A letter of recommendation is a critical part of any business school application and can have significant impact on the applicant’s chances of getting accepted. Recommenders often ask candidates for guidelines on how to write their letter. Although the recommendation should obviously be written by the recommender and all ethical boundaries maintained at all times, it is possible for the applicant to help their recommender through the process. If you are writing a recommendation for a business school applicant, the following guidelines can help you write a strong letter:
1. Learn about the applicant’s goals
You want to try and tie the applicant’s goals to their background and strengths. For example, if an applicant wants to become an entrepreneur after their MBA,the letter can call out why you think they’ll be a successful entrepreneur.
2. Identify shortcomings in the applicant’s profile and try to mitigate them
Every applicant has some shortcomings in their profile. For example – some applicants have a mediocre undergraduate GPA whereas some have little or no community involvement experience.
The letter of recommendation is a good place to try and mitigate some of those shortcomings. If the applicant has a mediocre undergraduate GPA, you might want to talk about an ‘academic’ project they excelled at such as writing a whitepaper or conducting research for a work assignment.
3. Discuss specific experiences or skills the applicant wants/needs to highlight
Business school applications consist of several different documents. This typically includes essays, a resume, short answers, letters of recommendation, and more. These documents together should provide a holistic picture of the applicant. They should complement each other such that the entire application comes together to provide a complete picture of the candidate.
Try and discuss what specific skills, experiences, or strengths are being covered in other aspects of the candidate’s application and focus on filling gaps. For example, if the applicant feels they haven’t had the opportunity to show strong communication skills, it might be helpful to talk about them in the letter of recommendation.
4. Mention not just professional, but also personal traits
Except for the recommendation letter, every other document is drafted by the applicant. Hence, the recommendation letter is a unique opportunity to highlight personal traits that the applicant can’t talk about in the rest of their application.
For example, it sounds perfectly natural for a recommender to say that the applicant has a pleasant nature and they’re great to be around. This isn’t something the applicant can say about themselves. Be sure to use the recommendation letter to highlight personal traits.
5. Highlight the applicant’s strengths through rich anecdotes
Try and show the applicant’s strengths through anecdotes. Showing how the applicant displayed strong quantitative skills is always more powerful than just saying that they have strong quantitative skills.
6. Where possible, try and follow the STAR method
STAR stands for Situation,Task, Action, Result. It’s a very useful framework for describing any experience or incident. Start off with the background and context for the incident. Then talk about what the applicant had to do. This can include a task they were given or a challenge that they faced. Subsequently, describe the applicant’s action i.e., what they did to solve the challenge and end with the result of their actions. The STAR framework helps keep the recommendation letter pithy and impactful.
Here is an example of an experience described in the STAR format – On a recent project for the Nigerian government, Jack had to deal with an extremely skeptical client stakeholder. Even though Jack’s team had done an extremely comprehensive analysis on how to increase tourism in Nigeria, the client was not happy with the results. There was a risk of the entire project getting derailed. Going above and beyond, Jack requested to stay an extra day at the client site and set-up a meeting with the stakeholder to present a thorough walk through the analyses with the client and ensure his buy-in of the results. The client was extremely impressed and sent me an email praising Jack for all his great work.
7. Be honest when discussing the applicant’s weakness and try to show progress
Most business schools ask recommenders to talk about the applicant’s weakness. This can be tricky. You don’t want to sound disingenuous, but you don’t want to swing in the opposite direction either and throw the candidate under the bus. Don’t mention foundational things such as quantitative, analytical, or communication skills that are critical skills to succeed in business school.
Be honest, but be tactful. One way to do this is by mentioning a weakness that can be connected to a related trait that’s thoroughly positive. Also, try and show how the applicant grew and became a better professional. Here is an example:
Jack is extremely humble and level-headed. These qualities have been huge assets, contributed greatly to his success, and will continue to do so in the future. However, and because of this, Jack has the tendency to sometimes be a little too polite in client meetings.
This was especially true when he started working at Consulting Firm. Even though his analyses were rigorous and sound, they would at times be interpreted as incomplete or lacking by clients. One of my first pieces of advice to Jack when he joined Consulting Firm was to be more assertive when presenting his work. The improvement was almost immediate. Jack quickly evolved his presentation style. His tone started to reflect greater confidence without any arrogance.
I remember Jack’s performance during the next project he was staffed on. This project was of high strategic importance and the audience for our final presentation would include members of the client's C-suite. Jack truly exceeded expectations and delivered a sizable portion of the final presentation and throughout, was extremely self-assured. Not only was the main client extremely happy with our work, but he also requested that Jack remain on via retainer for the build-up of a new entity.
8. Avoid using industry jargon
You never know what the background of the admissions committee member/s reading your recommendation letter will be. As such, it is best to use simple English and avoid technical jargon. You can assume that the admissions committee member has a basic understanding of business i.e., they understand concepts such as profit, loss, growth, scale, etc.
9. Quality, not quantity is the name of the game
You don’t need to include dozens of anecdotes, just a few impactful ones will be fine. It is important that you go deep and not broad – explain every story or incident in detail and make it as real as possible for the reader.
10. Focus on leadership potential
Every top business school is looking for potential leaders. They want to educate the next generation of entrepreneurs, CEOs, CFOs, and change-makers. Hence, every top school is looking for leadership potential in the candidates they accept. Feel free to be direct in saying that you see the applicant as a future leader. The experiences, anecdotes, and incidents you highlight throughout your recommendation will add weight to this claim, but don’t hesitate in being explicit about the applicant’s potential to become a change-maker.