Letters of recommendation are essential components of your MBA application. These supporting documents have some key differences compared to the MBA essay. Where your essay outlines your fit for business school and how it will benefit your career, your MBA letters of recommendation will outline why people you have worked with also believe you are the ideal candidate for the business school.
Most business schools only allow a maximum of two recommendations, so your recommenders must be the best possible individuals to speak to your personal and professional skills. This blog will outline who, when, and how to ask for a letter of recommendation for MBA programs and provide you with some examples and tips for getting persuasive MBA letters of recommendation.
Who to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation
MBA programs favor professional recommendations over academic recommendations, making it a good idea for your recommenders to be individuals who have directly supervised you in the workplace. Most MBA programs require two letters of recommendation, so you should seek out managers or supervisors who can speak to your job performance and interpersonal skills.
An MBA letter of recommendation from your current supervisor is the most beneficial for your application package, but a former supervisor can also provide a robust and accurate letter of recommendation. Colleagues or indirect managers are also possible options to ask for a letter of recommendation. The bottom line is that you want your recommenders to be individuals who can speak highly of your impact on your workplace and write compelling letters about why you would be the right fit for a business school’s MBA program.
Former Harvard Business School Dean of Admissions Malvina Miller Complainville states that “If a recommender can’t speak about you with both substance and specificity, they aren’t the right person to ask.” Keeping this in mind will help you determine who to ask to write your recommendations.
How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation and How Early You Should Ask
Once you have narrowed down your list of potential recommenders, you should connect with them virtually or in person to find a good time to discuss your request for a letter of recommendation. You should be able to explain why you think their support will have the greatest positive impact on your application and what you want them to include in their letter of recommendation, should they agree to write one for you.
In terms of when to ask for a letter of recommendation, Poets & Quants recommends asking at least two months before you wish to submit your application. This provides your recommenders with plenty of time to write the letter, and affords you enough time to strategize with your recommenders about how to write the strongest MBA letters of recommendation possible.
Tips for Assisting Your Recommender with the Letter of Recommendation
The following tips will help you to assist your recommenders with the letter writing process, and are good things for them to keep in mind while writing a recommendation letter.
Brainstorm with your recommenders about what to include in the letter. This provides direction for your recommenders while they write and helps ensure they touch upon the projects and characteristics you want to be displayed in your letter. However, you have to be careful to not go overboard; admission committees want letters written entirely by the recommenders, so you cannot write the letters for them and ask them to sign.
Make sure what you brainstorm will help your recommenders to answer the questions posed by the business schools. You don’t want your brainstorming to be generalized; make sure it is in line with the business school’s questions and that your recommenders know what to expect.
Give your recommenders a copy of your updated resume. This will help ensure your recommenders touch on the correct talking points and help them be better prepared to write your letter.
Set a deadline for when you want your letters of recommendation to be completed and ready to submit. An exact deadline allows your recommenders to set aside time to write your letter ahead of when you want to submit it.
Keep in touch with your recommenders regularly. Communicating with them regularly will serve as a gentle reminder of the deadline. It will also allow you to trouble-shoot early on should your recommender get stuck on a particular question or require additional information from you.
Letters of Recommendation Expected for Business Schools
Every business school has their own expectations that your MBA letters of recommendation will need to meet. This section contains a breakdown of what the top business schools expect to see in your letters.
Booth requires two letters in your MBA application package. One letter of recommendation should be written by a current or former supervisor, which they prefer to be done by your current supervisor. If your current supervisor cannot write a letter for you, Booth asks that you explain these circumstances in the optional essay.
Your second letter can be from an individual beyond your immediate work environment. For instance, Booth outlines that someone who has worked with you in a different organization, on a volunteer project, or during an extracurricular activity is a suitable choice for your second letter, as long as it offers further insights from your first recommender.
Before submitting their letters, your recommenders will be asked to assess your competency in a variety of skills. Your recommenders will then have to upload letters that answer the following questions or similar questions:
“How do the applicant's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare with those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.”
It is important to note that Booth only accepts letters uploaded to their portal; faxed or mailed letters will not be accepted.
Columbia Business School
Columbia requires you to submit two letters of recommendation when applying to their full-time MBA program, but only one if you are applying to their Deferred Enrollment program. One recommendation should come from your current supervisor; however, this only applies if you have been working for them for over six months. If you only recently began working for your current supervisor, Columbia will accept a previous supervisor’s recommendation. The second letter should be from a previous supervisor or a colleague who held a higher position than yours.
Here are two questions Columbia has asked recommenders:
“How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.”
For the Deferred Enrollment program, Columbia asks your recommender to “please share how you feel the applicant will contribute to the Columbia Business School classroom and community.”
If you are reapplying to Columbia, you need to have one new letter of recommendation that is different from the letters submitted in your previous application.
Harvard Business School
For your application to Harvard, your recommenders will have a two-part task. The first part is to complete a “personal qualities and skills grid” and then answer questions similar to the following:
“How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (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. (250 words)”
You will need two MBA recommendation letters in your application package. Harvard does not have specific requirements for who provides your recommendations. Still, Harvard does advise you seek recommendations from individuals who know you the best and can provide the most insightful and accurate responses to the questions listed above.
Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
You will need two letters of recommendation when you apply to Kellogg. The first letter should preferably be from your current supervisor, and the second should come from someone who can evaluate your professional skills and management potential. This could be a previous supervisor, a current or former client, or a previous employer.
Your recommenders will need to be able to provide detailed answers to prompts provided by Kellogg. Here are a few examples:
“Kellogg has a diverse student body and values students who are inclusive and encouraging of others with differing perspectives and backgrounds. Please tell us about a time when you witnessed the candidate living these values. (300 words)
How does the candidate's performance compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the candidate. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)”
Kellogg will only accept two letters of recommendation, so you will need to ensure you have chosen the best possible individuals who can provide the most detail and persuasive answers to the prompts listed above.
MIT Sloan School of Management
Sloan asks you to provide one letter of recommendation and two reference letters. The letter of recommendation should be written preferably by your current supervisor or a previous supervisor if your current supervisor isn’t an option. Your recommender should be able to speak to your success, accomplishments, overall impact, and any promotions you have received at that particular workplace.
Your references should speak to either your job performance or performance outside of work in areas such as community service. Sloan will reach out to your references if there are additional questions about your application package. Sloan recommends you prepare your referees to answer questions similar to those on the letter of recommendation form.
Your recommenders will need to answer a few questions. Here are some past examples:
“Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (Maximum word count: 50 words)
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?) (Max word count: 500 words)
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Max word count: 500 words)
Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)”
Stanford Graduate School of Business
You need two letters as part of your MBA application to Stanford. One needs to be from your supervisor at your current job. Stanford does understand it may not always be possible to obtain in every case, like if you are self-employed, currently in school, or have recently started a new job with a new supervisor. In these situations, Stanford advises you to use your judgment to find a recommender. This could be a former supervisor, a client, a board member, or an indirect supervisor.
Your other letter should be from someone who has directly overseen your work in the past, whether it be a paid position, volunteer work in the community, or an extracurricular activity within the last three years.
Stanford wants your letters of recommendation to tell stories about your behavior in the workplace, the impact you had on others and the work environment, and the role your personal qualities played in these areas. Stanford notes this is best done through writing about “specific examples and anecdotes that illustrate what you have done and how you have done it.”
Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College
Tuck asks you to submit two letters of recommendation from individuals who can best describe why you are a qualified candidate for the MBA program. Ideally, Tuck would like one letter to come from your current supervisor, but if this isn’t possible, you should use the optional essay to explain why.
The individuals who agree to write your letters of recommendation will need to be able to respond to the following questions or to similar questions:
“Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (50 words)
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?) (500 words)
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (500 words)”
If they have more to say about you that does not quite fit into one of the three questions above, your recommenders will also have the option to respond to “Is there anything else we should know?”
UCLA Berkeley Haas School of Business
You will need two letters of recommendations when you apply to Berkeley Haas. One should preferably be written by your current supervisor. However, if that is not possible, your recommenders should be individuals you have worked with in a significant capacity, such as an important client or employer.
The recommendation letter for Berkeley Hass is extensive, so you should be sure to give your recommenders ample time to respond to their questions. Here are some Berkeley question examples:
“Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant's role in your organization.
How does the applicant's performance compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (E.g. what are the applicant's principal strengths?)
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
In the Berkeley MBA program, we develop leaders who embody our distinctive culture’s four key principles. Please comment on how the applicant reflects this Berkeley Haas value.
(Optional) Is there anything else we should know?”
After answering these questions, your recommenders will need to complete an appraisal of 10 skills and how strongly they recommend you in each category. These skills are: results orientation, strategic orientation, team leadership, influence and collaboration, communication, information formatting, developing others, change leadership, respect for others, and trustworthiness.
Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania
Wharton requires two letters of recommendation in your MBA application. Here are some Wharton question examples your recommenders will have to address:
Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success in the Wharton MBA classroom. (Word count: 300)
Please provide example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success throughout their career. (Word count: 300)
Although Wharton prefers one of your recommendations to come from your current direct manager, it is more important that your recommenders can provide detailed information about your job performance and interpersonal skills.
Liu said that reflecting on the value of her experiences at a global bank and then “shar[ing] those realizations with [her] recommenders so that they also see that side of me” helped her get into Wharton. It also got her a $75,000 merit scholarship.
Yale School of Management
As with many of the other business schools discussed previously, Yale also requires two letters of recommendation. These letters should be written by individuals you have encountered in your professional work. A current supervisor should write one of your letters, but a former supervisor would be a suitable substitute.
Ideally, your recommenders should be able to “speak to different skill sets and experiences”. Although your recommenders will address different aspects of your professional capabilities, both of your recommenders should know you well enough to provide meaningful insights. Yale admits applicants “care deeply about the problems afflicting our world”, so it’s a good idea to have your recommenders speak to your leadership, critical thinking, problem-solving, and community involvement.
In this example, you can see the recommender begins by introducing themselves, the applicant, and their relationship to the applicant. From there, they move on to discuss the applicant’s skills and qualifications that make them stand out in their role at the company.
The letter then moves into a discussion of the applicant’s personal attributes and how these make them an excellent fit for the MBA program, along with how the applicant is growing and improving their professional and personal skills. The letter ends with a short summary of why the applicant should be admitted to the MBA program based on the most robust attributes discussed in the letter’s body.
Ausburg also provided the following template for recommenders to follow while writing your letter: All names are simply for demonstrative purposes and should be replaced with your name, your recommender’s name, and the name of the head of the admission committee.
“Dear George Willson,
It is with honor that I recommend Jerry Morris into your MBA program. I have worked with him at our former company, during which, I found him to be an exceptionally motivated and talented individual who has a dedication to all the tasks that he undertakes.
Jerry Morris is mature and is able to assertively address problems and effectively approach situations. I believe that his characteristics will make him a good MBA candidate. He is accomplished and possesses the right combination of intelligence, drive, and social skills to endeavor for a master’s degree.
Should you have any questions about him, please feel free to contact me on 222 555 7777 or email me at email@example.com.
As you can see, this letter is very short. The amount of detail your recommender can provide will depend on the permissible length of the letter as stated by each business school. However, regardless of length, your recommender’s responses should still explain why you are a good fit for the business school.
What to do Once Your Recommender has Sent Your Letter of Recommendation
Writing a great letter of recommendation is a time-consuming process, and you should send a thank-you note — either over email or by traditional mail — to your recommenders to acknowledge their work and give your appreciation for their efforts. Alternatively, Princeton Review suggests you could send your thank-you notes two weeks before the deadline. This would have a dual purpose of thanking your recommenders and gently reminding them of the upcoming deadline if it slipped their mind.
Once you have received your acceptance to an MBA program, it is a good idea to update your recommenders with this information. They will want to know about your application’s end result and celebrate your success.
What is a Common Letter of Recommendation?
A Common Letter of Recommendation is a standardized recommendation form developed to assist recommenders in the letter-writing process. Since most people who want to get an MBA apply to multiple programs, it is an onerous task for their recommenders to write several letters of recommendation that all respond to different questions.
The Common Letter of Recommendation was developed to ease the burden on recommenders. It contains one set of questions commonly asked by business schools and can provide the most insightful responses about candidates.
You may have noticed some of the business schools detailed above asked very similar questions. Stanford, MIT Sloan, Tuck, and Yale are some of the many business schools that use the Common Letter of Recommendation.
1. How long should the letter of recommendation be?
A letter of recommendation is generally only one or two pages long. This will vary by business school, so it’s important to check the requirements at each school you’re applying to and communicate the page limit with your recommenders.
2. Can one of my letters of recommendation come from a professor?
Unless you apply directly from your undergraduate studies, all of your recommendations should come from people you have worked alongside in your professional endeavors. These could be past or current managers, managers who know your work well but did not directly oversee you, or important clients.
3. I work for my family’s business — are they allowed to provide a letter of recommendation?
No, you should not obtain a letter of recommendation from a family member, even if you work for your family’s business. This is because family members are not the most reliable at providing an objective assessment of your skills and leadership potential, which admission committees want to see in your recommendation letters. If your current supervisor is a family member, you should explain this in the optional essay and find a recommender who can be more objective.
4. What should I do if it’s getting close to the deadline and my recommender hasn’t started my letter?
If it is getting too close to the deadline for comfort, you could elect to ask someone else to write a letter of recommendation for you if they would be able to produce it with a quick turn-around time. This may not always be possible, though, and situations like this are why it’s a good idea to give your recommenders a significant amount of time to write their letter.
5. Are my letters of recommendation allowed to exceed the word limit?
It is a good idea to make sure your recommenders adhere to each business school’s word limits, however, as long as they are within 10% of the word limit this should be suitable. Keep in mind that admissions committees will have a lot of applications to go through and won’t appreciate having to read an excessively long recommendation letter that surpasses the established limit. Your recommenders should strive to provide detailed yet concise and to-the-point responses to the questions.
6. How should I submit my letters of recommendation?
Typically your letters of recommendation will be submitted electronically via the business school’s online application portal. Some schools may also accept hard copies, so it is important to check each school’s preference prior to submitting your letters.
It can be intimidating to approach past or current supervisors, employers, colleagues, or clients for an MBA letter of recommendation. That’s why you need to think about who would be able to provide the best recommendation for you and why, so you’ll be able to make a convincing case to each person you would like to write a letter of recommendation for your MBA. From there, set aside some time to connect with your recommenders to strategize. Following the MBA letter of recommendation best practices outlined in this blog will help ensure your recommenders write the strongest letters possible.
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