Letters of recommendation - at Tuck, we refer to them as "Confidential Statements of Qualifications," or "CSQs". CSQs provide us with additional insight into your career success/potential, as well as your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. The CSQ is the only part of the application not completed by the applicant themselves. Because the applicant isn’t writing the CSQ, sometimes they think that they don’t have much influence over the letter. This isn’t true. By picking the best recommenders to make your case and giving them some guidance, you can have a lot of impact on your CSQ.
Who to pick? Typically, we like to see CSQs from an immediate supervisor. Someone who has worked with you closely and can really speak to your work experience. The recommender doesn’t need to be the CEO or head of the company, especially if he/she has had little direct contact or interaction with you. It is more important to have someone who has worked directly with you than someone with an impressive title.
There are times that applicants don’t want their supervisors to know they are applying to business school. In these situations, a client, previous manager, or contact from an extracurricular organization can be a good option. However, if you are not providing a letter from your supervisor, we suggest you include an explanation in an optional essay so we do not assume that it is because you don’t have a good working relationship with him/her.
We do not recommend asking family or friends for a CSQ. If you work for a family business, and your supervisor is a parent, we suggest asking a client, customer, or non-family member in the organization to write a letter for you instead. Likewise, we do not recommend asking a professor to write the recommendation. We will know how you performed in the class from your grades, and professors are not usually in a position to provide insight into the areas we are most interested in learning about.
Once you have selected your recommender, you should ask that person two questions: 1) are you willing to write a positive recommendation for me? and 2) do you have the time to write a detailed recommendation? If his/her answer to either of these questions is “no,” you should find someone else to write on your behalf.
Preparing your recommender in advance is important. It should go without saying, be sure to give your recommender plenty of time to complete the letter by the school’s deadline. Then, I recommend taking them out for coffee to talk about your goals and reasons for getting an MBA. Spend some time reminding them of your recent performance reviews, and talk about your significant accomplishments. This will help them write a more compelling evaluation because they will have specific examples to use in support of their comments. Those detailed examples are important. Letters that are brief and state strong feelings either positive or negative without providing examples to support the comments aren’t very helpful. Just saying “Susan is a great team player” doesn’t provide as much insight as a letter that then supports the comment with a specific example.
Now, I am not saying that you should tell your recommender what to say. Obviously, we want an honest assessment of your skills. Occasionally, we will hear that a recommender asks the applicant to write the letter for them and they will sign their name to it. If this request is made of you, find someone else to write your recommendation. Make sure that your recommender is completing the Tuck CSQ form rather than just submitting a generic letter. We ask these questions for particular reasons and want to be sure we are getting the information we need.
Finally, be sure to thank your recommender (profusely!). Writing these letters takes a lot of work, particularly if you are applying to several schools. Show your appreciation, because you may want to use them as a reference again in the future.