Why MBAs are writing their own recommendation letters

July 15, 2013, 5:32 PM UTC

(Poets&Quants) — When the letters of recommendation for Christopher arrived in the admissions office of a top-ranked business school, they were just about perfect.

The recommenders raved about the candidate’s leadership abilities and team skills. They praised his initiative, curiosity and motivation. And they did so in unusually detailed anecdotes that allowed the applicant to come alive.

Problem was, his recommenders had never written those favorable words. Instead, the letters were drafted by the applicant himself.

Christopher, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy, makes no apologies for writing his own recommendations nor does he believe that a school can do much about it.

“Who’s going to know?” Christopher recently graduated from one of the top three business schools in the U.S. “With the number of applications coming in, schools aren’t going to compare writing styles between the recommendation letters and the applications. Obviously, if they did that, I wouldn’t have been in business school.”

Christopher’s handiwork is not an isolated case. A recently published survey by the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) found that 38% of applicants were asked to write their own recommendation letters. Most admission consultants, however, believe the number is much higher — with as many as six out of 10 letters written by MBA applicants.

Still, even the survey results surprised many admission directors because they believed their schools were getting fairly candid, third party assessments of MBA candidates. “We were aware of the fact that some applicants are asked to write their own recommendations, but I wouldn’t have guessed it would be that high,” says Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “I don’t have a problem with a student sitting down and talking to a recommender, but I am trying to wrap my head around the authenticity of the recommendations now.”

Authenticity, however, may be fairly elusive, according to several MBA applicants and admission consultants. “Business school applicants are often told by recommenders, ‘You write it, and I’ll sign it,’” concedes Adam Hoff, of Amerasia Consulting Group. “When I first got involved in the business school arena four years ago, I was stunned. I couldn’t believe the number of people who were writing their own letters of recommendation and who then brought the letters back to a consultant to help them with it.”

Christopher, who asked that his alma mater not be named because “if they found out, there would be a witch hunt,” explains that his direct supervisor was not fluent in English. “He had no clue how to construct a recommendation letter,” he says in defense of his actions. “Because of that, I wrote the letter in proper English and made it sound like I’m a good employee, which I am. I didn’t embellish, and he was fine with it.”

The employer signed off on the letter. But many recommendations don’t even get this stamp of approval. Some MBAs write, sign, and send off their own references. “An MBA’s motive is to get into school, and they don’t want that left to someone’s whimsical evaluation,” Christopher explains. “If you messed up at work the day before, then it’s not going to be good — especially if they mail it themselves, and you don’t know what they’ve said.”

In general, of course, getting a strong letter in support of a candidate’s MBA application is a highly collaborative process. “People don’t like to write recommendations,” says admissions consultant Sanford Kreisberg of HBSGuru.com. “It’s kind of like jury duty. No one wants to do it. It’s imposed on you. There is nothing in it for them. Collaboration is the standard.”

The extent to which admission consultants advise their clients on recommendation letters may also surprise some school officials. Kreisberg says he pays as much attention to the quality of a recommendation letter as he does to the application essays.

“It’s an open secret in the admissions world that a lot of candidates get to look at their recommendation letters beforehand,” says Jeremy Shinewald, founder and president of mbaMission, an MBA admissions consulting firm. ”We’re not going to sit there and line edit something, but we will do a sanity check to make sure there’s nothing in there that can be harmful.”

While the AIGAC survey doesn’t dig into how many students actually write their own letters, the percentage is likely high, believes Anna Ivey, founder of Anna Ivey Consulting and AIGAC president. Candidates are generally expected to request letters from their direct supervisors, but if the boss pushes back or refuses to write one, things can get tricky.

“Even applicants trying to act ethically find themselves in this bind,” she says. Some schools suggest contacting an extracurricular supervisor in lieu of a reluctant boss. “So if they’re leading a Boy Scout troop on the weekends, are they supposed to use their scout leader’s recommendation instead?” Ivey asks. “Realistically, I don’t think that’s the answer.”

Letter writing can be particularly problematic for non-U.S. candidates. The study, based on 377 responses from MBA applicants, found that international candidates are twice as likely to be asked to write their own letters. A whopping 61% of applicants in Japan, for example, said they were asked to draft their own letters of recommendation.

Even if international recommenders are fluent in English, the art of writing a solid recommendation letter can get lost in translation. Different cultures value different traits and this comes through in the letters, says Chioma Isiadinso, CEO of MBA consultancy Expartus and AIGAC board member. “American recommendations are a bit over the top — everyone is brilliant, amazing, and incredible. German ones tend to be very direct, ‘Hans did a good a job.’” However, she says most admissions teams can pick up on cultural nuances. And part of the responsibility falls on the applicants to educate their recommenders about each school’s values and why they’re a good fit.

The pressure on MBAs to write their own recommendation letters also varies by industry. Half of the MBA applicants with finance or accounting backgrounds were asked to write their own letters, compared with only 28% in technology. “You’d think it’d be an employer in a small rural town somewhere, but more often than not, it’s the consultants at top-tier firms or bankers or private equity professionals — it’s part of the culture,” says Isiadinso, who previously worked as an admissions official at Harvard Business School.

Men (43%) are also significantly more likely to be asked to draft their own recommendations than women (27%).

For the most part, business schools are reluctant to admit there’s a problem. Some admissions professionals claim they didn’t know it was happening, a position that admissions consultants find hard to believe. “That’s pretty naïve,” says Kreisberg.

Even among schools that acknowledge the issue, most would be hard-pressed to take action. “It definitely happens and the survey proves it,” says Alex Kleiner, a second-year MBA student at Harvard Business School. “It’s something I would never feel comfortable doing. But if you’re an admissions director, I don’t really know how you combat that. You could be more explicit and say, ‘If we find out your application will be rejected automatically. Other than being really tough, I don’t think you can stop it.”

Many schools prefer to push the issue under the rug. This don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach applies to students, too. Christopher, the former MBA student, says the motivation for silence is obvious: “You could be tossed out for academic dishonesty. Once you’re in, nobody cares.”

However, consultants and some top B-schools are toying around with ideas to curb self-written recommendations. Stanford already makes it explicitly clear that “drafting or writing your own letter of reference, even if asked to do so by your recommender, is improper and a violation of the terms of the application process.”

Admissions consultant Anna Ivey proposes a common reference form, which could significantly cut the workload for recommenders, making them less likely to push the letter back on MBAs. “Some recommenders have to write more words than the applicants’ essays. If you multiply that times three, four, five, it’s as if the recommender is applying to business school,” she says. “That’s asking too much.”

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