Monday, 6 July 2015

A good recommendation letter is the key to success

Originally Published in The Hindustan Times Supplement

Having great recommendations for global business school programs is a crucial piece of the application. However this does not simply mean that you must secure a letter from a manager at work which is full of superlatives about you.

The golden rule, when it comes to recommendations is NEVER write your own recommendation – there are many steps you can take to avoid this common trap where your boss tells you to write the letter and he/she will sign it. This is a bad approach because your recommendation letter will most likely sound exactly like your essays, with all the same grammatical mistakes and presentation style.

It is very easy for admissions offices to see when an applicant has written his/her own recommendation. Why risk sinking your application when there are easy ways to make sure you get the best recommendation possible.

A good recommendation letter should do the following:
  • Demonstrate the recommender actually knows you well. Many people want to ask their CEO or the person in the office who attended a top business school. But if this person has not worked directly with you on a project and cannot comment specifically on your work style and competence, then the letter is of no value.
  • Provide detailed examples that offer insight into specific aspects of your work – e.g. your leadership style, conflict resolution, response to feedback, etc.  Business school admissions offices routinely say that they want letters with more anecdotes and less adjectives. If your recommender cannot provide the right level of detail then consider asking someone else.
  • Compliment the rest of your application. A recommendation that discusses characteristics not highlighted in the rest of your application will be confusing to the admissions office. Make sure your recommender knows your goals and the overall ‘story’ of your application so that all components are consistent.

 If the above components are crucial, the next question is how do you achieve them? If you are organized and you plan ahead, getting a good recommendation letter does not require too much effort. Take the following steps:

1.    Plan ahead by making your recommendation request at least 2-3 months ahead of time, in person, whenever possible.
2.    Explain to your recommender why you chose him/her. It will help him/her understand why it is important to you and that you have given thought to your choice, rather than simply choosing because he/she is your direct supervisor. Some legitimate reasoning here can help earn additional support that results in a compelling recommendation.
3.    Give your recommender a profile of you created specifically for this process. There are some good resources online that help you create this profile but in general you create a document, written in third-person, which includes a short introduction to yourself, a brief outline of your short term and long term goals, your reason for applying to business school, themed examples of your work with the recommender, all accompanied by an updated resume.  (For more on how to create the recommendation profile see:

A few final notes: If you work in a family business you must get a recommendation from a client or a supplier who knows you well. You can never get a recommendation from a family member, no matter how impartial you insist it may be. Your recommendation must be from an outsider.

MBA admissions offices do not evaluate the writing skill of your recommender so do not worry if he/she is not the most articulate writer with the best English grammar. As long as the content of the letter is appropriate and conveys the right information, the letter is best if authentically written, despite small errors.

If despite your efforts, your recommender insists that you write the recommendation yourself, then either ask a friend to write it or hire an external writer to draft the recommendation. If you’ve hired a consultant for help with applications and they are offering recommendation assistance, make sure that these are not handled by the same person who is helping with your essays. The style will still be too similar.

Recommendations are used by admissions committees to get a flavor of the applicant that goes beyond the formal components and offers a third-person
account. There are simple ways that you can control this component of your application, so make the most of the opportunity to showcase yourself.


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