Get Into Business School: Letters of Recommendation

Get an admissions expert's take on finding the right person to vouch for you.

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Finding the right people to write your letters of recommendation is no simple task. So U.S. News asked Chioma Isiadinso, a former admissions official at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard Business School and author of the book The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets, to offer advice on choosing someone who can portray you in the best and most accurate light. 

1. Who should applicants approach to write their letters of recommendation? Former professors? Employers? A mix?  

Typically, recommendations for business school should come from individuals who have supervised the candidate and have a clear vantage point of a candidate's managerial potential and contributions to the organization, [as well as a] perspective of how he or she functions within a team. [The] majority of business schools require two recommendation letters, and for most applicants the ideal option is a current supervisor and a former supervisor who can attest in great detail about the candidate and the value he or she can provide to the business school community. In cases where a school requires three recommendations (as is the case for programs like Harvard Business School and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business), another perspective such as a recommendation from community service [organizers] or from faculty who can attest to who you are beyond the classroom performance can be useful. 

There are instances where a professor recommendation could be useful. These are cases where the candidate is an early career candidate with very limited work experience; in such instances, the critical information for the recommender to highlight is not basic information about the candidate's intellect and how well he or she did in the class, but rather detailed examples/anecdotes that vividly describe the candidate in terms of how he or she has enriched a class [and] character traits that can reinforce that the candidate is mature to handle business school despite being younger and possessing less work experience compared to the rest of the applicant pool. Professors who can attest to your college leadership track record [and] your ability to take initiative can be useful recommendation letters at the end of the day. 

[Get advice on writing your b-school admissions essay.] 

2. Is it important that the letter's writer has worked with the applicant closely on a day-to-day basis? 

Absolutely. Recommendations that are most memorable and useful in evaluating a candidate are the ones that have detailed descriptions about the candidate. The more closely the recommender has worked with the candidate, the more examples he or she can share. I often see applicants opting for recommendations from more senior individuals who barely know them. In such cases, it is no surprise that such reference letters tend to be generic, lack examples, and are ineffective in painting a clear picture of who the candidate is. 

[Get more advice from business school admissions officials.]

3. Do letters of recommendation from prominent figures carry much weight if they've had minimal contact with the applicant? 

Admissions people are very savvy and can see through the 'big-titled' recommendation with little substance. Applicants should focus on former bosses or current bosses who have real experiences they can draw from. Generic recommendation letters are wasted opportunities to differentiate yourself from your competition. I read my fair share of generic recommendation letters when serving on Harvard Business School's admissions board and such recommendations that came from alumni or prominent figures were easy to spot and did little to endear the candidate to the admissions board. It is always better to have a 'mid-ranked' recommender but with insight and detailed descriptions about you that allows the admissions board to get a three-dimensional view of who you are as a person. 

[Learn more about what work experience you'll need before applying to b-school.] 

4. What stands out the most in letters of recommendation? What do admissions officials truly look for?