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The Business School Application Process: Part 5: Recommendations

People dig you.

Well, let’s hope they do, at least, because once you’ve requested that your transcripts and documentations be sent to schools, it’s time to find a few people who are willing to vouch for your aptitude for graduate business studies:
Step 5: Solicit and obtain letters of recommendation.

Adcoms (admissions committee members) don’t know you. Some MBA programs don’t even offer interviews, though most of the top ones do. In most cases, all they’ll see of you is a short stack of paper, and they’ll probably have hundreds or thousands more very much like yours from other applicants who want to get into their program just as much as you do. Standing out from the pile can be difficult, but it’s absolutely crucial to gaining acceptance (and, perhaps, scholarship offers) to your desired program(s).

Chances are good that your “numbers” are more-or-less set. If you’re considering business school, then you’ve either finished your undergraduate education (in which case you can’t do anything to nudge your GPA up any more) or are very near the end of it (in which case you have very little time to make even a small positive change in your GPA). You may still have time to improve your GMAT/GRE score(s), which can definitely help. But more likely than not, your best opportunity to shine comes from two sources: your application essays and your letters of recommendation.
Solicit recommendations early.

Since the letters of recommendation aren’t fully under your control, you should solicit them before you start working on your application essays. Give yourself two to three months before you plan to submit your apps so your recommenders (who are probably busy people) have time to write an insightful, well thought-out, glowing recommendation.
Ask the right people.

Hopefully, when you started this process, you took my advice and followed up with some potential recommenders. If you haven’t done so yet, now’s definitely the time. Make a quick phone call or send an email. Invite him/her out for lunch or coffee.

But who should you ask? Schools typically have guidelines for applicants regarding who should recommend a candidate and how many letters must and can be sent. Before you start asking around, visit each school or program’s website. Peruse the “admissions” section. If you haven’t already done so, print out the application and slip a copy into your application file box. The admissions page or application will contain guidelines for recommendations.
Follow instructions.

Nothing bugs an adcom more than an applicant who doesn’t follow instructions. Don’t send more letters of recommendation than a school accepts. It won’t make you look any better. Two letters of recommendation is a fairly common requirement; three are often accepted (and some schools will accept even more). Most schools want at least one recommendation to come from an academic source, although there is a little bit of wiggle room on this guideline. Unless otherwise specified, it’s usually best to solicit at least one academic recommendation and one professional recommendation.

Some highly competitive programs require a Dean’s Certification form/letter, either during the application process or sometimes after acceptance, which can be tougher to obtain, so work on making communication in-roads as soon as possible to facilitate the process.


Applicants come from a variety of backgrounds and apply at various stages of their lives, and adcoms know this. If you’ve been out of school for quite some time and you have a difficult time contacting your old professors, schools will generally accept recommendations from less traditional sources. It’s not uncommon for candidates still in undergrad to submit exclusively academic recommendations; similarly, candidates returning to school after years in a career path often submit exclusively professional recommendations. While this may not be ideal, it’s certainly acceptable.
Get the best recommendations possible.

Most importantly, your recommendations should be absolutely stellar. If you’re not sure how positively a potential recommender will endorse you, ask. Try something direct, but courteous, such as: “How strongly would you be comfortable recommending me to [business school]?” If he or she seems at all hesitant, this is probably not your recommender of choice.

You may know an alumnus of one of the programs to which you’re applying. If so, a targeted letter is a great idea. A targeted letter is one written particularly for one specific program by someone who has close ties to that school or program. In such a letter, the recommender can address your aptitude for that particular program. Such a recommendation is likely to carry more weight, considering the intimate knowledge the recommender has with the school. But here’s a word to the wise: make sure you don’t send the targeted letter to any of the wrong schools. Want to insult an admissions committee? Then send Stanford a letter that outlines why you’d be such a great fit at Harvard Business School. That’s almost a guarantee that you’ll be placed in the “reject” pile.

While an alum or board member can be a great recommender if he/she knows you well enough to endorse your application to graduate studies, submitting “celebrity” letters just for name recognition won’t do you any favors. Like I said before, the most important element of any recommendation is its quality. Your recommenders should be able to address your aptitude for graduate studies in your particular program of choice. They should mention things like your work ethic, your attention to detail, your attitude and how you interact with other students or co-workers, your intellectual curiosity, your written and verbal communication skills, your logical aptitude, your critical analysis skills, etc.
Provide resources.

I hope this point is obvious, but it’s still worth stating. Make sure you provide your recommenders all the proper forms and guidelines they need. If a particular school requires a specific form, make sure you provide it along with your request.

To make their jobs a little bit easier, provide a résumé to each recommender and supplement the résumé with notes. Include a story that illustrates a particular skill or trait that he or she might include in the letter, but make sure the story is relevant to the particular recommender in question. If you have them done, provide a draft of one of your application essays or another writing sample.

Also, be sure to provide envelopes that are already addressed and stamped. Recommending you shouldn’t cost the gracious writer anything and shouldn’t be a hassle. And I’m sure you want the letters to get to the right places, so do the legwork yourself. In short, make it as easy as possible.
Set a deadline.

Don’t forget that recommenders are people, too. They have other priorities, most of them more important that writing a letter of recommendation for a business school applicant. To help the process along, set a deadline for him/her and make sure to follow-up on occasion–maybe every two weeks. Don’t be annoying, for sure, but check in with a quick email asking if he/she has had a chance to look over the forms and materials you presented and ask if he/she has any questions you might be able to answer to help with the process.
Show your gratitude.

Be forewarned that some schools require a very specific recommendation form, and any good recommendation will take some time and effort to be well-written, so you should be extremely courteous and thankful of anyone willing to jump through such hoops for you. Once your letters are in, do more than just say thank you. Send “thank you” cards to your recommenders. Take them out to lunch or coffee. Make sure your recommenders know they did the right thing by signing their names to your application to schools. A little bit goes a long way.

Once your letters of recommendation are taken care of, it’s time for you to start writing. Next up in the series: application essays and personal statement.

Check out other articles in this series:

The Business Application Process Part 1

The Business Application Process Part 2

The Business Application Process Part 3

The Business Application Process Part 4

The Business Application Process Part 5

The Business Application Process Part 6

The Business Application Process Part 7

The Business Application Process Part 8

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