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By Brian Burnsed
Get an admissions expert's take on finding the right person to vouch for you
Finding the right people to write your letters of recommendation is no simple task. Chioma Isiadinso -- a former admissions official at Carnegie Mellon University and Harvard Business School and author of the book The Best Business Schools' Admissions Secrets -- offers advice on choosing someone who can portray you in the best and most accurate light.
1. Who should MBA applicants approach to write their recommendation letters?
Typically, recommendations letters for business school should come from individuals who have supervised the MBA candidate and have a clear vantage point of a candidate's managerial potential and contributions to the organization, [as well as a] perspective of how he or she functions within a team. [The] majority of business schools require two recommendation letters, and for most applicants the ideal option is a current supervisor and a former supervisor who can attest in great detail about the candidate and the value he or she can provide to the business school community. In cases where a school requires three recommendations (as is the case for programs like Harvard Business School and the Stanford University Graduate School of Business ), another perspective such as a recommendation from community service [organizers] or from faculty who can attest to who you are beyond the classroom performance can be useful.
There are instances where a professor recommendation could be useful. These are cases where the candidate is an early career candidate with very limited work experience; in such instances, the critical information for the recommender to highlight is not basic information about the candidate's intellect and how well he or she did in the class, but rather detailed examples/anecdotes that vividly describe the candidate in terms of how he or she has enriched a class [and] character traits that can reinforce that the candidate is mature to handle business school despite being younger and possessing less work experience compared to the rest of the applicant pool. Professors who can attest to your college leadership track record [and] your ability to take initiative can be useful recommendation letters at the end of the day.
2. Is it important that the recommendation letter's writer has worked with the MBA applicant closely on a day-to-day basis?
Absolutely. Recommendations that are most memorable and useful in evaluating a candidate are the ones that have detailed descriptions about the candidate. The more closely the recommender has worked with the candidate, the more examples he or she can share. I often see applicants opting for recommendations from more senior individuals who barely know them. In such cases, it is no surprise that such reference letters tend to be generic, lack examples, and are ineffective in painting a clear picture of who the candidate is.
3. Do letters of recommendation from prominent figures carry much weight if they've had minimal contact with the MBA applicant?
Admissions people are very savvy and can see through the 'big-titled' recommendation with little substance. Applicants should focus on former bosses or current bosses who have real experiences they can draw from. Generic recommendation letters are wasted opportunities to differentiate yourself from your competition. I read my fair share of generic recommendation letters when serving on Harvard Business School's admissions board and such recommendations that came from alumni or prominent figures were easy to spot and did little to endear the candidate to the admissions board. It is always better to have a 'mid-ranked' recommender but with insight and detailed descriptions about you that allows the admissions board to get a three-dimensional view of who you are as a person.
4. What stands out the most in letters of recommendation? What do admissions officials truly look for?
Vivid examples can make or break a recommendation. Objectivity is also important. Being over-the-top does little to establish credibility of the letter writer. Let the examples speak for themselves. Focus on facts about the candidate and substantiate any points you wish to stress by recounting a real example that illustrates your point. The examples will speak for themselves. Admissions board members are looking for [a] balanced perspective. They want honesty backed with facts/data that can confirm whatever point you have communicated about a candidate. They also appreciate brevity. Get to the point quickly and answer the question being asked!
5. How much do letters of recommendation tend to matter when compared to other aspects of the MBA application?
There isn't a particular percentage that I would attribute to the recommendation letters since candidates are evaluated holistically. However, letters of recommendation matter a great deal in the evaluation process. They are the third party 'evidence' that can tip the scale in favor or against the candidate. A strong application complemented with very strong recommendations can elevate a candidate to the 'likely to be admitted' stack. On the other hand, a strong application with mixed recommendation letters will raise flags that will draw greater scrutiny during an interview (if the candidate is lucky enough to still be interviewed) and if the concerns/issues raised in the recommendations aren't assuaged in the interview, the likely outcome would be a denial, or at best, a wait list. So without a doubt, recommendation letters are quite important in the overall application process.
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