An important component of the MBA application is the recommendations. While it seems that this piece may be out of your control, you can do plenty to ensure that your recommendations shine as brightly as the rest of your application.

Who are the Right People to Ask?

I’m often approached for advice on who candidates should ask to write their recommendations. You have to choose the right people—that is, those to whom you have reported in some way, formally or informally.  People who were in a position to judge you.  And, most importantly, people who have worked with you directly and can speak about you from their firsthand experience. An ideal set of recommenders can talk about you from varying perspectives (rather than two people from the same project team). They also think extremely highly of you, and they are willing to spend the time writing about it to help you achieve your dreams.

Should you make an effort to ask an alum of the school to which you’re applying? If all things are equal, then sure, why not. If you’re choosing between two great options, it can’t hurt for the admissions committee to see an endorsement from someone personally invested in the school.  However the other factors are really the most important ones to consider, not their pedigrees or impressive-sounding titles. It’s about finding the people who can provide the most intimate and glowing accounts of how they’ve seen you bring your skill set to life.

How Do I Prepare Them?

A few months out, you should be putting the bug in your recommenders’ ears and making sure that they’re on board for what’s to come. About six weeks lead time is appropriate for them to tackle the recommendations themselves.

In advance, set up a call or meeting and provide them with a brief writeup of your target schools and their deadlines (note: their deadlines should be well in advance of yours). Recap your background, goals, and why business school is your best next step. Give them a few thought-starters on strengths, qualities and achievements you may want them to highlight—and then encourage them to add as much beyond that as they can. The top business schools are looking for future leaders and managers. Are you a high achiever? Someone who takes initiative? Are you able to influence others? Do you adapt well to change?  Remind them of a few stories that might help them convey the potential you hold.  The best recommendations provide specific anecdotes and examples to support their commentary.

What’s Changed?

In the past, each MBA program had a different set of recommendation questions. What a burden on your recommenders! Thankfully, several schools have recently agreed upon a common set of questions, so if you’re applying to Harvard, Stanford, Darden, Yale, Columbia, Wharton, and Kellogg, among others, you can feel a little less guilty about the time that your recommenders will need to invest. That said, you’ll still want to encourage them to customize each recommendation to the school they’re writing for, and you can prepare them by writing up a few thoughts on why you’re so passionate about attending each program.

What Hasn’t Changed?

Your recommenders must write the recommendations themselves.  If they aren’t willing to do that, respectfully ask someone else who will.  Waive your right to see them, and show your confidence about what’s inside. No cheating. No peeking.  Live and respect the honor code (your candidacy depends on it) and know that if you’ve picked the right people, they’ll do a better job bragging about you than you ever would.

[For more information about recommendation strategy, handling challenging recommenders, or general MBA admissions advice, email us at]

© Hillary Schubach, August 6, 2014 3:49 pm MT