Jul 30, 2014

Finding the right person to speak for you - choosing your recommenders

Letters of recommendation help provide us with additional insight into your career accomplishments, as well as your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses.  The recommendation is the only part of the application not completed by the applicant themselves.  Because the applicant isn’t writing the recommendation, sometimes they think that they don’t have much influence over it.  This isn’t true.  By picking the best recommenders to make your case, you can have a lot of impact.

Who to pick?  Typically, we prefer to see recommendations from your professional experience and from a direct supervisor.  Someone who has worked with you closely and can really speak to your work experience, leadership, maturity, team orientation, communication skills, intellectual ability and interpersonal skills in detail and with supporting anecdotes is ideal.  We are not swayed by a recommender’s title.  A brief, generic letter from the CEO who hasn’t worked with you closely won’t have nearly as much impact as a thoughtful discussion of your performance from a middle manager.

One of the top questions I get from applicants is, “I don’t want my supervisor to know I am applying to business school.  What should I do?”  Applicants fear telling their supervisor will impact their job security or potential bonuses.  My first answer is not to worry, we see this frequently.  If you are not providing a recommendation from your current supervisor, you should include an optional essay explaining the situation; otherwise, we may make a negative assumption you don’t have a good working relationship with him/her.  Next, you should choose someone else who can provide good insight.  Some suggestions are: a former supervisor; a co-worker who you don’t report to, but who is senior to you; or a client.  If you have extensive involvement with an extracurricular organization someone in a senior role there can be another good option.  Also, these are all good options for your second recommender since you need to provide us with two.

Another question I frequently get is “I work for a family company and my supervisor is my mother, father, uncle, etc. [or I am an entrepreneur and I don’t have a supervisor] Who should I use?”  We do not recommend asking family for a recommendation.  No matter how hard they try, there is going to be a perceived bias in their comments.  In these situations, we suggest asking a client, customer, outside advisor, or a non-family member in a high-level position within the organization to write for you instead.  You can also use a former supervisor if you worked for another company before you joined your family company or started your own business.  A business partner is also a good option if you are an entrepreneur.

Except for the extracurricular situation I described above, I don’t recommend choosing people who don’t interact with you on a professional basis.   Steer clear of asking professors.  We 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.  Likewise, having a friend write for you isn’t helpful.  They can’t speak to the areas we are looking for, and they come across as biased too.  Occasionally we will see recommendations from a VIP like a government official or high level business leader that the applicant may know but doesn’t work with.  This isn’t helpful.  Again, we aren’t swayed by the title.

Other questions I frequently get on this subject:

“I have had more than one job - should I have two recommendations from my current employer or one from each?”  Use your best judgment on this one.  If your prior job was a long time ago, the information about your performance there might be less relevant.  However, if you have only been in each job a relatively short time, or the two jobs were very different, having the perspective from each employer helps us get a more complete picture of you.  It also helps us see that you left a prior job on good terms.  If two recommendations from the same employer will say essentially the same thing, then giving perspective from another employer is also nice to see.

“What if I have a new supervisor who doesn’t know me well?”  Explain the situation to us in the optional essay and select someone from my suggestions above who does know you well.

“Should my recommender be a Tuck alum?”  Only if he or she works with you closely and can speak about your job performance in detail.  Again, we are not swayed by the title or the credentials; we want the recommender to know you well.  That said, if you work with a Tuckie, they would be a great choice, particularly since they can also speak to your fit for Tuck.

“Can I submit more than two recommendations?”  We would prefer you didn’t.  Only submit a 3rd if you feel it is absolutely critical to providing a complete picture of your candidacy.

“What if my recommender doesn’t speak English?”  In this situation, you should have your recommender write his comments in his native language, and then have it translated into English by an official translator.  You should not translate it for him.

Once you have selected who will write your recommendations, take some time to help prepare them.  It should go without saying, be sure to give your recommender plenty of time to complete the letter by the deadline.  Then, sit down with them 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.   

Now, I am NOT saying that you should tell your recommender what to say.  We want an honest and independent assessment of your skills.  Occasionally, we will hear that a recommender asks the applicant to prepare a draft, or even write the letter for them and they will sign their name to it.  If this request is made of you, you should decline.  Doing so is a violation of the terms of our application process and Tuck’s Academic Honor Principle and could result in rescission of an offer of admission or termination of a student’s enrollment.

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.