utility of a “great” letter is somewhere between zero and “not much.” Sure, there are cases of amazing letters playing a big role, but that is unpredictable and rare, meaning you don’t build your application strategy around it. More to the point, the downside of a manipulated letter is that you can get denied – either on ethical grounds or because the reader simply has no way to validate previous findings (which is their entire objective in reviewing them).
Remember: if the role you play in your own letters of recommendation is greater than 10%, you will not only fail to gain an advantage, you create a great possibility that you will shoot yourself in the foot. Engaging in this process beyond 10% of the work is basically minimal upside, big downside.
If you can take this tip to heart, you will create less stress for everyone involved and allow the letters of recommendation to serve the very basic function they are intended for.
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