The Tuesday Q&A: Can I Ask an Old Boss for an LOR?

[The following question came up after our recent webinar: Letters of Recommendation, 101.]

QUESTION:

I am applying for MBA programs this year and am trying to figure out who to reach out to for a recommendation. Is it OK to ask for a letter of recommendation from my boss with whom I worked 7-8 years back, or do I need a more recent supervisor?

ANSWER:

Great question. But before I answer it specifically, I want to make one very important point about LORs: always ask the person who knows you best. That’s the secret sauce. The magic formula, if you will. Don’t get swayed by the guy with the fancy title, thinking that’s gonna look more impressive in your application. If that guy doesn’t know you, getting an LOR from him will be as effective as getting one from the barista who serves up your morning Green Tea.

Do you want to know what impresses the adcom the most? The guy who talks about you and your experience passionately. The guy who wants you to succeed, who will go to bat for you, and who shows that with specific examples and powerful language in his letter. So even if you’ve got the choice between, say, Michael Dell or your direct supervisor who’s seen you work and knows what you’re made of to write you that LOR… yup, go for the supervisor. Every single time.

Now, what if the guy who knows you best was your boss back in 2004? Well, sure. If he’s the best guy you’ve got, why not? But let me warn you: if you have to go back 7-8 years to find someone who’s willing to go to bat for you, you’re doing something wrong.

Is there no one you’ve worked with more recently that can write you a recommendation? Not one person? Because that’s gonna raise some flags for the adcom. “Why doesn’t this guy have a more recent boss to sing his praises? What’s he been doing since 2004?!”

See what I’m saying?

I’d say the old boss is a great option for a second LOR, but if you can, let’s find someone a little…fresher to vouch for ya.  And if you can’t (if, say, you don’t want your current job to know you’re heading back to school), then, yes, go with the old boss. But you’re going to want to explain that choice in your optional essay.

Good luck,

— Jon Frank

HBS: 5 Things You Need to Know Before You Apply