A letter of recommendation provides a snapshot of a candidate and it should come from someone in a position to evaluate the candidate’s professional competence and personal character. An effective LOR verifies experience, confirms expertise, defines strengths, and builds credibility. It also helps a school learn more about a candidate’s character, behaviors, attitudes, and impact. It is one piece of the greater puzzle that a school considers. By taking the time to provide thoughtful feedback, recommenders can help that candidate stand out.
If an MBA program requires two letters, try to get both from professional sources. At least one should be from your current immediate supervisor. If this is impossible, a former supervisor is an appropriate substitute. Other alternatives include an indirect manager or a colleague. If three letters are required, it is usually okay for one to be from an academic source.
Business schools prefer professional recommendations to academic recommendations.
Your MBA recommenders should be able to speak in detail about your qualifications, strengthening the same points you have already iterated in your own essays. Just as you highlight your career achievements, maturity, interpersonal and leadership skills, so should your recommenders. If you don’t have many people who fit the bill, start cultivating those relationships.
2. How to Write an Effective MBA Letter of Recommendation
The content of the recommendation letter might be slightly different depending on the schools’ requirements. Some business schools ask recommenders specific questions to answer while other business schools ask for a generic letter. It’s also worth noting that many programs now use the GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation (which will be discussed further in the following part).
Oxford Saïd Business School:
Please upload a letter to elaborate on your ratings you have given the candidate above (recommenders are asked to rate candidates’ 5 traits). Please also indicate, for how long you have known the candidate and in what capacity, what are their strengths and weaknesses, and how you think the candidate would benefit from the programme.
Harvard Business School:
Please respond to the questions below in a single document.
- How do the applicant’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (Recommended: 300 words)
- Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Recommended: 250 words)
- (Optional) Is there anything else we should know? Please be concise.
Applicants will need the letter of recommendation to match the tone and message of their personal statement in order to compose a cohesive application. With this in mind, the keywords for a letter of recommendation need to be directly related to:
Have they demonstrated leadership, critical thinking, analytical, or communication skills? Take the time to observe them at work and be reminded of their most applicable traits to be highlighted in this recommendation letter.
Was there a particular course or work assignment they excelled in? How does that relate to their eligibility for the prospective MBA program?
For recommendations asking specific questions, the answers should be full and complete, directly addressing the question prompt(s). If not otherwise instructed, seek to convey some or all of the following:
- Recommender’s relationship with the candidate, including how long and in what capacity you have known each other.
- The candidate’s duties, responsibilities, assignments, projects, and achievements.
- A brief description of the applicant and their qualities (knowledge, leadership skills, judgment, commitment, initiative, creativity, resourcefulness, or other attributes related to the MBA program and their future goals)
- Specific examples of the applicant’s skill set and excellence
Broadly speaking, the LOR content should convey the impact the candidate has had on the organization and on other people. It should include specific examples of how the candidate accomplished his/her mandates and of results achieved and the specific capabilities that the recommenders saw the candidate demonstrate. Avoid simply listing what the applicant has done, as such information is already available to the admissions committee in other forms.
- Show, don’t tell: A list of superlatives may sound laudatory, but it does not convey concrete information about the candidate. Use specific examples that demonstrate the candidate’s special qualities and characteristics. Discuss the whys and hows behind the whats. Provide concrete evidence about what recommenders think of applicants. Describe how they behave. What do they do extremely well? What weaknesses or areas of improvement can be seen from the candidates? How do they handle rejection or failure?
- Remain positive: State that recommenders think this applicant is a strong candidate for the school. One might say something like “I recommend this individual without reservation.” Emphasize this, especially at the beginning and end of the letter to help the candidate stand out.
- Avoid clichés: There are many common clichés on recommendation letters, including vague phrases like “hard worker” and “diligent student.” Make sure to avoid these clichés, and back up any statement with specific evidence.
3. GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation
Recommendations are critical to a strong business school application, but they can be cumbersome for both MBA applicants and the recommender. The Graduate Management Admission Council™ (GMAC™), the makers of the Graduate Management Admission Test™ (GMAT™) exam, collaborated with a group of leading business schools to help develop a new set of “common” questions, with one goal in mind: to make requesting letters of recommendation easier for business school applications.
Section 1: Recommender Information
This is a fairly straightforward section. Recommenders are asked to provide their contact information, information about their company and role, as well as some background information on their relationship with the applicant. Specifically, recommenders are asked to indicate the nature of their relationship with the applicant, how long they have known the applicant, and the period of time during which they interacted with the applicant most frequently.
Section 2: GMAC Common LOR Leadership Assessment Grid
In this section, recommenders are asked to evaluate the applicant on the following twelve traits, which are grouped under five larger competencies (in parentheses):
- Initiative (Achievement)
- Results Orientation (Achievement)
- Communication, Professional Impression & Poise (Influence)
- Influence and Collaboration (Influence)
- Respect for Others (People)
- Team Leadership (People)
- Developing Others (People)
- Trustworthiness/Integrity (Personal Qualities)
- Adaptability/Resilience (Personal Qualities)
- Self-awareness (Personal Qualities)
- Problem Solving (Cognitive Abilities)
- Strategic Orientation (Cognitive Abilities)
There are a number of strategic points to consider when completing this section. For example, a recommender might want to give the candidate top marks on all twelve areas to offer the strongest reference possible – but this can actually make it look like the recommender didn’t read and consider each item.
Responding with some variability in ratings is more realistic. Business school admissions committees know that no one is perfect, and expect that students will learn and develop during their MBA studies. If a recommender provides flawless ratings on every item, they’re essentially saying that the candidate doesn’t need to go to business school.
At the same time, recommenders should think carefully before rating an applicant poorly (i.e. giving them either of the two lowest ratings) on any of these dimensions. Because most recommendations are overwhelmingly positive, a low rating will stand out to the admissions committee and could be taken as a sign of a serious deficit. Even the middle rating on the five-point scale (which would translate to a 3 on a 1-5 scale) should be reserved to reflect major areas for growth for the applicant.
Section 3: GMAC Letter of Recommendation Questions
In the final section of the GMAC letter of recommendation, recommenders are asked to respond to 3-4 open-ended questions. Recommenders should note that each MBA program sets its own word limits for these items, so it can be helpful to check each business school’s recommendation questions before drafting your responses.
- Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (Recommended word count: 50 words)
This is an opportunity to provide some additional background information and context for the illustrative examples recommenders will share in the following sections. This space offers a great place to elaborate on the frequency and depth of your interactions with the applicant, and to provide an overview of how the applicant’s work activities supported the functioning of the team or group.
- How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (e.g., what are the applicant’s principal strengths?) (Recommended word count: 500 words)
This question is asking about ways that the applicant stands out from other similarly qualified professionals. At the outset of this response, it can be helpful for recommenders to specify this comparison group for the admissions reader, for example “I am comparing candidate A to the 40+ marketing professionals with 2-4 years of work experience who I have encountered in my 8 years at Company X.”
The most essential consideration for this section is: show, don’t tell. Rather than simply telling the reader that the applicant possesses a certain skill or quality, it’s best to show that this is the case by providing a detailed example. This allows the reader to really see the candidate’s abilities in action. If the applicant has shared his or her essays, it’s helpful for recommenders to select examples that haven’t been covered in detail elsewhere in the application. This ensures that the recommendation is adding as much value to the application as possible.
In terms of structure, I find that it works well to build this section around 2-4 detailed anecdotes of a specific accomplishment or contribution on the applicant’s part. Ideally, each of these will illustrate a different strength. The recommender should identify the standout skill or quality, share the example to illustrate (providing some context for the reader and then walking them through the candidate’s actions), and touch on the impact this had on the larger team or organization. To help the reader appreciate the magnitude of the applicant’s contributions, it’s always helpful to quantify the results in terms like dollar amounts or percentages.
- Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Recommended word count: 500 words)
The admissions committee is asking this question to assess whether the candidate is receptive to feedback, and whether they are able to adjust and improve their performance. There are a few elements that are key to an effective response.
First, it’s best to cover feedback on a skill or behavior (e.g. running a meeting) rather than a personality trait (e.g. impatience). It’s much easier to build a skill than it is to change one’s personality or emotional responses, so the admissions reader will be more confident that the initial shortcoming has been addressed if the feedback is behavior-based.
Second, there’s a difference between advice and feedback. This question is asking about constructive criticism the recommender provided about something that the applicant was not doing optimally – not about friendly pointers that a recommender gave the applicant as they were starting a new role or taking on a new task.
Finally, recommenders will want to comment on two elements of the applicant’s response. One aspect is: how did they react in the moment? The admissions committee is of course hoping to hear that the applicant was receptive or even appreciative of the input rather than defensive or argumentative. The second aspect is: how did their behavior and performance change as a result?
In terms of overall structure, I suggest that recommenders offer some context about the situation that prompted the feedback, explain their reasons for providing feedback, describe the applicant’s reaction, and ideally follow up with a second example of how the applicant implemented the feedback with positive results.
- Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)
Those completing the GMAC letter of recommendation should exercise discretion here, as answering an optional question creates additional work for the admissions reader. This would be an appropriate place for some commentary on the applicant’s enthusiasm about a given school or a recommender’s appraisal of their chances of success in their post-MBA career goals – though it would be best to limit responses to just a few sentences.
An MBA recommendation letter has the potential to make or break your chances of admission. Therefore, if you are planning to pursue an MBA you should not only work diligently with your supervisor but also build a rapport. Communicate well with your supervisor during your tenure in an organization. Only if your supervisor knows you well, he’ll be able to write a convincing letter of recommendation for your business school application.