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MBA Letters of Recommendation: How It Works & What to Do

Emily Swenson
Emily Swenson
January 18, 2021
Learn why admissions committees want letters of recommendation, who to ask, and what to provide them with! Plus, a free request template and a real example.
Est. Reading Time: 11 minutes

WHAT purpose do recommendation letters serve and are they important?

MBA programs require at least one recommendation, and many of them will ask for two or three. The general purpose of them is to get a bit of a different perspective on what you are like as a person and employee. As Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB’s Admissions Director, said, “Recommendations are particularly important – it’s one time we can get someone’s outside opinion looking in, other than your own, of what you’ve actually accomplished. I am looking for those fine details about ‘what did this person do, how are they distinctive?’ There are 50 different ways to be a leader but tell me a couple of them.”

So are these recommendation letters important? The simple answer: yes. Recommendation letters are definitely important because they help validate any claims you may have made about yourself in the other parts of your application. Considering that, you want to ensure that the letters will be compelling and written by people who actually have key insights to your accomplishments and working style.

WHO should I ask?

It is crucial that the letters of recommendation are written by people who are actually familiar with your working style and achievements (e.g. don’t ask your mom to write this letter… though, I’m sure she’d give a glowing recommendation). Ideally you should ask your direct supervisor for a letter of reference, assuming of course that your boss is truly familiar (and impressed with) your work. However, it can be difficult for some candidates to ask for this without risking their job. 

If you’re not able to ask a direct supervisor, try to find an old supervisor or perhaps an impressive client who can speak to your work. Then, be sure to explain why you chose someone else to write on your behalf in the essay. It is important to address why you did this; otherwise, schools may be worried that you are trying to hide a performance issue.

As a final note, be sure you select someone who will be able to write a fantastic letter of recommendation that points to what makes you a differentiated and compelling candidate. You might feel great about getting a letter of recommendation from someone with an impressive title, but if the recommendation is lackluster, it can actually hurt your application!

WHEN should I ask?

The answer to when you should ask someone can vary, but I ideally like to provide my recommenders two to three months of advanced notice. I would try to give them at least a month though, especially if they will be writing more than one for you. It is likely that your recommenders have busy schedules of their own that they are trying to maintain, so giving them some time to read through any materials you have provided them and then craft the letter will be beneficial for both of you. Plus, it will give you a little time to ensure that they make the time to write it. I personally always like to have a back-up recommender in mind just in case something falls through (you just never know!).

HOW do I ask them?

Contact the person you would like to ask either through email, or in person if you feel comfortable, and ask if they would be willing to write a strong letter of recommendation. I would specifically use the word “strong” when asking and then pay attention to how they respond; you want to make sure that they feel comfortable doing this because a generic or lackluster letter can actually hurt more than help. 

Once they have confirmed that they are willing to write a letter for you, set up an appointment with them (preferably in person) to walk them through the process, the different schools they would be writing to, and an outline what you are hoping for. There is a template provided at the bottom of this article that you can use to write your request!

WHAT do I give them?

Once your recommender has agreed to write the letters, it is great to provide them with the following:

  • A current resume
  • The area of study you plan to focus on (e.g. Marketing)
  • Your long- and short-term goals after the program and why the MBA will help you get there
  • The list of programs and their respective deadlines
  • The instructions for how to submit the letter
  • Any noteworthy projects you spear-headed or relevant results
  • Any committees or outside activities you’re involved in
  • Anything that you want them to focus on (e.g. leadership style, accomplishments, particular projects, etc.)
  • Some examples of recommendation letters for inspiration (OPTIONAL – I would do this if your recommender isn’t sure what they are aiming for)

Personally, I’ve loved using Google Drive as a place to house any relevant documents or notes because then you can easily share that file. However, you can also attach the documents to an email and write any relevant points in the body of the email. It seems like a lot of info to provide them with, so be sure to keep the information you send easy to scan and organized for them. You’re not writing a novella… you’re just providing them with resources to make their task easier.

One final thing that’s worth noting is that you should absolutely NOT write the letter of recommendation for them or provide too much direction. The entire purpose of the recommendation letter is to get an outside perspective on your performance and you do not want to cross the line and move into unethical territory.

WHAT is the proper etiquette once everything is submitted?

Once everything is submitted, be sure to say “Thank you!” either via email or a handwritten card and let them know when you expect to hear back from the school. I personally think cards are a nice touch because they are less common these days and more personal (here are a few of my go-to’s: T.Hanks and whatever is cute from Target). However, use your best judgment to choose how best you should say it. 

Then, be sure to follow up with your recommenders regardless of the outcome! You may feel like you are bothering the person by continuing to write them after the fact, but the reality is that the biggest time obligation for them was probably writing the letter itself. Most people want to feel like they have had an impact on your journey, so keeping them in loop, even if that means you’ve been waitlisted or did not make the cut this time around, will make them feel valued and appreciated. Just be sure to always express your appreciation for the effort they put in on your behalf!

 

TEMPLATE: REQUESTING THE LETTER

Hi [REFERENCE’S NAME],

I am reaching out to you because I am preparing to apply to MBA programs. Part of the application process is to provide letters of recommendation, and I feel that you have contributed a lot to my professional development and would be a reputable source to attest to the quality of my work and leadership style.

I have really been enjoying working with you and have learned a lot from you, especially when we worked on [PROJECT]. I think that you would be a great person to vouch for my skills in [KEY AREAS] and my leadership abilities. I feel that an MBA program would help me [REASON FOR PURSUING AN MBA], and I would especially value your support in pursuing this goal.

I have attached my current resume and would be happy to answer any questions you may have. The earliest deadline for submitting the letter is [DATE]. I know you are busy, so if this is too soon, I completely understand. Please let me know as soon as possible if you are comfortable writing a strong letter of recommendation like this for me. If so, I would love to set up a meeting to walk you through the process and make it as easy as possible for you.

Sincerely, 

[YOUR NAME]

 

RECOMMENDATION EXAMPLE

Below is an example of one of my own letters of recommendation from a previous boss of mine. I am from Wisconsin but was working in Budapest, Hungary for a local venture capital firm that invested in and developed Eastern European tech start-ups. He was answering questions that the university specifically asked rather than having to write a free-form letter. He is Hungarian, M.D., and an entrepreneur who has a much more colorful/entrepreneurial style of writing. I don’t have access to the original questions, but I think you can understand the nature of the questions from the answers.

  1. I have known Emily Swenson for two years now. She worked for a year as my Community Manager for my startup, Traction Tribe (located in Budapest, Hungary).
  2. Emily was an excellent, unique kind of colleague. She not only performed way over my expectations in her role as keeping together a community of young entrepreneurs, but also brought a fresh, very positive cultural element to the group. Her vibrant, playful personality is what we miss every day since she left. She was always confident and precise in getting the job done alone, but her qualities shine the brightest in teamwork. Her natural-born creativity can be turbo-boosted in the appropriate team.
  3. She's not only sensitive to feedback, Emily regularly requests it herself. Taking the given feedback into consideration is a necessary quality for everyone, but I don't recall any other colleague of mine who can integrate such feedback into her personality as quickly as Emily did. She has an honest inner drive for being better vocationally and fitting to the team around her more seamlessly. She has a very good balance between being sufficiently confident at work but still being open for suggestions of improvement and not being a know-it-all. I never saw her letting everyday work-related stress undermine her performance. She reminds me of a duck in that when she is in a stressful situation, she seems calm above the surface, but underneath the water her feet are beating to take care of business. A personality like Emily's is naturally seeking opportunities to develop.
  4. Although Emily's open to constructive feedback, she would some guidance how to improve some professional skills. She's a wonderful, curious type, but her curiosity must be fulfilled, her questions must be listened to - oftentimes finally she finds the answers herself if the right directions is pointed out. She would absolutely benefit from a business program to help her hone her raw and natural skillset even further. 
  5. I saw Emily leading fifty-some overly busy, desperate know-it-all folks - and she did an awesome job at it. Trust me, she could even inspire an entire death row if she had to. I wonder if she could ever NOT inspire anyone. Especially considering the large cultural gap, Emily was exceptional. She really leads with her character, and everyone else follows. She came in and within the first few weeks it was clear that she is a natural leader. She was a huge asset to our team in that regard. You cannot teach things like values and character, and Emily has these without any effort.
  6. n/a
  7. I think no matter where Emily has been or goes, she always has those managerial qualities others recognize and envy. She’s very much a creative type, so I cannot imagine her as a corporate soldier who is satisfied with doing the bare minimum. It would really be a waste of her talent. However if she can work in a space where she can be challenge and improve herself/others, then she is one of the best I can name. I think her motivation is hitting the target too. She always wants to push herself to go further, do better, and be better. It’s in her spirit.

I chose to pair his recommendation with another from a colleague who attended Harvard and was more “mainstream” in some ways because I thought the two created a nice balance. What I loved about Peter’s recommendation, shown above, is that he answered the questions in a way that would make me stand out amongst a crowd, it was clear that he knew my work inside and out, and he drew out my examples of leadership. He also pointed out how an MBA program would benefit me, which is important to the committee!


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