Receive glowing recommendations.
Because of the competitiveness of MBA admissions, experts say it’s difficult to earn a seat at a business school without compelling recommendation letters. These letters help to humanize MBA applicants, MBA admissions consultant and former U.S. News contributor Stacy Blackman wrote in a blog post. “There’s a potential drawback, though. Because your recommendations are written by others, you have a lot less control over them.” Here are 10 ways to boost the odds of receiving stellar recommendation letters.
Choose a believer in business school.
Avoid asking someone for a recommendation letter if he or she has expressed doubts about whether people should attend business school, experts warn. Even if they like you and appreciate your work, their ambivalence about your decision to pursue an MBA may appear in their letter. “This may sound strange, but plenty of successful and well-positioned professionals won’t understand why you would want to go to business school,” Blackman wrote in another blog post.
Identify your fans.
Choose recommenders who think very highly of you and who can honestly say they believe you are exceptional, experts say. “Many schools will ask recommenders to rate candidates against their peers in the workplace; to be competitive, a candidate will need to be ranked highly on that scale,” Shaifali Aggarwal, founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting group, said via email.
“Most schools want you to choose current and previous line managers, who know you well and can judge your professional performance,” David Simpson, recruitment and admissions director of the MBA and master’s in finance programs at London Business School, wrote in an email. Simpson says MBA applicants should avoid academic references, since business schools usually prefer professional references. Some exceptions to this rule, he says, are when a school specifically requests an academic reference or when applicants lack significant work experience.
It’s crucial to give your recommenders sufficient time to write thoughtful letters, Simpson says. Experts urge MBA hopefuls to remember that potential reference authors may feel overwhelmed by professional and personal obligations, which might hinder their ability to write a recommendation quickly. Another downside of asking for recommendations last minute is that doing so may come across as disrespectful and unreasonable. “If you rush them, they will either be late submitting, or be annoyed and not be as positive as they might typically be,” Simpson says. Ajay Anand, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, says waiting too late to ask for a recommendation can cause you to miss the deadline for the application round when you wanted to be considered.
Have a conversation.
MBA applicants should request recommendation letters by phone or, ideally, in person, experts say. “We encourage candidates to spend time with their recommenders — grab coffee or lunch — and share with them why you are interested in pursuing your MBA and why you are excited about the schools to which you are applying,” Whitney Kestner, senior director of admissions at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, said via email. Experts suggest that particularly young MBA applicants request that their endorsements include evidence of maturity to mitigate concerns about whether they are ready for an MBA.
Discuss strengths and weaknesses.
Experts say you should be candid with your recommenders about what you think your top selling points and greatest weaknesses are and what skills you hope to gain with an MBA. “This can be awkward, but if you’re honest about what you think you need to work on and what you hope to gain from your MBA education, it can become a productive conversation,” Blackman wrote in a 2017 blog post.
Provide a list of accomplishments.
Give your recommenders an overview of all the achievements you want them to emphasize in their letters, experts advise. Your list of highlights needs to be short and easy to digest, experts say. “You want your recommenders to actually read this document, so try to keep it to one page and do not overload them with information,” Blackman wrote in a blog post. “It should be a helpful, quick reference.”
Experts say people who have not written an MBA recommendation letter before may need instructions. “The schools are typically looking for multi-page letters with supporting details, not one-sentence answers to their prompts,” says Anand. Experts advise being clear with your recommenders about the importance of giving specific examples. Anecdotes, experts say, are a fundamental component of an effective recommendation.
Provide your application materials.
Show recommendation writers your MBA resume and admissions essays, experts say. That allows them to write letters that complement the rest of your MBA application. “A strong application complemented with very strong recommendations can elevate a candidate to the ‘likely to be admitted’ stack,” says Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of the admissions consulting company EXPARTUS.
Ask for success stories.
You can increase the odds that your reference letters will include stories that illustrate your emotional intelligence and leadership skills — two talents that business schools highly value — if you emphasize the importance of those abilities to your reference writers. Another characteristic that MBA admissions officers typically look for is the ability to devise clever solutions to difficult problems, experts say. Jim Jacobs, founder of market research firm Focus Insite, says MBA applicants should ask potential recommenders to highlight their ingenuity in the face of adversity. “THAT will put your application top of the list ALL DAY LONG!” Jacobs wrote in an email.
Make a positive impression on MBA admissions officers.
Beyond the recommendation letters, learn how to sell yourself to MBA admissions officers. Discover tips and tricks that will help you deliver a strong elevator pitch during admissions interviews. You can research MBA programs using the U.S. News Business School Compass, and get advice on the admissions process by following U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.
Use these tips to receive outstanding recommendation letters.
— Choose a believer in business school.
— Identify your fans.
— Target supervisors.
— Ask early.
— Have a conversation.
— Discuss strengths and weaknesses.
— Provide a list of accomplishments.
— Give guidance.
— Provide your application materials.
— Ask for success stories.
More from U.S. News
Correction 11/15/17: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Whitney Kestner’s title.
Update 07/27/21: This article has been updated with new information.