In addition to essays, letters of recommendation are one of the most influential components of your business school application. These letters give the admissions committee a greater understanding of the person beyond the data points and resume.
There's a potential drawback, though. Because your recommendations are written by others, you have a lot less control over them. That's why you need to make the most of your recommendations by choosing your recommenders wisely and preparing them thoroughly.
[Get tips on how to coach your MBA recommenders.]
The key factors in choosing a recommender are selecting someone who is enthusiastic and well acquainted with your work, and who has the time to focus on your recommendation. Typically, you want to choose your immediate supervisor along with someone else who knows you professionally, perhaps from a different angle than that of your immediate supervisor.
If you need to supply a third letter, it's helpful to select a person who knows you outside of work and can speak to your leadership capacity or unique personal attributes. When your recommenders discuss your qualifications, they should also talk about how well you will fit in with your future students and the school community. A persuasive letter gives the application reader a sense of the potential the recommender sees in you.
While it's tempting to choose someone with an impressive title, you have to tread carefully with VIPs. If the VIP has a true connection – perhaps a direct line in to a decision-maker at a school – he or she can make a call for you, but that's the VIP's relationship to manage. It can be annoying to have too many people bugging the admissions committee, so pay attention to the policies of the school and follow those rules.
[Learn what it takes to sell yourself in MBA admissions.]
Having a bigwig write a formal recommendation for you will backfire if that person doesn't really know you. It defeats the purpose of the letter because it doesn't give the schools the observational perspective they're looking for.
We had one client, Guillaume, who worked with a French investment bank and sought a recommendation from a high-level executive who was also a graduate of a top-tier MBA program, thinking the executive's impressive title would lend the recommendation weight. What Guillaume had overlooked was that his work was several levels below this executive and their contact was relatively minimal.
When his consultant read the recommendation, she saw a generally positive tone hampered by generic language and a lack of tangible details. This type of letter might tell the reader that Guillaume would be a good hire at a similar company, but it didn't provide the personal connection needed to catch the attention of the admissions committee.
[Check out three ways to stand out as a b-school applicant.]
On the other hand, if the person who knows you well and is in a position to write a letter on your behalf is an alum, fantastic! In general, alumni recommenders from top schools are well regarded by competitive schools.
Some schools have special email accounts for alums to write letters of recommendation for applicants, so find out if your target MBA program has one. Just don't make the mistake of thinking that it's unique to have an alumni lobby for you. Many applicants have one these days.
All in all, it can help your application to have these types of letters or calls, but it can also hurt if not managed responsibly – and if there is an overload. If you choose wisely and coach your recommenders successfully, you can feel confident that this part of your MBA application is as strong as possible.