The Secret Sauce for Outstanding Letters of Recommendation

In the process of preparing rigorous application essays and resumes, recommendation letters run the risk of possibly becoming an undervalued component in an MBA application. But your recommendation letters can make or break your admit because they are the most authentic proof of your credibility as you claim in your essays. They inform the schools whether the stakeholders you work with see your contribution and role in the organization the same way you do.

Most MBA schools seek similar information in the LORs, such as the length of the applicant’s professional relationship with the recommender, areas of strength and weakness, response to constructive criticism, and comparison with peers (interpersonal skills, leadership qualities, and future potential). The adoption of common GMAC format at most global business schools has simplified the LOR writing process for recommenders. Yet sometimes there exists a large and common gap in understanding what the admissions officers truly look for in the letters of recommendation.

Simply put, the Adcoms look for examples that corroborate the qualities and skills you mentioned in your essays. And commonly missed in recommendation letters are the details of those “instances” where your manager thinks you have outdone his/her expectations. Simply listing multiple qualities in the letter is not enough; actions speak louder than words. Therefore, LORs where recommenders get into the vivid details of the projects setting the context and providing action-oriented descriptions about how the applicant contributed to the team’s success fetch bonus points.

We often hear that recommenders have no prior experience with writing recommendations. Asking for a strong recommendation is sometimes awkward and seen as culpable in some very traditional companies. I too was once refused a recommendation by my direct supervisor, who felt I was disrespecting my employer’s investment in my growth by pursuing an MBA. This led me to eventually get my recommendations from my strongest advocates in the company, my senior colleagues, instead of my direct supervisors. And this is okay, for as long as your strongest advocates have worked with you directly and can get into the details of how your work impacted the projects they were leading, setting the context that brings the Adcom to see value in your contribution, you will have created a climate of credibility.

Things to keep in mind while preparing for strong LORs

  1. Start Early and identify your strongest advocates if a current supervisor does not comply or seem a strong advocate, ask a senior colleague or an ex-supervisor. Some schools will require more than one LOR. Choose your recommenders carefully.

Special Tip-To bring variety to your LORs, you may ask one of your clients or vendors or business partners to be the 2nd recommender. That will bring an “outside” perspective on your skills of building confidence with clients or company’s external stakeholders. People in client facing roles such as consulting, business development, sales or social enterprises can leverage this strategy.

  1. Discuss with your recommenders how you would like them to share 2-3 clear and concrete “examples” of how you demonstrated certain qualities at work. Qualities without examples and context backing them will not have the same impact as when the reader reads the detailed context, vividly imagining the fiasco at your office and how you came to the rescue. It is okay to discuss and re-visit your projects and accomplishments with your recommenders to help them recall the impact of your work on the company’s business or operations. Quantifying your work adds immense value. Having this conversation with your recommender will also help build confidence between the two of you.

For example, you may discuss with your recommender that saying ” ‘Applicant A’ took up challenging tasks and extensively prepared daily action plans and led the team’s collaboration to help him within their capability.” evokes less excitement than saying,

Once, a major problem emerged when the Marketing team faced coordination issues with the Production team due to communication gaps. ‘Applicant A’ handled the impasse with maturity and took measures to clear their differences. He organized a week-long team workshop between the two teams to break the ice. He then organized meetings between key stakeholders, flushing out the roles, tasks, and ownership. He also established regular monitoring stand-ups and facilitated this process with follow-ups and progress reports. He has since gained popularity in the company for his support in progressing their projects. Due to the rapport ‘Applicant A’ has built with the Marketing team, he has been appointed Production team’s official correspondent on Marketing projects.

  1. Never share your essays with your recommenders. If you do, that would be a loss of an opportunity where your recommender could bring in new perspectives on your leadership capabilities, or new examples that you may not have considered in the essays. If you show your essays to your recommenders, they may get biased by the stories from your essays or may experience writer’s block. To make it worse, the Adcom will most likely see through the “manufactured” recommendations.
  2. Attempting the weakness or constructive feedback question
    Attempting the weakness or constructive feedback question in the LORs is no different from attempting the same in an MBA application essay.

Such a question is the admissions committee’s primary tool for determining how the applicant responds to constructive criticism and whether the applicant can self-reflect on his or her actions and character traits. Schools also want to know what measures the applicant has taken, with sufficient awareness and effort, to improve with the feedback so that it will not affect the applicant’s ecosystem in the MBA program and beyond.

The best way to answer this question is to go beyond vague, unimaginative weaknesses such as “impatience,” “workaholism,” and so on. Such weaknesses may be respectively interpreted as a “personality issues,” and may raise a red flag.

Good examples of weak areas are ones that if shaped with will and positive reinforcement, can help the applicant become a better manager in what he/she is currently doing.

For example, A manager may comment that ‘Applicant A’ has occasionally overlooked specific reviews and approvals in his haste to complete a project and deliver a result. ‘Applicant A’, however, acknowledged when the supervisor told him how his oversight affected other stakeholders and the business timelines. ‘Applicant A’ reflected and corrected his project approach by taking extra care to align all variables much ahead of time to achieve exceptional results.

Examples of a person working on his/her mistakes builds Adcom’s confidence in the applicant’s abilities.

Lastly, remember- a recommendation full of detailed accomplishments is more potent than a vague LOR having a list of qualities but devoid of examples.

Feel free to reach out for more personalized feedback

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