Hoping for that MBA acceptance? This advice from business school grads and an admissions official will help you get into your favorite school.
Business, it is often said, is all about relationships. Success often hinges more on whom, rather than what, you know.
That’s one reason it’s important to secure superior recommendation letters when applying to graduate business school programs. If you can show MBA admissions committees that you’ve done a great and strategic job networking with impressive people who are willing to go to bat for you and to attach their names to your application, that demonstrates that you are good at developing and managing relationships.
The reverse is also true, of course. If you choose your recommenders poorly, that reflects on your ability to maintain sophisticated networks and connections. These five proven tips for MBA recommendation letters come straight from MBAs and from business school faculty and staff: (Click here to tweet this list.)
1. Be pushy and informative
When Shael Sokolowski applied to business school, he submitted recommendations from two people — the head of a well-regarded advertising agency, where he had worked, and a marketing professor from college from whom he had learned a great deal.
“In both cases, these folks had come to know me well, personally and professionally, mentored me, and witnessed my growth,” says Sokolowski, who earned an MBA from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business in New York in 2010.
“They knew I was ambitious, and when I connected with them, I talked to them about how much I valued our relationship and noted that their assistance would help catapult me to the next stage of my career, beginning with an MBA,” says Sokolowski, who is now a group account supervisor at the marketing agency IOMEDIA.
He had to push himself to contact an individual at the ad agency who he knew was insanely busy, Sokolowski remembers.
“There’s no harm in trying. The worst scenario is no response or a ‘no’ response,” he says. “You don’t need to think big or go home either. Someone who can articulate who you are, where you’ve come from, and where you’re going — especially what you’re capable of — will do.”
2. Now isn’t the time for autobiographies
However tempting it may be, never write your own letter for your recommender, advises Shari Hubert, associate dean and director of MBA admissions at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C.
“If the person asks you to draft something for them to sign, either find another recommender or let them know that you really need for them to write it, but that you’re willing to provide them with some background information to make it easier on them to recall various projects you may have worked on,” Hubert says.
3. Don’t second-guess instructions
If an MBA program asks for only one recommendation, that means the committee only wants one recommendation letter, Hubert advises.
“If they say they would prefer not to have a professor, then do not submit one,” she says. “There are usually reasons why schools have their specific guidelines, so it’s best to always follow them.”
4. No relatives, but yes to former bosses
If you work for your family business, you shouldn’t ask your mom or dad to pen your recommendation letter, even if she or he is the company CEO, according to Hubert. “Find a client if necessary or another supervisor, non-family member,” she says.
If you don’t want your current employer to know that you are leaving the company to go to business school, it’s OK to ask a former manager to write a recommendation letter, she says.
5. Meet with your recommender
Ideally, MBA applicants and their recommenders will meet several times, so that the mentor, coach or sponsor understands where the applicant is coming from and what she or he aspires to do, says Darren Kowitt, a Columbia University MBA and admissions consultant.
“A plan that’s been percolating and brewing for months has a mellower, more refined texture,” Kowitt says.
The recommendation letter should “strongly resemble the candidate, but in the author’s words,” he says. “Too much coaching leads to interpretations of close coordination and ghost-writing, and anything too obvious there is a blatant affront to a process whose authenticity measures are hard to enforce in anything other than a gentlemen’s agreement fashion.”
Menachem Wecker is co-author, with Brandon Withrow, of “Consider No Evil: Two Faith Traditions and the Problem of Academic Freedom in Religious Higher Education” (forthcoming from Cascade Books).