How Important is the Letter of Recommendation for Your MBA Application?

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If you’re applying to an MBA or EMBA program this year, you may be wondering just how much your recommendation letters really mean in terms of a successful business school application. – and this is an even more pertinent question to ask if you’re applying to any of the “Top Ten” or Ivy League MBA programs out there like HBS, Wharton, Kellogg, Chicago Booth, MIT Sloan, Stanford, or NYU Stern.

You may have spent a little time trying to figure out which manager or supervisor to ask at work, or you may have spent a lot of time trying to deduce who truly knows you the best and has the best credentials. Well, I am here to tell you the recommendation letters actually mean a lot.  I’ve seen them turn the tide.  A good rec letter can make the difference between getting in to a top school like Wharton or Booth, and NOT getting in to a school at all.

I’ve seen good letters make up for poor GMAT scores, an “unpleasant” undergraduate GPA, or the fact that you may have gaps in your professional work experience.

In other words, a strong rec letter is golden.  It gives the MBA committee the confidence to believe that you can handle not only the work load in business school, but become a valuable, contributing, active part of their incoming class. It’s someone “vouching” for you, and putting their own professional reputation on the line, to make a public and very vocal claim for yours.

So, what can you do to maximize your chances and make sure that you are asking the right person for a letter? Sometimes you don’t have a choice and the MBA admissions comittees are simply asking you to get a letter from your direct supervisor, but when you can submit additional letters, or have other options, below are the key characteristics that can make an average MBA recommendation letter GREAT, trump any “bad” scores or grades on your former transcripts, explain personality traits that work in your favor and show off your professional goals and accomplishments…making a very strong case for getting you in to the MBA or EMBA program of your dreams:

  • CREDIBILITY  – Ideally, you want to pick the recommender who knows you best, and also has impressive credentials themselves.  The admissions committee is not only looking at your background, but the background of the people you know (in terms of who you ask to write a letter).  They do this in order to “leverage” where they think you fit on the hierarchy in terms of other MBA & EMBA applicants, as they form a professional opinion of you in their mind.  Getting someone who has impressive credentials themselves, is always going to be better than asking a colleague who has the same job description as you, no matter how well he/she knows you, and how supportive they can be.
  • NETWORKING – How well have you networked?  Are you already at a big firm, and if yes, how much access do you appear to have to the top?  Does your choice of recommender show this?  How high can you get? Does the recommender obviously know you well, or is this just the type of perfunctory letter they are obviously frequently asked to write simply because of who they are, and they really don’t know you much at all? If they really don’t know you, don’t ask.  It will be obvious to the MBA committee and only count against you.
  • SINCERITY – it is always better to have someone who knows you well write your letter than a person “higher up” who may not know enough about you to convey your experience to the committee (or even take the time). The MBA committee is looking for this type of information to place you in their mind.  In other words, you’re either someone to be taken seriously via your letter, or you’re not. It makes a difference.  Choose wisely.

[I’m a former Harvard admissions interviewer and a Harvard graduate, and currently run the MBA & EMBA admissions firm: out of New York.  I specialize in helping clients get in to the ‘Top Ten’ MBA programs worldwide.  Contact me for a free consultation today]

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