Why MBA letters of recommendation are so important

An MBA letter of recommendation (LOR) is a unique component of your MBA application for admission. Unlike any other written materials submitted with your application, a letter of recommendation seeks direct insights into your candidacy from an external source – your MBA recommenders. This makes it a fundamentally different tool for evaluating your MBA competitiveness. Petia Whitmore is the founder of the MBA admissions consulting firm My MBA Path. In this article, she explains the role of the letters of recommendation in the admissions process, provides tips, and includes insights from Amy Mitson, Co-Executive Director, Admissions and Financial Aid, at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.

In short

Who should be your recommender for your MBA letter of recommendation?

Schools will ask for one or two letters of recommendations, depending on their application requirements. In the world of MBA admissions, there is an expectation that these will be professional recommendations and not academic ones. Schools prefer that at least one of your recommenders is your current supervisor. Amy advises that you choose a recommender “who has supervised you professionally, so this is often someone who is more senior to you and who has had a chance to do formal appraisals of your work in a professional setting and sharing this with the admissions committee can have a big impact.” (01:16)

Schools do understand this can put candidates in a delicate situation as announcing your plans to pursue an MBA to your supervisor may have negative implications for your current job. If it’s truly impossible to approach your current supervisor for a recommendation, a former supervisor is your next best choice. 

What is most important in choosing a recommender is how familiar the person is with you and your work. “It needs to be evident in the letter of recommendation that this person knows you,” says Amy Mitson. (00:19)

Schools are not evaluating your recommender for admission; they are evaluating you! Selecting a recommender with an impressive title will not add value to the recommendation unless this person knows you very well. Selecting the person who can speak from extensive, first-hand experience about your accomplishments, abilities, and leadership potential is what has the potential to make your recommendation a standout. As Amy summarizes, “A strong recommendation is one where the relationship is evident.” (00:41)

What makes for a great MBA letter of recommendation?

In one word: examples, examples, examples! In the world of MBA recommendations, statements don’t go nearly as far as actual anecdotes of challenges you solved, solutions you devised, and contributions you made to team success. Simply saying that a candidate was a top performer is not helpful. Describing the instances when your contributions made you stand out from your peers is what MBA admissions committees look for. Details are the most valuable component of a strong letter of recommendation, which is why it’s important to choose someone who is very familiar with your work and prepared to put in the time to write a really strong letter. 

Amy confirms the importance that your recommenders “can respond specifically about the things you have accomplished, your strengths and weaknesses, and your growth.” (00:31)

Why do MBA programs require letters of recommendation?

Getting the perspective of a third party helps MBA admissions gain a more well-rounded picture of you. One of the most important aspects of your candidacy that schools are evaluating is your leadership experience and continued leadership potential. Through your recommender’s input, the school can gain valuable insights into your work style, contributions, and impact. MBA letters of recommendations also ask how your performance compares to that of your peers – another important aspect of understanding how you stand out from the crowd. 

Amy shares, “The letter of recommendation is confirming and supporting things that you have shared in your resume, other things that you have talked about in the essays or the interview. And then I have this additional voice in the application that highlights things that you have already shared.” (02:51)  

What can you do to get a great MBA letter of recommendation?

I will begin by emphasizing that writing your own letters of recommendation is never ever something you should do, but having a conversation with your recommenders is a great way to kick off the process and make it be smooth and productive. Sharing your MBA dream and what you aspire to do will help them understand your motivation and the importance of the letter of recommendations in your application journey. 

Highlighting some of your proudest accomplishments and instances of professional growth that they have witnessed will help refresh their memory and help them think of the examples that will become part of the letter. 

Giving your recommenders enough time to submit means you will want to have this conversation as early as possible. Many candidates provide a deadline for their recommenders that is earlier than the actual application deadline. This gives them a buffer should something unexpected arise.  

Finally, following up regularly but respectfully – for example, two weeks before the internally agreed-upon deadline and then a week before if the LOR is still pending – will help ensure that the LORs make their way into your application file by the deadline and will save you a last-minute emergency.

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