The letters of recommendation…that one component of the MBA application that probably seems the most out of your control, the most mysterious, and the most likely to be a crapshoot.
Sure, all this is true about letters or rec far too often. But the thing is, this doesn’t have to be the case. There actually are some pretty hard and fast rules to ensure that your letters of rec absolutely shine, but candidates often leave their recommenders out in the dark (pun intended). So, here are some tips to help you guide your recommenders to make sure your letters of rec aren’t just hot…but glowing HOT!
1. Choose Someone Who Knows You Well!
Okay, this first tip is for you more than for your recommender, but this is actually where most applicants go wrong. And quite frankly, once you’ve chosen the wrong person to write your letter of recommendation, the train to a glowing letter is already permanently derailed.
Your recommender should be someone who has worked with you closely, likely as a manager or direct supervisor (no matter how low ranking), who can comment on your delivery as well as your leadership potential. If you are an Associate Product Manager and your direct supervisor is a (regular) Product Manager, then she should write your letter! No escalating to her boss’s boss so the VP of Product writes your letter!
The biggest mistake people make when choosing recommenders is going for someone with a fancy shmancy title or who is publicly recognized. I know what you’re thinking… “But wouldn’t it be cooler if I had some high ranking person in senior management write my letter? What if it’s a name that the admissions committee is bound to know?!” It doesn’t matter if you at a product manager at Facebook and managed to brag to Mark Zuckerberg over coffee a couple times. He should not write your letter! We are sure that Mark would only have nice things to say about you in that letter, but nice things without specific examples, context or comparison relative to your peers will make even his letter of rec in your favor forgettable.
2. Examples and Stories
Now that you have chosen the right person, be sure to guide your recommender to provide specific examples and stories to back up all their wonderful claims about you. Sharing results alone is not enough — the admissions committee can read your resume for that. Your recommender will need to help the admissions committee visualize you in action as you worked your butt off to deliver those results.
It’s one thing to make a claim, it’s another thing to give an example to support that claim, and it’s a whole other thing to share a story to support the claim. It’s the difference between, “Jimmy has great leadership skills,” “Jimmy constantly motivates his team to surpass their metrics,” and “Jimmy constantly motivates his team to surpass their metrics by proactively partnering with them once he has completed his own tasks. For example, Jimmy stayed late with one of his teammates every night for two weeks leading up to the launch of a new product feature despite being done with his portion of the project.” See this difference??
3. Context and Comparison
Assuming you have chosen your recommender well, they will probably brag about you! But where most recommenders go wrong is saying nice stuff without any context to ground their claims, at which point nice stuff just becomes fluff — looks good but has no substance.
When briefing your recommenders, please guide them to contextualize your deliverables with how you performed against time, circumstances, resources and any other factors that can determine your metrics. It’s the difference between, “Sally led her team to bring the company an additional $3M in revenue last quarter,” and “Sally led her team to surpass their sales target by 40% by bringing the company an additional $3M in revenue last quarter, despite being given this role as interim team lead due to her direct supervisor’s unexpected illness midway through the quarter.” BIG difference, right??
Now for the comparison element, we also want to see how awesome Sally is compared to her peers. Yeah, Sally is friggin awesome, but is she just a big fish in a pond full of other big fish? The admissions committee won’t know unless you encourage your recommenders to situate your awesomeness relative to other people they have seen in your roles over the course of their career.
For example, “Chris is a very proactive employee who often takes initiative” is, of course, a nice thing to say. But “Chris is absolutely the most proactive employee I have supervised in my 4 years as a manager at Company X. He constantly outperforms his teammates, which has earned him a raise in compensation every quarter to date,” (followed by a story, of course) is gonna stick in the ears of the admissions committee, who should have big cheesy smiles at this point.
Is the mysterious letter of recommendation suddenly looking like less of a crapshoot? Be sure to sit down with your recommenders over coffee or something after work one day for the sole purpose of discussing your business school application. And don’t hesitate to check in with them as they are writing your letter — They want you to succeed, so they will be receptive to this (gentle) advice from you.
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