If you’re just starting to work on your business school applications, there are some pieces that are already pretty well formed, such as your undergraduate GPA, your work experience, and perhaps your GMAT score. The rest of your application components are still largely unformed — such as your essays, your interviews, and your letters of recommendation. Of the pieces that have yet to take shape, your letters of recommendation are the ones over which you have the least control. After all, someone else is writing them for you! But fear not — there is a lot that you can do to ensure that your recommendations are impactful, memorable, and fit with the rest of your MBA applications.
The first thing you can do is give your recommendation writers plenty of time. Ideally, you’ll first approach your recommenders two months in advance, and provide them with everything they need at least a few weeks before you need their recommendations. Writing a recommendation is no small task, and it can be stressful for the recommendation writer even without added time pressure! This is especially true if you plan on asking each recommendation writer to provide multiple recommendations; writing three recommendations can in fact take almost as much time as writing one, so err on the side of giving your recommenders more than enough time!
The second thing to do is help your recommenders understand why you’re applying to business school and what you hope to do with an MBA. You probably hope to get a better, higher-paying job, but what else can you share? What industry do you want to go into? What role do you see yourself in, both now and five or ten years from now? Also, think about what you have and haven’t learned or accomplished until now — what will an MBA provide that you don’t already have? Your recommendations don’t need to perfectly repeat all of this (and, in fact, if they do it will seem suspicious to MBA admissions officers), but they should at least deliver a message that’s consistent with the message you will deliver in your own essays and in your admissions interview.
The third thing to do is provide with your recommendation writers with specific examples of things that you have accomplished in your time together. It’s one thing for a recommendation to say “This applicant displays great leadership potential,” but it’s infinitely more impactful when the recommendation says, “This applicants displays great leadership potential, such as one time last year when he led a project…” The latter is more believable, and it’s certainly the story that business school admissions officers are more likely to remember as they flip through your application and make a decision about whether or not you’re worth considering further.
There are certainly other things you can do to help your recommenders write effective letters of recommendation — such as showing gratitude! — but if you can at least do these three things listed above, you will be far ahead of the game in garnering effective letters of recommendation that can get you into a competitive MBA program. Your letters of recommendation may be written by someone else, but there is plenty that you can do to help make them not just good, but terrific.
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