By late fall, many of our clients have been to campus for informational visits and interviews. They have also told friends, family, and business associates that they are in the middle of the business school application process. As this news passes along (people do love to talk!), potential networking opportunities pop up. Parents’ friends say, “I went to school such and such! I’ll write a letter!” Or perhaps colleagues at work pass on a contact.

This presents applicants with the chance to add a good word to their file. But who should they ask to send in a letter of support? How much influence do current students and alumni have in admissions decisions? And how much contact with the admissions office is too much?

As one of our favorite professors (a former McKinsey partner and current hotshot in the media field) once said in a strategy course, “It depends. It always depends.” And he was right. There is no rule to follow, but there is always an “if” to consider!

What is a Formal “Letter of Support”?

A formal letter of support is what we call a letter sent in addition to your recs by an alum or other supporter of the MBA program. By that we mean a very prominent person or an alum who is very involved with the school – for example, someone who knows the admissions staff, or who was a student leader, or who is connected to campus life in a very real and current way. Let’s be clear. This doesn’t mean just another alum who graduated 10 years ago but has no connection to current campus life.

‘Connected to campus life’ does not translate simply into “gives money.” It means more than that. It can be someone who keeps in touch with the school by recruiting and speaking on panels, or someone who has a track record of partnering with the school.

A targeted letter of support from such an alum can make all the difference in an admissions outcome … IF you are already in the competitive range for the program … IF it is the one thing that can tip the scales … IF it is from someone who has track record of support/engagement with the school … IF the person only “supports” a very few candidates.

We’ve seen this type of letter work for several clients who were in admissions limbo – i.e., in contact with the committee but not hearing back by the promised dates, or waitlisted.

In these cases, the letters came from someone at the top of the applicant’s firm who was also on the board of the MBA school (not just the university), or who had a relationship with someone at the Dean or Associate Dean level, or who was a very involved alum. The candidates did not need to ask for the letters or manage the process. Their letter of support writer knew how to manage everything and just needed appropriate “pings” from the applicants to set things in motion.

(By the way, if you’re fortunate enough to have this kind of recommender, respect that person’s time! Do not pester them. If you have this kind of connection, you know it. Be sure you manage it well and stay professional in your communications!)

What About Students and “Normal” Alumni?

A good word from a current student or lower-profile alum can also be helpful, if handled properly.

If you visit campus and meet a student or two with whom you really have something in common, get their e-mail addresses and follow up with a short e-mail to thank them. Ditto for any members of the admissions committee you happen to meet.

There are a few simple rules to follow here:

  • Don’t make up questions just to appear interested. No one wants to type an answer to something that is already answered by the website FAQs!
  • Do establish ties with students or alumni … IF they are based on sincere mutual interests. It’s great networking for both of you, as long as it isn’t forced.
  • Do ask current students or alumni to send a friendly e-mail supporting your application to the Admissions Committee … IF they are comfortable doing so.
  • Don’t be a pest! There is a fine line between showing sincere interest and overdoing it. If you think you’re overdoing it, you probably are!

The admissions offices use student and alum feedback of this sort to gauge applicant interest in the program. One word of caution, though: We very much associated the applicant in question with the student or alum writing on their behalf.

For example, let’s say Kate whined all the time she was a student and has never been in contact with the MBA program since graduation … and yet she recommended six people this year! Would you trust Kate’s opinion if you were the school?

On the other hand, let’s say Sanjay was president of the Finance Association while he was a student and now comes back to campus to recruit for Goldman, where he just made VP. Let’s say he’s sent the school an e-mail about Adam, one of his analysts. He loves Adam and wants him to come back to the firm. Adam has goals which Sanjay thinks are in line but call for an MBA. Well, in this case, the school knows Sanjay and trusts him, and so his email gives Adam an extra boost in his application review.

In sum, we always loved to see a short e-mail from a student or alum who took the time to send me a “look out for Samir!” message, and we would always start a file for Samir. But would this make a difference in the admissions decision? Only if the applicant was on the border – a waitlist candidate profile.

As we tell our clients, MBA admissions works just like a business … even like a financial portfolio! The school sets goals for the year and is accountable to all of its stakeholders. They do want to mitigate their risk by choosing mostly “safe bets” but also by making their portfolio a little more interesting by selecting some “risks” as well. Trust the process! They know what they are doing.

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