The Mother of all International MBA FAQs: How to Manage Your Letters of Recommendation

Richard Ivey School of Business, Canada (Photo: Lars Plougmann)

For many MBA applicants, completing an MBA application can become a daunting process for two main reasons.

  1. There are too many independent components to be taken care of (application form, resume, essays, interview, recommendations, GMAT, TOEFL). The preparation time for each can range from a few hours to several months.
  2. Some of the application components (like the standardised test scores and recommendations) have an external dependency. Apart from chasing deadlines, youd also be chasing other multiple teams individuals to ensure that you get all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in place before time runs out.

In this article, well cover a few basic points related to the letters of recommendation. Interestingly, nobody has had any questions about this yet. So I am coming up with my own FAQs this time that explain why you shouldnt neglect your MBA recommendations (LoRs).

Q1. What are the recommenders expected to do?

When an Admissions Officer is evaluating applications, a majority of the data points she gets have been provided by the applicant. That can be biased. In order to balance it out, business schools require someone else who knows the applicant to provide additional perspectives that can help the AdCom get a better idea of the applicants track record and potential.

There are two things that letters of recommendation can do,

  1. Recommenders are expected to provide inputs on the applicants profile concerning the following: problem solving skills, teamwork, industry knowledge, managerial exposure, leadership potential, personality traits and other aspects. The process requires time and effort, as it is not simply a matter of listing out all the adjectives that define a good employee.
  2. Recommenders can also use the opportunity to talk about aspects that may not have been covered in the other components (like essays, resume). For instance, a b-school application might ask you to submit three essays and the word-count for each may be around 300-400 words. Its a big challenge to highlight all that you have to offer within those word limits.

Q2. How should I choose my recommenders?

Its good to choose recommenders who know you and your work well. Someone youve been interacting frequently (or on a day-to-day basis). As a general rule of thumb, professional contacts are better than personal contacts as they can talk about aspects that would be directly relevant to the business degree you are applying for. So your immediate managers (across projects or roles) are a good choice.

There can be exceptions. For instance, if you have spent substantial time with an NGO on a social initiative and made a big splash (hopefully, in a positive manner), then the founder of organisation could provide a strong recommendation. This may be a great way to break the boundaries and constraints of your official role and display all the wonderful qualities that you have.

The websites of business schools often specifically list down the guidelines for choosing recommenders and what they expect in the recommendations. Ensure that your choice of recommenders and the content is aligned with the school guidelines.

Q3. I can get a recommendation from this really impressive guy who is at a senior position in my company (or heads another company or is well-respected in the industry). Should I approach him?

The MBA recommendation letters (pretty much like the MBA resume) are very different from recommendations that you might use while applying for jobs. So you are not going to use photocopies of a one-size-fits-all letter and send them across to 10 b-schools. For most b-schools, the recommendation filling process happens online (like the rest of the application).

So when it comes to b-school recommendations, name-dropping is not a good idea. A celebrity recommender might give you one out of politeness (or just to get you off their back). But if they end up providing superficial comments, or worse, something that conflicts with what you have been diligently trying to portray in the rest of your application, you are taking a big risk.

Of course, if the recommender is a celebrity AND knows you intimately (platonically and professionally speaking), then by all means rope him in.

Q3. I have not shared my MBA plans with my manager as I think it might jeopardise my promotion, bonus, increment and Diwali gift. What should I do?

Some companies might consider their employees plans to go for higher education as a positive development. A few consulting firms actually have a standardised HR process where their employees can take a sabbatical and return to their employers to tackle new challenges with their newly acquired skills and qualifications. Unfortunately, many companies view it as a loss and might give their enterprising employees a tough time during the transition phase.

For such reasons, if it becomes difficult to get recommendations from the current manager, there are a few other options. Try asking a client, another senior team member, a previous manager that youve worked with, or someone from a previous organisation. If you have made a few friends along your professional journey, you will surely have several well-wishers who can write good letters of recommendations for you.

Are there any other burning questions in your mind that youd like us to address in subsequent posts? Paste them in the comments below. Also, check out the earlier posts in this FAQ series if you’ve missed any.

Author Sameer Kamat is the founder of MBA Crystal Ball, an admissions consulting venture and author of the bestselling MBA book Beyond The MBA Hype where he shares insights and pitfalls that aspirants should be aware of before they embark on their international MBA journey. He completed his MBA from the University of Cambridge in 2005. You can connect with him on Twitter @kamatsameer