One of the most important components of your application is the recommendation section, where you are allowed to recruit someone to vouch for your candidacy.
Most schools require at least one recommender, with the majority of schools now asking for two and some even requiring three separate recommendations. Because the recommendations are the only part of the application that is outside your direct control, we always advise clients to engage with recommenders early in the application process. You want your recommenders to spend the appropriate amount of time on them, so putting it off until the last minute is a potentially devastating strategy. You can also burn a bridge or two if you find yourself having to put pressure on people to finish them, and heaven forbid you actually have a recommender fail to submit one, essentially rendering your application incomplete. But let’s say you are organized, thoughtful, and prepared to approach people early…whom do you choose?
The most important thing to realize with recommenders is that they must be able to comment directly and anecdotally on your work performance.
No matter how tempting it might be to get the CEO of your company to write your recommendations, you should ask yourself a very important question first: how well does this person know me, and how intimately can he or she respond to questions about my specific job performance? If the answer is “not well” to either question, then it’s best to find someone else. The best business schools are looking for recommendations to provide insight and detail about your professional interactions and results versus trite, complementary adjectives that could apply to anyone in the company. This is why most b-schools want to see at least one recommendation come from an immediate supervisor—they are generally in the best position to not only comment directly on your work but also to compare you with your peers.
Comparing you with your peers brings up another important point: you want to be a stand-out.
Even if you feel you are a stand-out amongst your peers, however, you need to make sure your boss thinks so too. We generally advise folks to take time with their recommenders to figure this out. Take them to lunch, tell them about your goals and why you want the MBA. Ask them if they feel you would make a strong candidate at your target schools and why. Sometimes they need help or encouragement in this area to see things from your perspective. Talk about your plans and how your role at the company has prepared you (in your view) and then see if they agree. Many schools have specific questions they ask the recommenders—not just relying on a self-drafted letter or note of approval. Often these questionnaires include a ranking system so they can evaluate you against your peers and also against other employees the recommender may have seen in their time at the company. During your conversation with your potential recommending supervisor, you should be able to ascertain fairly quickly if they are “on-board” with your going to school or not, and whether or not they view you as a top 10% employee. If you can’t get your current boss on board, or if there are extenuating circumstances around why you can’t ask your boss to recommend you, you will need to make sure to communicate this to your target schools and give them a reason why (by the way, “my boss doesn’t like me” is generally not a good reason).
This is sometimes where things get tough. If your boss is not in your corner, the timing may simply not be ideal for a run at b-school right now.
Better to get in a job where you are making an impact and being recognized first, then perhaps apply down the road once you have a better support system. Business schools can see right through applicants who are using b-school to run away from a bad situation at work. This is rarely a good starting point from which to build a winning application. Still, if you are in the unfortunate position of having your most recent stop on the career train at a bad work environment, you can alternatively tell the adcoms that using your current boss would be detrimental to your employment, and then go fishing for a former boss who might be more enthused by your pursuit of an MBA. If you have a strong recommender from a prior position, this can be an acceptable option.
Of course, most MBA applicants find this advice unnecessary, since most MBA applicants are in a job where their boss thinks they are the bees-knees. If this is you, then great—one down, one to go. So who should be recommender #2?
If you find yourself with a solid recommender in your boss but struggling to find that second person, rest assured that with one very solid recommender, you can afford to be a bit more creative for the second.
This is where you can feel more free to journey further back in your past for someone who may have a unique or highly favorable insight into some time in your life where you were most impressive. Still others try to diversify their recommenders by going to a non-professional person. For example, using someone at a volunteer organization where you are involved, or selecting a customer with whom you have worked closely or a professor who thought highly of your potential can sometimes be a good fit. There are really no hard and fast rules beyond rule #1: make sure they know you well and want to see you succeed.
Two final rules: 1) no family, and no peers. Admissions committees will discount the heck out of such subjective sources. 2) Never, ever, write your own recommendation and have your boss sign it. Firstly, b-schools are really good at sniffing this out and secondly, if your boss is suggesting this, then they don’t care enough about your MBA plans to participate at the required level to get you into your target schools.
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