You’re cruising through your applications for business school and then you arrive at the MBA recommendation letter. Most schools today require 2-3 letters from people who are able to persuasively describe your qualifications for business school. While you might think that this is an area of your application over which you no control, you actually play an essential role in ensuring that your recommender provides you with the best recommendation letter possible.
What makes a great MBA recommendation letter? The very best ones do a comprehensive job of painting a vivid picture of who you are as an individual, intellectual, and professional. They highlight your various strengths; the qualities, skills, and perspectives you would contribute to the program and school; and your well-defined goals for the future. In a world of straight-A students, business hotshots, and perfect GMAT scores, a well-written and convincing recommendation letter can really make you stand out from the competition and convince the Admissions Committee that you are a top candidate for their esteemed MBA program. This is truly a critical part of your application.
First and foremost, you need to pick the right people to write these letters. Getting a great letter of recommendation begins with developing strong relationships. This is by far the most important factor in securing a strong letter. People writing a recommendation for you need something to say, and they can write more convincingly if they really know you. Follow directions. If the application asks for a professional reference, then ask someone you have worked with for over the past few years – a supervisor, teammate, etc. Someone who has seen you in action and who knows how you perform at your very best. In general, avoid asking family or friends to provide personal references, unless the application specifically indicates this is okay. Also, the position or rank of the person writing the letter can make a difference in some cases, but ultimately, you should select someone who knows you well and who can write a strong letter versus someone who is in a more senior position but doesn’t know you very well.
Here are some general tips for the “ask:”
- Ask the person far in advance. They are much more likely to agree to write the letter if they have several weeks to write it versus a few days. Respect their time and busy schedules. A minimum of two weeks is optimal. If you do have to ask someone at the last minute, then provide them with a rough draft or outline to help expedite the process.
- Ask politely, ideally in person. This person is doing a big favor for you, so take the time to ask them in person and to express your appreciation, whether it is face-to-face or via email.
- Provide a description of the MBA programs you are applying to and explain why you are interested in them. The recommender can write a stronger letter if he or she is able to present your skills and experiences in a way that aligns them with the program and your professional goals for the future. Offer key talking points if needed.
- Provide your resume, a copy of your application (if appropriate), and your personal statement. These documents contain important information about you that the recommender might be able to incorporate into the letter, making it even stronger.
- Remind the recommender that a good letter should be short – around five paragraphs is perfect. Any shorter than this, they might not be able to fully highlight your strengths and abilities. Any longer than this, the reader might begin to lose interest.
- Follow up with your recommender after about a week, just to check in and to offer additional information if needed. This also serves as a gentle nudge to ensure that this person is continuing to work on the letter so that you meet your deadline.
- Instruct them on how to submit the letter after it is finished. These instructions may already be listed on the actual form, but you should review them with the recommender again just in case.
Here is a sample MBA recommendation letter that may help you get started:
Dear Sir or Madam:
I am pleased to recommend Mr. Lee, a promising young colleague at the Bank of Japan (BOJ), for admission to your distinguished MBA program at Cambridge University. I have known Mr. Lee for two years as his direct supervisor within our Financial Markets Department. BOJ, as a national central bank, conducts monetary policy for maintaining price stability in Japan, and the Financial Markets Department provides various money market operations with different collateral categories to accept for funds-supplying operations as the basis for realizing current monetary easing policy and overcoming deflation. Mr. Lee manages the risks of collateral that BOJ accepts to maintain the soundness of BOJ’s assets as well as to provide efficient collateral risk-assessment rates, which are used to provide benchmarks for the whole financial industry.
At BOJ, being assigned to the role of Markets Operations Planner is a sign that management is recognizing an employee’s potential, because this job requires considerable leadership, risk management, legal writing, and other skills, including a thorough understanding of IT systems. One instance where Mr. Lee demonstrated these capabilities occurred during a project involving the renewal of BOJ’s financial networking system. He coordinated more than 40 members from 5 departments to improve BOJ’s collateral risk management. Before this system renewal, collateral was marked-to-market weekly, which meant that BOJ had to use the same market value for one week even though the real value fluctuated daily. After the renewal, the mark-to-market was conducted daily, which improved collateral risk management. Private financial institutions welcomed this change, and collateral value increased to £2 billion.
Mr. Lee, as a leader of the risk management team, administers BOJ’s collateral and closely collaborates with other teams – especially those focused on policy infrastructure planning, credit risk evaluation, and statistics. Sometimes, sectionalism leads to conflicts, and relations with other teams can become tense. In Mr. Lee’s case, however, I have never been bothered with that kind of issue. With his long-term vision, he always strives to maintain strong working relationships, generously spending time helping others by offering information and analyses. Moreover, his unwavering patience and amicable personality helps the team create a mutually supportive atmosphere. Simply put, Mr. Lee is affable and well-loved by his colleagues. His presence at your esteemed institution will benefit his classmates and even faculty members, because he can provide unique perspectives on the unprecedented challenges that global central banks are facing and possible solutions.
I sincerely ask you to give this young man the opportunity to achieve his ample potential. Mr. Lee has the capacity to become a truly extraordinary leader, and his dedication and determination will surely improve the financial systems in Japan – and possibly across the world – over the next few decades. It is our genuine desire that Mr. Lee return to BOJ with fresh ideas as to how to move both our organization and international financial systems forward in a progressive way.
As you can see, this letter is short and sweet, crisp and to-the-point. The recommender provides clear and concise examples that demonstrate the key attributes, skills, and expertise he believes make the candidate a strong asset for this business school. He clearly knows Mr. Lee well and thinks highly of him, having worked closely with him for two years at the Bank of Japan. His praise flows naturally and does not feel falsified or forced. This is precisely the kind of recommender you want to find to write your own recommendation.
After the recommender has submitted the letter to the appropriate business school, remember to THANK them. This person probably leads a busy life like the rest of us, and they cared enough about you to take time out of their busy schedule to write this letter for you. A little bit of heartfelt gratitude goes a long way in helping to maintain the relationship into the future.
Wishing you the best of luck!