The Reluctant Recommender

Business School applicants typically have type-A personalities, so managing the application process with zest and precision comes with the territory.  One area they can’t directly control, however, is the recommendation.  Everything works great with someone who is responsive and excited for your b-school journey, but how do you handle someone who is not so eager to help?

Choosing your recommenders is often a vexing process for MBA applicants.  Most schools want to hear from current employers and supervisors because they can generally give the most valid insight into your performance and impact on the job, but applicants search beyond their employer when a school asks for two or three people to vouch for you.  Sometimes this means digging into your past for that special person who will make time to thoughtfully detail what makes you tick.

There’s not much that is more powerful than an objective, insightful, third-party corroboration of your awesomeness, but occasionally the person who knows the most about you is also someone who is difficult to pin down. Sure, human nature prompts them to say yes to your initial request, but then they go radio silent and unresponsive to your requests to discuss the recommendation or to complete the online form.  This always adds unnecessary stress to applicants who are literally on a timeline with schools to get everything submitted.

 The worst situation is when you have a reluctant recommender who is required to actually write a long-form letter instead of simply fill out an online questionnaire. 

For some reason, asking certain people to write a letter is like asking an unmotivated teenager to write a five-part essay.  The longer it takes for them to get it done, the more difficult it is to get a response.  Ultimately, the hackneyed response becomes the dreaded, “can you write something up and I’ll sign it,” which is a huge red flag. 

Schools are very good at sniffing out recommendations written by the applicants themselves.

They have truly seen and heard it all.  A self-recommendation disguised as one from someone else not only doesn’t help, it could really damage your chances.  Schools feel applicants who resort to this technique either failed to make the kind of impact which inspires others, or are too lazy or disconnected to find a real recommender.  If you can’t track someone down who is willing to pound on the table and advocate your candidacy---someone to trumpet your contributions, why would they think you’d be impactful in business school?

My advice is for you to do the sniffing first. 

Start by communicating directly with your recommenders either on the phone or in person.  It’s too easy for them to say “yeah sure” to and email or text request, but you will get a much better feel for their willingness if you have a real conversation with them.  If they are in the same city, take them to lunch, and just start by telling them about your journey and plans.  A good sign is when someone offers to recommend you even before you ask.  Frankly, it takes that kind of eager support to generate the most compelling recommendation anyway.

Another thing you can do is to lay out your timeline and expectations very clearly from the outset. 

Get familiar with each school’s process before you talk to your recommenders and be ready to give them regular reminders of the countdown.  If time begins to get short, you should call or visit the person like you did in the beginning to make sure the message is getting through.  Try to avoid telling them the final cutoff date, lest they wait until the last minute to submit. 

One final thought--Schools are increasingly asking you to waive your right to see the recos before they are submitted, which is typically a good idea, since they carry more weight with admissions committees when they are private. 

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