How to Choose an MBA Recommender That Strikes the Right Balance

choosing an MBA recommender

C. E. O. No doubt a very seductive set of letters. Surely a recommendation bearing that stamp will be a bulletproof addition to your applicant file, right? Maybe not.

It’s easy to go wrong when choosing recommenders for your b-school app, and many applicants do. The key is to think about what your ideal recommendation would LOOK like, and then to work backward to figure out who can write that for you. Let go of titles for a moment, and let’s think about what the perfect recommendation would look like.

We at Admissionado believe in a 70-30 balance in letters of recommendation: 70% of the letter should corroborate your best stories and accomplishments, the stuff you’ve discussed in other areas of your application, confirming your badass-ness, and the remaining 30%… well that’s the whipped cream, chocolate sauce and cherry on top. This is the stuff only someone who really KNOWS and CARES about you could say—what a great person you are, how you’ve outshone others in a similar role, your unique qualities. The insights and observations of a mentor or boss who has watched you grow and taken an interest, the potential they see in you… that’s pure gold.


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So who can write that recommendation for you? It definitely should be someone higher than you in the company hierarchy, but it usually isn’t the guy or gal at the tippy top of the pyramid, unless you are in the unique position of working directly with them. More likely, it is somebody immediately senior to you—a manager, supervisor or senior colleague that you work with every day. Once you’ve narrowed it down to this set of people, think about the following questions, in order of importance:

  1. How personal will the recommendation be? (In other words, how much does this person like me?)
  2. How intimately does this person know my work?
  3. How long has this person observed my work?
  4. How important is this person in the company?

These questions should lead you to someone with whom you have a positive relationship, have worked with for at least a year, and who has witnessed and is familiar with your key successes and achievements. Notice that considerations of title or level within the company come LAST—if you are choosing between two otherwise equally good recommenders then that’s where you can consider how the more senior title may play to your advantage.

Again, the key here is that 70-30 balance, and that can ONLY come from someone who knows your work. Also, recognize that corroborating your achievements, while the bulk of the material in the letter, is not the value-add: the 30% is where the letter can actually advance your candidacy. So ask someone who knows (and likes) you. A form letter signed with a Mont Blanc pen by Mr. VIP won’t be half as impressive as the more personal recommendation of a lower-level manager or senior colleague who truly KNOWS you.


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Essay Analysis: Stanford Graduate School of Business 2018-19