Many applicants have a hard time deciding who should recommend them for business school. Of course, they want someone who will say wonderful things about their leadership and potential. But can they ask their boss without jeopardizing their job? If they do ask their supervisor, will they get passed over the next time a great project or even a new position becomes available? Worse yet, will their names go to the top of the list for lay-offs?
If this is your situation, don’t worry. Admissions committees know that telling a direct supervisor you want to get an MBA can be a tricky situation. Just explain why you can’t ask your current supervisor and instead ask a previous supervisor or perhaps another manager or major client who knows your work well. You do need at least one letter directly related to your work experience, and two work-related letters are preferable.
The key is that each recommender must know details about your leadership, teamwork, interpersonal skills, professional accomplishments, and managerial potential. An upper-level manager who dashes off a few lines is not going to help your case nearly as much as someone at a lower level who is able to write pages of praise. Remember, the AdCom is looking for an objective source to support your application and won’t be impressed by someone with an impressive title who has little to add.
Don’t ask a coworker. And don’t ask a family friend or relative. (Even if you work for them!) If you can get only one letter from a current or past employer, think about others with whom you’ve worked closely in perhaps a community activity or professional organization.
Writing style doesn’t matter, but content does. Some recommenders write long letters of praise, and some write short answers with pertinent details. If they are pressed for time or don’t like to write, they may ask you to draft a letter for their signature. This isn’t preferred by AdComs, but it does happen. If you do provide a first draft, you should ask them to add their own perspectives and make sure they are comfortable with all the content. It is their name and signature, after all.
Whatever you do, don’t forge your letters of recommendation! Most people would never think of taking such a risk, but some do. Remember that members of the committee literally read thousands of letters of recommendation (LORs) every year. They have a good sense of what is genuine and what isn’t. And many schools will routinely call recommenders to check on a questionable letter.
When we worked at the top b-schools, we expected to read glowing letters full of praise about stellar candidates, but occasionally we would read letters that didn’t exactly support certain aspects of the application. If we also had other concerns about the candidate, we would note my suspicions about the LOR and deny the applicant. We remember reading files of possible admits, but something about one of the letters wouldn’t ring true. So we would call the recommender, identifying ourselves as calling from the school. The person who would answer sometimes seemed confused and gave unsatisfactory answers. A few minutes later the applicant called and tried to explain. By then, we knew the letter had been forged, and the applicant was denied.
Finding the right people to recommend you shouldn’t be hard if you think about who knows your skills and accomplishments best. Most importantly, take the time to speak with each person about your goals and be clear about what needs to be done for each school and when. And thank them, thank them, thank them! They may just be providing you with the extra boost you need to go from being a possible admit to a strong admit!