A recommendation letter can make or break your MBA application

BY Sydney LakeSeptember 02, 2021, 2:00 AM
Martin Laksman

MBA applications are demanding. Between collecting transcripts, taking the GMAT and/or GRE, writing essay responses, and completing interviews, the process winds up being a multi-month effort for applicants.

The one chance for applicants to have someone advocate on their behalf is the letter of recommendation, which many MBA programs require. This application element has the power to make or break admissions decisions, says Natalie Lahiff, a former admissions counselor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. And with thousands of applications coming in each year, an admissions committee doesn’t have much time to really get to know the applicant, she adds.

“Getting that third-party perspective on [applicants] is really important to figure out their personality, their passions, and their goals,” says Lahiff, who now serves as an MBA admissions consultant with Solomon Admissions. “The recommendation will either boost that application—or it could go the opposite way.”

Some schools like Yale University’s School of Management and Vanderbilt University (Owen) allow recommenders to use the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC)’s common letter of recommendation form. This streamlines the recommendation writing process by asking a set of questions that remain the same throughout each school’s application system so that “few significant changes” are needed from school to school, according to GMAC.

Other schools expect responses more specific to their own MBA program. Take New York University (Stern), for example, which asks for two of what it calls EQ endorsements. Recommenders here are asked to provide examples of applicant’s emotional intelligence and how the candidate’s “performance compares to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles.”

No matter what type of recommendation letter your school requires, it’s one of the most important—and telling—parts of the application process.

How to select your recommenders

It can be tempting to seek out a C-suite executive or school alumnus to write your recommendation letter, but MBA admissions experts agree it’s more important to have someone who knows you well speak on your behalf. 

Applicants should ask a direct supervisor or a coworker with whom they’ve closely worked. For applicants who are fearful of asking a boss who may not support their decision to attend a full-time MBA program, experts suggest asking a former manager or client if they’ve worked in a consulting setting.

“It’s always best to choose someone who is willing to go to bat for you because they’re going to be the ones who will take the time to put together a very thoughtful letter,” says Shaifali Aggarwal, a Harvard Business School graduate who is the founder and CEO of Ivy Groupe, an MBA admissions consulting firm.

Aggarwal and Lahiff both suggest having a face-to-face conversation when asking someone to be a recommender. It’s an opportunity to discuss your reasons for attending business school, your career aspirations, and applicable examples that would fit well in a letter of recommendation. 

For schools that ask for more than one letter, applicants should strive to ask recommenders that would offer complementing information and perspectives, Aggarwal adds. “It’s really a lost opportunity if both of the recommenders are going to write about the same things,” she says.

Before approaching a prospective recommender, think about whether the person is likely to support your decision to pursue an MBA.

“If you have any doubts that that person is going to have negative comments about you going to business school, don’t even approach them,” Lahiff warns. “They’re not going to write you a good recommendation.” 

And yes, negative letters of recommendation do exist, Lahiff confirms.

What a bad recommendation letter looks like

Not-so-stellar recommendation letters are those that are vague, highlight negative personality traits, or don’t match up with what an applicant has presented in other admissions materials.

If a recommender isn’t providing specific examples that corroborate the way a candidate describes themselves, this can raise red flags for the program’s admissions committee. It can lead an admissions counselor to question whether the recommender really knows that candidate, Aggarwal says. 

Many business schools provide prompts for the recommendation letter, often asking writers to rank candidates on a scale of 1 to 5 for traits such as leadership and teamwork. If a recommender ranks a candidate on the low end of the spectrum or includes commentary saying or suggesting that a candidate is arrogant or doesn’t work well with others, this can also puzzle the admissions committee.

Lahiff has seen recommenders give negative commentary in letters. “It kind of boggles my mind,” she says, “because why would you ask someone who’s going to write a recommendation like that?”

Letters of recommendation should note areas in need of improvement, but addressing these is walking a fine line. “Weaknesses and negative comments are two completely different things in the recommendation letter,” Lahiff says. 

Candidates for admission are often seeking to attend business school to address and improve their deficits, and recommenders should address how the applicant is working to address any qualities or skills that might be lacking.

“Everyone has weaknesses,” Aggarwal says. “The key there is to show how someone is addressing those weaknesses. That’s really what schools are trying to see. Can you take constructive criticism, and can you apply it?”

…and what a good one includes

Strong recommendation letters provide specific examples and stories that illustrate traits and qualities of the candidate. 

Aggarwal suggests that candidates sit down with their recommender and go through projects they’ve worked on together and specific instances that can be described in the letter. Candidates can also provide supporting documents such as a résumé and a summary of what they’ve worked on together to make the recommender’s job easier. Applicants should never write their own letter of recommendation, however, Aggarwal says.

Great recommendation letters also address the impact that candidates have made on their organizations, Aggarwal says. 

“Ultimately, when we think about business school, it’s about impact,” she says. “They want people who are a little bit more humble and self-aware and can take constructive criticism and apply it in a positive way.”

See how the schools you’re considering landed in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.