Who should write your MBA letters of recommendation?

What if your supervisor insists that you write the letter yourself?

Or what is you are simply unsure whom to ask? 

Answer to both questions is the same: Choose the person how can have the most impact. More concretely, who can best answer the following question:

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.

 Is it your:

or someone else?

Need more tips, please watch the video.


I ask my clients to follow three steps when selecting recommenders:

Q: I will ask my current direct supervisor to write my first letter of reference. Who should I ask to write the second one?

A: Let the questions guide you. Choose recommenders who are able to provide specific answers to the question asked by each of your target schools.

In the case of HBS, it is all about constructive feedback. To paraphrase HBS admissions dean, Dee Leopold:

For schools that do not ask recommenders to share their constructive feedback story, I would focus on questions about weaknesses. Weakness questions are often the hardest to answer with clear, detailed stories that help AdCom readers understand your ability to overcome challenges. 

Vince says

If applying to Stanford, HBS, Columbia, Tuck and other top schools, you should select recommenders who have provided you with meaningful constructive feedback since that is probably the most important question adcoms ask recommenders to answer.  

HBS says

Tip #1

"Who should recommendations come from?

(found at http://www.hbs.edu/mba/faq/#app_recommendations; accessed 2011/10)

Tip #2

(found at http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/Pages/from-the-admissions-director.aspx#post-2012-09-17; accessed 2012/10)

Tip #3

Who Should Write Your Recommendations?

Every so often something happens in an information session that causes a giant light bulb to go on in my head. As I'm sure you realize, we do tend to get asked the same questions over and over and I know I can be guilty of jumping too quickly to "my answer" and not listening as closely as I might to the question. This summer, something finally clicked about this issue of recommenders, particularly "The Third One."

Our instructions have been clear, but possibly only to us. We ask for three recommendations and we've pushed out guidance that we'd like two to come from professional sources. Thus, we've often been asked the question, "so who should write my third recommendation?" We've said all the normal and sensible things, like "ask someone who knows you well enough to answer the questions we pose to recommenders." That's true. Really, truly, true. But I think we have unintentionally signaled that this mysterious "Third Recommender" should come from a place in your life which is not the workplace. So the questions we were being asked were really trying to puzzle out if we wanted them from a professor, from community service, from trusted family friends. Who knew?

So, in the hope that this will add clarity, let me re-phrase our guidance: we are fine if ALL the recommendations come from the workplace. Even from the same firm. We are not trying to add the additional hurdle of needing to hear a voice from every phase of your past and present life. If it's not possible to get ANY recommendation from your current workplace, you may wish to explain this situation briefly in the Additional Information section of the application. This is NOT an unusual occurrence - we don't expect every boss in the world to be excited about losing top talent to business school. As is always the case, use your best judgment about this.

It's true, we are not a School which asks for a recommendation from a peer. However, if there is an important part of your candidacy which can only be validated by a peer (a start-up, for instance), that's a fine choice.

Meanwhile, the old standard wisdom is still true: if you're wondering about whether a choice is a good one, take another look at the questions we pose. If the person you are considering can answer the questions, you're on the right track.

(found at http://www.hbs.edu/mba/admissions/blog.html#post-2012-08-13; accessed 2012/09)

Stanford says

Choose individuals who have had significant direct involvement with you within the last few years.

Encourage recommenders to write letters specifically for this application since outdated and/or general recommendations typically do not strengthen an application.

Strictly academic Letters of Reference generally are less helpful in our evaluation.

(found at http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/mba/admission/letters_of_reference.html; accessed 2011/10)


We often are asked how you should select recommenders.

The short answer to these questions is that we focus on the content of the letter, not the recommender's title, alumni affiliation, company/organization, or status. This means you should choose a recommender who knows you well, and who will make time to write a detailed, thoughtful letter of reference. Regardless of the recommender's title or position, if the person does not know you well, and does not take the time to provide specific anecdotes and candid examples, the letter will not strengthen your application.

All recommendations should provide evidence of your impact on the organization and should demonstrate your ability to learn and grow. They should come from individuals in a position to evaluate your professional competence and personal character. Among your two Professional/Workplace References, at least one should come from your current direct supervisor. (If this is not possible because, for example, you have just moved to a new job, or because you do not wish your direct supervisor to know that you are applying to business school, then simply include a brief but specific explanation in the Additional Information section of the application). Your second Professional/Workplace Reference could come from anyone in a position to provide a perspective on your work, such as a client, board member, or a previous supervisor.

(found at http://www.gsb.stanford.edu/mba/admission/dir_references-p.html; accessed 2011/10)

Columbia says

Kellogg says

Who should write my letters of recommendation? 

(found at http://www.kellogg.northwestern.edu/programs/fulltimemba/faqs.aspx#22; accessed 2011/10)

Chicago Booth says

We ask that all applicants submit two letters of recommendation.

(found at http://www.chicagobooth.edu/fulltime/admissions/letters.aspx; accessed 2011/10)

MIT Sloan says

Please choose recommenders who are able to provide specific answers to the following questions:


(found at http://mitsloan.mit.edu/mba/admissions/apply-here/instructions/; accessed 2012/10)

Berkeley Haas says

We require two letters of recommendation and prefer that at least one come from a current employer. Select individuals with whom you have had considerable professional interaction, such as your supervisor or a major client. The title or status of those you select is not important. What does matter is how closely your letter writers have worked with you and whether they can attest to your value as an employee, your professional accomplishments, and your personal qualities and interpersonal skills in an organizational context. For this reason, we strongly discourage academic references. Letters of recommendation from co-workers, someone you have supervised, relatives, or personal and family friends are inappropriate and can be detrimental to the review of your application. Please do not submit more than two letters, and if you choose not to obtain a letter from your current supervisor, be certain to explain why.

(found at http://mba.haas.berkeley.edu/admissions/requirements.html; accessed 2011/10)

UCLA Andereson says

What is important isn’t necessarily the title of the person writing the letter, but how well they know you in the workplace. At UCLA Anderson, we look to your letters of recommendation to help us assess from a third-party perspective your leadership and management potential, fit with the program, interpersonal skills and teamwork abilities. In most cases, someone you have reported to on a day-to-day basis can provide more insight into these qualities than someone higher up in the organization who may not interact with you regularly.

Prepare your recommender as much as possible.  Give them ample time to prepare a strong letter, and perhaps give them a deadline to have the letter prepared by. Provide your recommender with a copy of your resume and remind them of your key accomplishments.

Who to ask? At UCLA Anderson, we prefer professional recommendations over academic. Preferably, you should have a letter from your direct supervisor. However, we understand that sometimes candidates are not yet comfortable letting their employer know they are pursuing an MBA. Indirect supervisors (people who have overseen projects you’ve worked on, a manager from another department, etc.) are a good option, as well as former employers, clients (especially for those of you who are self-employed) and supervisors from extracurricular organizations.

(found at http://mbablogs.anderson.ucla.edu/mba_admissions/2012/10/how-to-source-strong-letters-of-recommendation.html; accessed 2012/10)

As you brainstorm  your options, please read this interview with Derrick Bolton (assistant dean and director of MBA admissions at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business)

(found at http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203388804576613400483449420.html; accessed 2011/10)

What does it mean for a recommender to be your "strongest advocate?" Please read this quote from another admissions consultant. 

(found at http://money.cnn.com/2010/09/22/pf/college/mba_admissions.fortune/?section=money_latest; accessed 2010/09)

Information is subject to change. Please verify all data with the schools.

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