For prospective business students, letters of recommendation are the part of the MBA application process over which applicants have the least control. But that doesn't mean that there aren't significant steps that business school applicants can take to influence the impact of their references, business school admissions experts say.
"I think recommendations are the most skewed; applicants have the largest blind spot for that," says Scott Shrum, director of admissions research at the consultancy Veritas Prep (which writes a medical school admissions blog for U.S. News).
Since applicants don't get to see the recommendations that are submitted on their behalf, it's a matter of "out of sight, out of mind," Shrum says. After spending months preparing for the GMAT and weeks writing their essays, MBA applicants tend to send recommendation forms to their references and then confirm that the forms have been submitted, he says. But otherwise, the recommendations are a "black hole."
"Since they have so little control over these, [applicants] spend too little time planning them out, and the results are often lackluster recommendations," Shrum says. "With a little more preplanning with the recommenders, applicants can avoid this problem."
[Read about how prospective MBAs may face tougher applications.]
That's consistent with what Kyle Judah experienced when he applied to business school, says the second-year MBA student at Babson College's Olin Graduate School of Business.
"I don't even know what was said in the letters of recommendation sent on my behalf," says Judah, the chief executive officer of RecoVend, a Providence, R.I.-based educational technology company. "When you take such pains to carefully craft essays, study for hours on end, and conduct your own research of and outreach to the MBA programs, it can definitely be scary to put your faith in someone else's hands."
When Judah assembled his application, what he calls "the portfolio of me," he shared his essays and information about the programs with his references. "They could see what I was choosing to write about, and hopefully have their letters match the tone and message," he says.
[Check out the do's and don'ts of applying to business school.]
The best thing applicants can do is plan ahead with their recommenders, agrees Shrum of Veritas Prep, who advises applicants to provide references with specific stories that illustrate their strengths. That way recommenders can tell admissions officials about how the applicant weathered a professional storm, rather than just calling him or her a "great leader."
"These specifics matter a lot to admissions officers, who have to choose among thousands of very similar-sounding applicants," Shrum says.
Paul Bodine, who runs Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting in San Diego, has observed four common misconceptions when it comes to MBA recommendations and offers tips to avoid them:
1. Titles won't dazzle: Applicants sometimes erroneously assume that a reference's job title or b-school affiliation is more important than his or her connection to the applicant and ability to advocate on the applicant's behalf, says Bodine, who is author of Great Applications for Business School. "Schools are sincere when they say they want letters from people who have directly supervised the applicant over time," he says.
2. Praise should be specific: Applicants and recommenders also have a bad habit of considering letters of recommendation to be "pro forma" exercises, wherein b-schools "just want a lot of hot air about people skills, vision, [and] 'achieving whatever he sets his mind to,'" Bodine says. Instead, schools want "factual, concrete anecdotes that demonstrate that the applicant has the skills that the recommender says [he or she] does," he says.
3. It's advocacy, not journalism: Applicants should also be aware that too many recommenders view letters of reference as performance reviews, and they tend to submit letters that are "overly critical, objective, and lacking in advocacy," Bodine says.
4. Don't ghostwrite: But that doesn't mean that the widespread practice of applicants writing their own recommendations for their references to sign is advisable, either.
"The resulting applicant-written letter is usually very bad," says Bodine, who recognizes that recommenders don't always have time to write their own letters. "That's why I sometimes interview the recommenders and turn their comments into letter drafts that they can edit and submit—keeping the applicant out of the process."
Searching for a business school? Get our complete rankings of Best Business Schools.