This year’s MBA applicants face fewer required essays and shorter word counts than any recent class of candidates. But applicants haven’t been the only ones facing the squeeze over the past few years. Recommenders, too, have found themselves with less and less space to make an impact: over the past several years, schools not only reduced the number of recommenders a candidate was allowed to have, it also cut the word count allotted to those recommenders. Many of the top programs have also converged around the same two recommendation questions:
- How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
- Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
What does this mean for this year’s MBA applicants? First and foremost, applicants need to pick the right recommenders to advocate on their behalf. Second, applicants need to make sure they are adequately preparing those recommenders to write great recommendations.
In this blog post, I’ll illustrate the keys to getting great letters of recommendations for MBA applications by revealing a few snippets of a real recommendation from my own business school applications.
The Keys to Getting Great Recommendation Letters for MBA Applications
Each part of your MBA application should demonstrate different qualities to the admissions committee. Your resume is a place to tell your professional story and to illustrate your accomplishments; your essay is a place to show the admissions committee who you are and what you value. Your recommendations, then, must be reserved to demonstrate characteristics that you yourself cannot credibly speak to:
Are you likable? Are you fun and nice and interesting? The MBA interview has, from time to time, been referred to as a “jerk test” – essentially an opportunity for the admissions committee to weed out candidates that might be arrogant, mean, or even awkward. If the MBA interview is the test itself, then your MBA recommendations are the pre-test: an opportunity for two professionals to say on your behalf that you are, indeed, a good person. This is one of the reasons it is important to pick recommenders that know you well over those that are more senior in the organization or those that are program alumni.
Are you a team player, capable of following as well as leading? Many applicants make the mistake of confusing leadership with formal authority. They feel that they lack leadership anecdotes because they’ve never formally managed other colleagues, never had employees report to them. Ironically, business schools are far more attracted to candidates capable of demonstrating leadership in the absence of formal authority – candidates that can inspire those around them to follow their lead not because they have to do so but because they want to do so. Here is a snippet, submitted by one of my recommenders as part of my own MBA application, which illustrates this nicely:
“My initial surprise at [Kyle’s] youth was quickly assuaged when I witnessed him in action, directing a diverse group of people many years his senior. His ability to motivate older volunteers was remarkable…I was particularly impressed with his ability to solicit contributions, never being obsequious or pushy, from much older community figures by cogently presenting arguments.”
Your recommenders can also powerfully advocate for your leadership credentials by describing your ability to know when to follow, collaborate, and defer. While you might be able to describe a situation like this in your essay or resume, a recommender will have a lot more credibility if he or she can do it on your behalf.
Are you curious, humble, and teachable? MBA admissions committees have, in recent years, converged on a similar set of recommender questions. Harvard, Stanford, Wharton, Columbia, Booth, Ross, UCLA, Kellogg….First, the admissions committees ask:
1. How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Then, they ask the recommenders to describe the most important piece of feedback that they’ve given you:
2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
Consider this second question an opportunity for the recommender to demonstrate that you are curious, humble, and teachable. Essentially, it’s an opportunity for your recommender to prove that you are willing and eager to learn – since, after all, you are applying to school. MBA programs are burned every year by admitting know-it-all students more interested in adding the school’s brand to their resume than in learning or growing as a leader. If your recommenders can demonstrate that you are willing to listen to and grow from feedback that they’ve provided, it’s a good sign to admissions committees that you’ll be willing to do the same in business school.
I have two rules when working with applicants and recommenders answering this feedback question:
- First, when working with your recommender to figure out what piece of feedback he or she can describe, choose a genuine piece of feedback – something focused on correcting a real weakness. Again and again, when I am working with applicants, they’ll suggest the same piece of feedback to me as something their recommenders could talk about: “the applicant focuses so much on getting every detail right that they lose site of the big picture.” It’s a ridiculous compliment masquerading as feedback, essentially saying that the applicant is so perfect that they just can’t let go of the finer details and nuances. If you did what the admissions committee asked and chose a recommender that knows you well, you should have a genuine example of a weakness that you’ve worked on with the recommender’s mentorship.
- Second, don’t choose a piece of feedback that demonstrates poor interpersonal skills. Remember that your recommendations are, in part, intended to demonstrate that you are a good person and a good leader. You don’t want to choose a piece of feedback that works against those goals.
Outside of those two rules, almost any piece of genuine feedback will do. Again, the admissions committee is far more interested in whether you are curious, humble, and teachable than in the specific piece of feedback your recommender chooses to discuss. In that vein, the recommender shouldn’t focus on the feedback itself or the situation that prompted it; he or she should focus on how you reacted to it and how you grew as a result of it.
Are you capable of building close professional relationships and mentorships? Finally, admissions committees want recommendations to demonstrate that an applicant is capable of building close relationships with colleagues more senior than themselves. If a boss is willing to invest real time in your recommendation, it shows how much he or she is invested in the applicant’s success, and that only happens when the applicant is a truly capable and affable leader. This, ultimately, is another reason to choose a recommender that you know well over a recommender that is senior in your organization or an alumni of the MBA program. If your recommendation reads like it was written in 30 minutes, it won’t speak highly of your candidacy. Instead, you want to see sentences like these written by one of my own MBA recommenders:
“I introduced [Kyle] to a number of my professional colleagues who were also very impressed…Our friendship has grown into a mentor/mentee relationship where we remain in weekly contact with each other.”
Not only did my recommender invest significant energy and effort in writing my recommendation, he also spoke about his willingness to introduce me to his professional network and adopt me as a mentor.
Two Keys to Getting Great Recommendations
If the four questions above are what admissions committees want your recommendations to answer, then as an applicant, you should be focused on how to help your recommenders succeed in doing so. There are two easy ways to do this:
First, schedule a time to have an uninterrupted conversation with your recommender. Talk about these four questions and any other qualities that you think would be good for your recommender to speak to. Get input from your recommender on what he or she wants to speak to in the recommendation.
Second, after you’ve talked with your recommenders, make sure you provide them the preparatory materials they need to succeed. I think these materials fall into three buckets:
- First, general information about your relationship with the recommender: how and when you met, projects you’ve worked on together, dates, names, etc…
- Second, an overview of what themes you are focusing your application on, why you want an MBA, and what you plan to do post-MBA.
- Third, and most importantly, anecdotes and stories that the recommender can refer to in order to illustrate the qualities he or she claims you possess. This is so critically important; it is the primary differentiator between good recommendations, which talk about qualities an applicant possesses, and great recommendations, which describe situations in which the candidate demonstrated those qualities.
Coming up with these anecdotes and stories, particularly one about a situation where your recommender provided you genuine feedback, can be difficult. It is time-intensive and often exhausting, but it is well worth the effort, particularly because recommenders, who are often busy professionals in their own right, don’t always have the time or energy to invest themselves.
As always, we are happy to help you in this exercise. Feel free to reach out to us through our free consultation service, or stay tuned to this blog for more on MBA applications.
Joe worked at our test prep company. As the CEO of the entire company, I was the manager of Joe’s manager as well as 3 other managers in the Group. However I was very engaged in the company at this particular time, and I was deeply involved in all decision making and processes. During this period of changes at our company, Joe played a major role, and so I met him several times a week- either on staff meetings, brainstorm sessions or one- on one conversations I held with him. Having met Joe in 2000, I have now known him for almost 9 years. We worked together for 6 years until Joe left to start his own company.
Joe was initially a teacher in our company’s SAT division. After less than 1 year he was chosen by the company’s managers to the head the division. As such, he managed a team of 26 teachers, which grew to 55 teachers after one year. He was also responsible for the division’s customer satisfaction and profitability, however he became involved in the marketing side and ended up promoting a revolutionary movement that completely changed the way the product was sold in the company.
After 3 years and the great success he had with his division, we promoted Joe to Vice President of marketing and sales. As such, he was in charge of all 10 branches of activity, as well as the telemarketing salespeople. Altogether he was in charge of around 100 people and two major activities. One was the company’s marketing and strategy, which included researches and campaigns (an activity that commanded a very large budget) and the other was sales. Under this second activity he saw to the running of all branches and was responsible for all the income of the company.
2. Please provide a short list of adjectives describing the applicant’s strengths, and please compare the applicant’s performance to that of his or her peers.
Joe showed the highest levels of initiative, leadership, high presenting skills, intelligence, originality, dedication and charisma. He was known as ‘the guy that made us a religion’. He made people believe in the goal and mission of the company.
I think Joe was one of the most compatible, creative and motivated managers that I ever saw in our company or elsewhere.
I knew Joe first as the division manager of the SAT section and later as the Vice President of Marketing and Sales. When Joe came on as division manager, we were planning to close the division due to lack of sales. Nevertheless, Joe became quickly one of the major characters in our staff at headquarters. He joined in every meeting, every process and every project that our company began. Compared to other staff members, Joe had the best, strongest, most original and most feasible ideas. We put him in charge of many projects that were not related to his division, just because we felt he could do it better than other staff members. In a few cases I insisted Joe would be involved in matters completely beyond his jurisdiction, just to hear his opinion and see if his touch could make things better. Compared to his predecessors, who allowed the division to nearly come to an ignominious end, Joe took a dying body of a section we were supposed to close a few months after his appointment, and made it into a goldmine.
Later, as the Vice President of sales and marketing, Joe came with little theoretical knowledge compared with other marketing vice presidents. However he came on board with 3 years of successful practice and huge charisma, leadership and initiative. It was at this juncture that I became more involved directly with him, and had long sessions in which I tutored him and tried to channel his enthusiasm and skills to the marketing and sales activity. Joe proved to be a fast learner, and we had a repeat of what happened with the SAT division, only now for the whole company.
Sales reps, branch managers, area managers and teachers in all divisions were moved by Joe’s activity and by the projects he led. By the end of his first year as vice president, the company had sold 30% more than it had before. Not only the SAT division, which was still growing rapidly, but the Matriculation division, which we were sure had already reached its potential, grew by another 25% under his command.
3. Please comment on the applicant’s growth during his/her employment with you and on his or her ability to work with others, including superiors, peers, and subordinates.
Joe began at our company as an SAT teacher when he was still a student at university, with no previous knowledge of our industry. Most of what he learned was achieved through self-teaching, practice and experience. He was promoted to Head of the SAT division not only because he was one of the leading teachers in terms of students’ success and satisfaction, but also thanks to his involvement and initiatives in many processes the division went through- R&D, new pilot courses and others.
Once promoted to division head, Joe’s impact on the company grew exponentially, and he turned our losing division into one that was highly profitable and prestigious for the company. Joe quickly went beyond the confines of his job description as Division Head. While he was responsible only for dealing with customer satisfaction and profitability, Joe started marketing and sales processes in the SAT division. This included initiating a new approach to the section’s branding, with which he won a very large governmental tender, putting our company back on the map of the SAT scene in the country. After observing Joe’s work, I understood that what made him such an important part of our company was the way in which he motivated people into action. One of the most incredible phenomena I remember was seeing how the SAT teachers, who made less money than teachers in other companies we owned and who faced numerous challenges in their work, were so devoted to the work and devoted to Joe as a manager. They even referred to their work as an important mission; something they felt had to be done.
For these reasons, Joe was next promoted to the position of Vice President of marketing and sales, where he continued to have a strong impact on our company, and a year before he left us he was promoted again to the position of Vice president of Product Development, being in charge of all teaching activity in our company, and of all 275 teachers in both the SAT and the Matriculation divisions.
Regarding Joe’s ability to work with others, as I mentioned earlier, one of Joe’s strongest qualities is his ability to move people. People went out of their way to please him, to do their work in the best way possible. He changed the whole atmosphere at our company – for the first time since I began working there, people believed deeply that they were doing something significant, that they were part of something big. It happened first with the SAT division, and again with his subordinates when he reached higher positions.
Perhaps even more exceptional is that this same devotion and appreciation was expressed by Joe’s peers. The entire team worked better, had more team cooperation, and after a short time, I myself became a ‘believer.’ The company became more precious and important to me.
Joe was also an excellent and fair manager and peer, and he always put the interests of the company above his own personal comfortability. One very good example of this concerned one of Joe’s direct subordinates, an area manager who we thought would cause problems for Joe when he was promoted to Vice President. This subordinate was married to one of the senior VPs, a superior of Joe. He was a very highly esteemed teacher who also ran the biggest branch with high success, and who had seen himself as a very good candidate for Joe’s job. We were worried that he would impose difficulties and question Joe’s authority and leadership, but when Joe chose his 3 area managers, he convinced us that this man should be one of them. Joe said he was an original thinker and a hard worker, and he wanted these qualities in the people near him. He said he was willing to deal with all the conflicts that might arise, in order to gain the advantages. While indeed things were difficult in the beginning, and the area manager constantly questioned Joe’s decisions, one day Joe informed me that the opposition was weakening, and the teamwork was becoming better. And finally when I had a private interview with all my workers, I talked with this area manager and heard from him how he appreciated and respected Joe.
As Joe’s superior, one thing that struck me about him was that when he believed in something, he was not afraid to say it. Even though it may have been viewed in his superior’s eyes as not nice, or not popular, he was honest about his beliefs. Joe and I sometimes thought differently about things and we would argue for hours with enthusiasms and passion. His arguments were always backed up with reason and logic, as well as research. Although I was his superior and more experienced then him, more then once I was convinced that he was right and changed my decision. When reason was on my side, Joe accepted it without having any ego issues about being wrong.
4. In what ways could the applicant improve professionally? How does he/she accept constructive criticism?
As mentioned before, in all the years Joe worked in our company, he learned from practice only, and had no theoretical basis. This showed in a few occasions, when he would have to do a deep research in order to reach some marketing or strategic decisions. The lack of theoretical knowledge only motivated him to read more and educate himself. I believe that with his unique combination of abilities and talents, and with his high intellect and learning capacity, graduate studies could make him capable of achieving almost any goal that he aimed at. That would be the best professional improvement for Joe, and I’m glad he is doing it.
Joe has no problem in admitting he was wrong or asking for a feedback. During a long period of time, I was tutoring Joe and having one on one sessions with him almost on a daily basis. During these sessions Joe brought up some of the decisions or actions he has taken, asking for my opinion on them. Joe is a very charismatic born leader, so I cannot say that he has no ego at all. However, when it comes to mistakes he has made, it all changes. He assumes complete responsibility for his actions, no matter how wrong or silly they were. He craves learning all the time, and so doesn’t mind being wrong from time to time and being criticized for it.
5. Comment on your observations of the applicant’s ethical behavior.
During all the years I have worked with Joe, he was a role model for his workers and peers in many aspects, including his ethical behavior. I trusted him and never had any doubt about the budgets he managed or the projects he led. A good example of his integrity and ethical behavior is that as head of the SAT division, Joe was responsible for all the teachers’ wages. The policy at the time was that once a year the excellent teachers got a considerable raise in their wages; the good teachers got a smaller raise and so on. Joe was one of the excellent teachers, as his students’ satisfaction surveys showed repeatedly, but he was also head of the division. Only when we promoted him to be Sales and Marketing Vice President, I found out that during all the years that Joe was teaching and running the division, all the teachers got raises but him. When I asked him how come he stayed on the same wage level for so long, he told me he just didn’t feel it was right for him, as head of the division, to give himself a raise as a teacher.
6. What do you think motivates the candidate’s application to the MBA program at Columbia Business School?