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Crafting a Solid MBA Recommendation Letter

September 24, 2023 :: Admissionado

A well-written MBA recommendation letter requires many of the same elements as successful application essays: they must be unique, highlight standout qualities of the applicant, and use examples to SHOW those qualities, rather than simply telling the reader what the writer thinks about the applicant. Whether you’ve been asked to write a letter, or simply want some tips to pass on to your recommender of choice, we’ve got you covered. 

What is a letter of recommendation?

A letter of recommendation, most simply put, is a chance for the admissions committee to hear from someone who has worked with or supervised the prospective student applying for admission. Think of these letters as your third party character witnesses, vouching for your value and potential, and validating the qualities that hopefully already shine through from your essays, resume, and other application materials. 

Most schools will require applicants to submit two recommendation letters. The substance will vary—some programs have specific questions they want recommenders to answer, while others leave the choice of content up to the writer. The common theme throughout all of these letters, however, is that the program wants to hear from someone OTHER than the applicant about the applicant’s qualities, past performance, how they stack up against peers, and their potential. 

Who can write a letter of recommendation? 

The short answer is almost anyone—very few schools explicitly request that the recommender be in a specific relationship to the applicant. But the reality is that choosing a GOOD recommender almost certainly leads applicants to a few types of people. Requesting the favor of a written MBA recommendation letter is a process that requires some careful thought. 

Choosing your Recommender

The basic requirements for a recommender are an understanding of you and your work, a good relationship, and the ability to express themselves coherently in a written form. Let’s break it down:

  • Your recommender should know you well, and know you within a professional context. This should be obvious—in order to recommend you, this person needs to have a solid basis for evaluating your performance and virtues.
  • They should be a fan of you and your work, generally speaking. You don’t have to have a flawless work history with them, but they should have an overall positive picture of you.
  • The ability to communicate coherently via the written word is the final basic requirement. While a poorly written letter is unlikely to be a negative on your app (the adcom won’t blame you if your boss is bad at writing), it doesn’t add much—and we don’t have room in an MBA application for wasted space. The adcom isn’t looking for the next great American novel here, but the letter does need to coherently convey why YOU are a great candidate, and if you doubt this person’s ability to do that, even though they support you and know your work, then consider someone else. 

Who should I ask?

Given the criteria mentioned above, applicants usually end up with one of the following people, roughly ranked from most to least useful:

  • Your current supervisor, so long as they have been your supervisor for a long enough period that they have a good sense of who you are and your abilities.
  • Your most recent supervisor, if you have either recently changed positions or taken a job in which you have no obvious supervisor.
  • An executive or other work superior above the direct supervisor level that you have worked with directly on more than one occasion, such that they know you and your work. 
  • A mentor, whether formally assigned or informally in a mentor relationship. A workplace mentor is a great person to assess your growth, ability, and potential, particularly if they are in a higher position in the company’s hierarchy than you are.
  • An (internal) customer or lateral colleague—if you are the CEO and founder of your own company, it can be more difficult to figure out who to ask for a recommendation. You may still have a mentor to turn to, but if you are struggling to think of someone “above” you in the workplace, you can turn to an equal with a good basis for assessing your performance and potential. Ideally, this is someone to whom you are responsible in some way, either a customer for your work product or a member of a different reporting structure who is independent enough not to fear retaliation from you.

It is OK to get two LORs from two different people at the same company?

Who knew LORs could be so complicated? Ideally, you’d have recommendations from two different companies. However, if you’ve been at the same company for 5 years and must use two colleagues, make sure they highlight different aspects of your work. Avoid having them discuss the same projects or roles.

If that’s not possible, consider someone outside your office who can speak to your professional qualities, such as leadership or management in an extracurricular activity. This is less ideal but can work if they focus on business-related achievements.

To summarize:

  1. Ideal: 2 LORs from 2 different companies.
  2. Next Best: 2 LORs from 2 people in the same company, highlighting different aspects.
  3. Last Resort: 1 professional LOR and 1 from a non-professional source, focusing on business-related achievements.

Can I Ask an Old Boss for an LOR?

Great question. The key to a strong LOR is choosing someone who knows you well and can passionately speak to your abilities with specific examples. It’s more valuable than a recommendation from a high-ranking person who doesn’t know you well.

If your best option is a boss from 7-8 years ago, it can work, but it raises questions about why you don’t have a more recent recommender. This could concern the admissions committee about your recent professional relationships.

Ideally, use the old boss as a second LOR. Try to find a more recent supervisor who can also vouch for you. If you can’t (perhaps because you don’t want your current job to know), explain this choice in your optional essay.

I’m making a career switch and my recommendation letters are coming from non-business people. Is there any advice I can give them about writing MBA LORs?

Great question! For career switchers, strong LORs are crucial, even if they’re from non-business people. These LORs don’t need to focus on “business” but should highlight key attributes like credibility, insight, enthusiasm, and specific achievements.

A stellar LOR example:

“I can’t recommend Harvey enough for your MBA program. He is the most intelligent and creative junior technician I’ve ever worked with in my twenty years as a senior technician. I once locked him in a closet with a candy bar and a toothpick, and an hour later he walked out with a solar-powered iPad that could fly.”

This recommendation shows:

  1. Glowing enthusiasm.
  2. The idea that you are the best at what you do.
  3. A concrete story with an impressive achievement.
  4. Demonstration of MBA-related skills (creativity, intelligence, problem-solving, initiative).

Tell your recommenders they don’t need to be businesspeople; they just need to provide strong, specific examples of your abilities and achievements.

Asking for an MBA recommendation letter

Once you have settled on your recommenders, you should lose no time in asking them to write the letter. The more time you give them, the better for all involved—you will save both them and yourself the stress of a time crunch. 

When you ask someone for a letter of recommendation, remember that you are asking them for a favor. As such, make sure that you have done the legwork of figuring out what you need from them—what are the requirements of the letter for various programs? How will they submit the letter? What are the deadlines? Do not ask the recommender to do extra work on your behalf.

How to write a letter of recommendation

For recommenders WRITING letters of recommendation, or applicants looking for tips to pass on to their recommenders, here are the key steps in the process. 

  • Brainstorm! Spend some time thinking back on your experience with the applicant in question. Think about the good and the bad, recall the projects, meetings, presentations, pitches, initiatives, and any other work-related experiences you’ve shared. Don’t forget to consider feedback you’ve given them or they’ve sought out, and the result of that feedback. Write down a (hopefully long) list of memorable or standout experiences. 
  • After you’ve made that list, let’s make a second list: think about the applicant’s key qualities. What strengths do you see in them? What are the major improvements in performance you’ve seen them make over the months or years you’ve worked with them? What are their three most important qualities? Write these down, too.
  • Now that you’ve got two lists—one of experiences with the applicant, the other of their top qualities—play a matching game. Which experiences best demonstrate the qualities you see in the applicant? 
  • Write your letter based on those experiences supporting X, Y and Z qualities that you want to convey about the applicant.

MBA recommendation letter structure

Once you’ve gone through the process detailed above, and are ready to start writing, take a look at the prompts. What does the school want to know? Which qualities are the best match for the questions? If the adcom hasn’t given much guidance, use the following template:

Introduce yourself, including your position and company, and then state your relation to the applicant—when and in what capacity did you work together? For how long? Were you a direct supervisor? Indirect supervisor? Establishing your hierarchical relationship is crucial.

Rank the applicant amongst their peers, or amongst others you have worked with at the same level throughout your career, giving the adcom a sense of just how much of a superstar this person is. “In the top five out of the hundreds of associates I’ve worked with over my 20-year career” means a lot more than “one of the best.” Then name 2-3 KEY qualities of the applicant that you want to highlight (drawing from the work you’ve already done), and will discuss in the following paragraphs.

SHOW us those qualities, one by one, in the paragraphs that follow. Tell us about the project in which the applicant achieved a standout result because of X and Y actions that demonstrate quality A. Or the time they stepped up and took initiative, demonstrating quality B. These carefully chosen examples should not only demonstrate the qualities you want to highlight, but that this applicant is exceptional—not your average worker bee.

Conclude by explicitly recommending the applicant, stating your belief in their high potential and the success in their future.

Writing your own letter of recommendation

Just don’t do it! Applicants should never write their own letter of recommendation. As we pointed out earlier, the whole point of a recommendation letter is to give the adcom a valuable outside perspective, so writing your own letter can severely weaken your candidacy, not to mention bring up serious concerns about your integrity should it be discovered. Adcoms read enough of these letters to know what they SHOULD look like, and they don’t take kindly to people trying to game the system.

What if I come from a culture/company where western-style letters of recommendation are not common?

Still, don’t do it! It’s 2019, business is very internationalized, and there are very few companies where no one has ever heard of a letter of recommendation. But there are some places where the practice of supervisor recommendation is much less important in the job market—and the adcom knows about them. Your recommender might not have as much experience, and he might not be able to write a good, detailed letter, but the adcom will know that it is authentic. More to the point, if you write the letter, the adcom will know that it is inauthentic (when compared to others from your country or company). 

What if my recommender doesn’t speak English?

Don’t write your own letter! Just have the recommender write in their native language and get it translated. Or, if that just isn’t an option, translate it yourself. But that should be a last resort—you shouldn’t be touching the letter of recommendation at all!

What if my recommender would prefer that I write it and put their name on it?

Sadly, this does happen. It’s usually an indication that the recommender probably isn’t your best choice—if they aren’t willing to put in an hour or so writing, are they really that invested in your success? But sometimes this is the only option. You’re in a tough place if this is the case, but you can still make lemonade. Get as much as possible from the recommender in terms of notes and rough drafts and have someone else put it together for the recommender’s review. Even in this case, you shouldn’t be the one doing the actual writing. The application will be full of your writing, and the adcom will be able to tell if you also wrote the LOR.

Final Thoughts

Keep it simple. While you do want a strong MBA recommendation letter in your profile, it’s not the most important piece of the puzzle. Plan ahead, think hard about your best possible recommender, get the prompts into your recommender’s hands, and then devote your time to the GMAT and your essays. For better or worse, this part is mostly out of the applicant’s hands.