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:

    • Former employer's former supervisor

    • Church social or community group leader / mentor

    • Not-for-profit board director / mentor

or someone else?

Need more tips, please watch the video.


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

  1. First, adcoms' instructions (see below)

  2. Second, send me a list all of your options, explaining the pros and cons of each one, and sharing specific keyword and stories each recommender might mention in his or her letter

    • Write down what keywords and examples that you think each potential recommender could write to answer these six core questions

    1. How long s/he has known you

    2. Describe your relationship. Is / was s/he your direct supervisor? If not, what is the nature of your relationship? How frequent is/was your interaction?

    3. Specific project where s/he saw you show leadership potential

    4. Specific project where s/he saw you show teamwork skills

    5. Weaknesses / areas you need to develop further (with examples)

    6. Most important piece of constructive feedback s/he gave you (including the circumstances and your response)

    • Send all answers to me

  1. Third, schedule a session to discuss and select the best mix of recommenders who can add value to your application

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:

    • When choosing recommenders, determine whether or not they can answer this question: "What piece of constructive advice have you given to the candidate?"

    • If they have never given you constructive feedback, they probably don't know you well enough to write a helpful recommendation.

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: Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (300-word limit)

  • Stanford: Describe the most constructive feedback you have given the candidate. Please also detail the circumstances that caused you to give the feedback.

  • Wharton: Provide an example of constructive feedback you have provided to the applicant. How did the applicant receive this feedback and what efforts did the applicant make to address the concern?

  • Kellogg: What do you perceive as the candidate’s weaknesses? Provide an example of how the candidate has dealt with constructive feedback and made efforts to address these weaknesses.

HBS says

Tip #1

"Who should recommendations come from?

      • One recommendation should come from a current or recent supervisor.

      • Recommenders should be individuals who know the candidate well and who can attest to the candidate's leadership ability."

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

Tip #2

      • When choosing recommenders, determine whether or not they can answer this question: "What piece of constructive advice have you given to the candidate?"

      • If they have never given you constructive feedback, they probably don't know you well enough to write a helpful recommendation.

(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.

  • Do titles matter?

  • What about a recommendation from a professor?

  • Will a recommendation from a Stanford MBA alumna/us make more of an impact?

  • Is it better to get all three recommendations from the same company/organization, or is it better to have them come from different companies/organizations?

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

  • All applications require two recommendations. If you have been working full-time for at least six months, one recommendation should be from your current supervisor.

  • The second recommendation should be from either a former direct supervisor or from another professional associate, senior to you, who can add personal insight into your candidacy. (found at http://www4.gsb.columbia.edu/mba/admissions/applynow/apprequirements; accessed 2011/10)

Kellogg says

Who should write my letters of recommendation?

  • Ideally, your current supervisor or manager should write one of your letters of recommendation.

  • The second letter of recommendation also should be from someone who can objectively evaluate your professional performance as well as managerial and leadership potential, such as a former supervisor, previous employer, client, etc.

(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.

  • One professional recommendation from a supervisor - This does not have to be a current supervisor although it is preferred. We are seeking objectivity in the letter and we want to hear from someone who can assess both your strengths and your weaknesses. If you work for a family business or you own your own company, please try to secure a letter from a client or a bank that does business with you.

  • The second letter can be professional in nature or from an organization, club or volunteer project with which you are associated - These letters can give us a different perspective of your skill sets outside of your professional environment. There is no preference on who supplies your second letter of recommendation; our only guideline is that it should add new and valuable insights to your application.

  • Whomever you choose to write your recommendation, make sure he or she knows you well and can offer specific examples of your performance and contributions to the organization. Avoid choosing people simply based on their title or status. We are more concerned with content and substance than reputation.

(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:

  • How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?

  • How does the applicant stand out from others in a similar capacity?

  • Please give an example of the applicant's impact on a person, group, or organization.

  • Please give a representative example of how the applicant interacts with other people.

  • Which of the applicant's personal or professional characteristics would you change?

  • Please tell us anything else you think we should know about this applicant.

(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)

    • WSJ: What do applicants worry about too much?

    • Mr. Bolton: They worry most about scores, they worry about essays. I think they should spend more time thinking about references. They often think about it from the perspective of, 'I need to pick three references who show different aspects of my personality,' not from the perspective of, 'I need to pick three people who are going to be my strongest advocates.'

(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.

    • "HBS Guru" (Sandy Kreisberg) says a lot of his clients have access to the letters written by their recommenders. "I read them and in 15% of the cases they are damaging because the person either covertly doesn't like my client or the person can't execute.

    • I'll tell them to go back and tell the recommender, 'This is not helping me.' (In your own diplomatic way, of course.) A lot of times the recommender just hasn't closed the sale.

    • Here's what the recommender has to testify to in a letter of recommendation:

      • I have been in this business for X years.

      • I have worked with Y people.

      • This applicant is in the top 2% of Y because of his leadership, his initiative, his technical skills, and the impact he's had on this organization."

(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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