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The right references for your MBA application

Katie Schenk - May 30, 2017

glasses hang down from a pile of books

Nearly everything about your b-school applications is frightening.  You’ve got the GMAT that’s your foot in the door.  There’s the cleaning of your CV and the dreaded essays to complete.  And then, your application leaves your hands entirely – you’ve got to submit reference letters.  You’ve got no control over what happens.  Or do you?  You’ve got more sway than you think.

Choose your MBA references carefully

Each business school will provide you with a set of guidelines as to what they’d like to see.  Admissions teams are keen to see professional references and they’re less concerned with academic references.  So, unless a school specifically requests a character reference, you’ll want to stick to people that know you professionally.

Business schools want references from higher level managers so you need to head upwards through the management chain.  That’s difficult if you’re an entrepreneur, or you work for a family business.  It’s also tricky when you don’t want to jeopardise your job.  In these cases, you’ll need to be a little more creative about whom you ask to refer you.

If you can’t include your current, direct supervisor in your reference pack, you will need to complete that optional essay to explain this.  It’s just too questionable otherwise.  And, the last thing you want is to punch extra holes in your application.

Always turn towards supervisors you have had in the past, or other, more-senior employees of your current company if you can.  A client that you work closely with may also suffice.  However, your family (even if that’s who you work with), your juniors and big name business people that you’ve never worked closely should never be approached.  Admissions officers never want to see these reference letters – even if you’re applying to their alma mater.

You also want to ensure you’ve asked people that will count you in their top 10-15% of employees or business leaders.  And, if you’re applying to several schools to hedge your bets, you’ll want to spread the pool slightly, if you can.  Requesting one person to write seven different recommendation letters is a big ask, unless they’re as committed to your MBA as you are.

Guiding your MBA recommender

You do have some flexibility over who you choose to recommend you – and it’s not like they’re sequestered after you’ve popped the question. Once you’ve figured out who you’ll ask, do not leave it there.  You can chat through the rest of your application with them.  It will give your references a better idea of what strengths you want to portray – and hopefully they agree, or offer suggestions on other strengths they feel are not represented elsewhere.

Don’t forget your referees are obligated to discuss your weaknesses; you’ll want them to know that you’re not looking for strengths in sheep clothing.  Be honest with your recommenders about the weaknesses you can already discern – and the ones they can identify too.

Problems with your MBA recommender?

Never just leave your referees unattended.  You’ll wind up with a letter that’s been written at the last minute, under duress.  Asking early and gentle reminders are the part of this process that you can control.  It’ll also help you to avoid recommender mishaps which could jeopardise your application.

Your key MBA recommender could say no

This is the last thing you want. But, if your chosen recommender doesn’t have the time or inclination to help you on your path to success, you don’t want them to write you a reference letter anyhow. But, that does put you in a spot of trouble if you’ve waited too long to ask someone else.

A recommender asks you to write it yourself

You know this is a big no-no, and you should never do this. Still, a lot of applicants are told “if you write it I will sign it.” It’s tempting; it’s an opportunity to describe yourself in the way you want others to view you. And, if you have left it to the last minute, you could certainly find yourself in this situation. After all, you won’t have time to guide your referrer, and this is not always the easiest or most pleasant task.

No matter how tempted you are to write your own recommendation, there is a chance your writing style will resonate from your essays. You could be setting yourself up for a ding. If you can convince your recommender to write your letter, you should move along to the next person.

You may not get to see your reference letter

Depending on your relationship with your MBA recommender, you will have a chance to see a draft of his or her letter before it’s sent (or uploaded). Then again, you might not. While the latter case is disappointing, you can do little about it but trust that you’ve chosen the right person to help you. The best thing you can do is discuss this possibility with your chosen recommenders before it becomes an issue. While you shouldn’t control the content of these letters, you might be able to help fit a letter better within the context of your entire application.

Just because you shouldn’t write your own recommendation letter, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to put time into the process. Reference letters are an important wedge of a cohesive application. And, if you do run into problems, an early start will help you avoid issues.  

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