Some MBA applicants view recommendations as a part of the business school application process that can be put on auto-pilot. But make no mistake; even this part of your file will require a significant investment of time and attention.
Start thinking now about a short list of candidates whom you think would be capable, diligent, and organized recommendation writers. Remember, these folks have deadlines to hit, too. Your list should be composed of people from your current job, previous employers, extracurricular activities, and alma mater, and they should be from various levels within the organizations. Some might boast impressive titles, while others will be peers who have collaborated closely with you.
Over the next several weeks, try to get some quality time with these people—potentially even re-establishing ties with someone from a previous job or an old college professor—in order to feel out who would be most excited about writing a letter on your behalf. Believe me, the recommender's attitude and commitment level are key.
Aim for a good "spread" among your recommenders, so they can write about you from various angles. Getting the partner from the pharma cost-cutting consulting project, as well as the partner from the chemical cost-cutting consulting project, might not produce the recommendations that show the full range of your character and capabilities.
In general, you should give your recommenders about six weeks of advance warning before the deadline and provide them any forms and prep materials three to four weeks before the date you would like them to submit their recommendation.
This is no mere hand-off of a few photocopied forms, as some people might believe. You should budget a few hours for this task. All applicants need to figure out what their recommenders should say and how those statements complement the points that come up in applicants' essays.
Even a recommender with the best intentions might end up writing a weak appraisal if it doesn't dovetail with the "Brand You" that is woven into your essays. For instance, a recommendation that emphasizes your data gathering and quantitative analysis skills doesn't do much if you've tried to establish your brand around creativity and dynamic leadership.
I recommend that applicants create a recommender package, which has four main components and provides instruction on both process and content.
1. Instructions: First, create a simple table for your recommender of each school to which she or he will be submitting a letter, as well as the application deadline for each school. Many schools suggest that recommenders submit the letter at least a day in advance of the actual deadline to ensure that your application is complete.
Next, address whether each school needs the recommender to answer school-specific questions, or if a general letter is acceptable. Finally, briefly explain the online recommendation process, as most schools prefer online submissions.
[Read about how prospective MBAs may face tougher applications.]
2. Your strengths: Explain to the recommender that in order to make the process easier for him or her, you are providing a list of characteristics that you are highlighting about yourself in your application, along with a few examples of each characteristic from the time you've worked together. Of course, state that the recommender can amend or adjust any of these ideas.
Your list should contain at least three strengths (such as leadership, vision, and teamwork), with one or two supporting anecdotes. A recent performance evaluation can be a good place for you start when you compile the list of your strengths.
3. Areas of development: Most schools ask recommenders about your weaknesses or areas of development. Rather than shying away from this, make your self-awareness a strength. Give the recommender a growth area for you as well as examples of how you are working on it. (Again, a recent performance evaluation is a good place to start.)
Also address how getting your MBA will help you further develop in this area. Then the recommender can speak to your maturity and awareness, showing schools you intend to hit the ground running and improve through their program.
4. Your goals: You should also briefly state your career goals and the reasons why you are seeking an MBA. Your recommender is likely already aware of your goals, but it can be helpful to give a succinct description that she or he can use as a reference.
The goal of managing your recommenders is to make it as easy as possible for them to write glowing letters, so a recommender package is a win-win for all. Don't leave it to your recommender to remember everything that you have done, and definitely don't leave this process to chance. Your recommenders will appreciate your assistance and thoroughness, and will produce a better recommendation on your behalf.