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Why are Letters of Recommendation Important for Business School?

Letters of Recommendation are a mandatory component for almost every business school application, regardless of whether you are applying for a full-time, part-time or executive MBA. While the number of recommendations may vary by school, there are some general guidelines that will help you approach this part of the application process successfully.

First of all, when identifying your recommenders, formally ask each recommender this important question: “Do you have the time to write a positive recommendation for my application to B-school?” While you may think that this is a given, you would be surprised as to how many applicants have recommenders who write neutral or even negative letters. As you can imagine, this is a huge red flag to the Admissions Committee. It might also be helpful to spend a few minutes with each recommender and brief them on your decision to apply for the MBA, what you hope to accomplish with the degree, and why you are targeting certain schools. This information will be a good review for the recommender as they sit down and consider what to include in your letter.

To give perspective – B-schools ask for recommendations to get an outside viewpoint on you and hopefully validate what you are saying about yourself in the application. Unless otherwise stated, most B-schools want professional recommendations from a current or recent past supervisor.

You should choose a recommender who knows you well, rather than choosing someone with an impressive title but limited daily interaction with you (ie. CEO). The Admissions Committee will expect that your recommender can provide detailed information about your on-the-job performance, not just a list of adjectives that describe you or a personal endorsement that you “are a great person.” They want specific examples of how you have demonstrated certain skill sets and competencies. Hearing from someone who has worked closely with you and ultimately evaluated your performance and your deliverables provides this important information. The recommendation should also be balanced – highlighting strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments and learning over the time that they have known you.

Final tips as you work on your recommendations:

If you are an entrepreneur (work for yourself) or work for a family business – consider choosing a client or someone who has directly observed you working “on the job” and had a chance to evaluate your performance. Do not choose a family member as it would not be considered a balanced recommendation.

Even if your recommender asks, do not write the evaluation for them. We expect that the recommendation is confidential and is coming from someone other than you. We get your opinion about your work performance from the interview, essays and resume!

If you do not want your immediate boss to know of your B-school plans, (ie. It may impact your qualifications for future promotion, bonus, etc.) then consider a recent past-supervisor or someone who has served in a project/team lead role over you. You may want to address this in the optional essay and briefly explain to the Admissions Committee why you are not using your current supervisor for the recommendation.

Rebekah S. Lewin, MBA ’02
Executive Director of Admissions & Administration
Univ. of Rochester, Simon Graduate School of Business

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