MBA Application Recommendation Letters

The competition for a spot in a top-tier MBA Program is like a decathlon – you must excel in several events to win! MBA recommendation letters are a relay race event where the winning teams, made up of you and your references, must work together to win!

While it’s true that your MBA references are the lead runners in this relay race, you have a central role to play as the team’s captain. Your job is to recruit an excellent team, train them, and ensure they are poised to reach the finish line.

In this article, MBA Prep School will first share what admissions officers are looking for in your MBA recommendation letters so that you can ensure your letters exceed their expectations. Second, we will review the reference letter preparation process. Third, we will offer guidance on how to select your recommenders. Fourth, we will discuss how to support your references to ensure optimal results. Last, we answer frequently asked questions about reference letters.

In this article, you will learn a series of reference letter best practices so that you and your reference letter writers will arrive at the finish line of the race with a fantastic set of MBA application recommendation letters.

What Are Admissions Officers Looking for in an MBA Recommendation Letter?

Let’s begin by peering into the mind of the MBA admissions officer who will be reading your reference letter. If you understand what admissions officers expect when they read your reference letters, you can collaborate with your references to make sure your recommendation letters exceed those expectations.

When reading reference letters, admissions officers ask themselves the following seven key questions:

How well does the reference know the candidate?

The first question an admissions officer will have is, “How well does the reference know the candidate?” Too many applicants choose their references because they have a fancy title or celebrity status in the world of business. Instead, you want to select people to write your recommendation letters because you have worked with them closely and, ideally, for more than a year.

Does the reference provide evidence to back up their praise of the applicant?

Does the writer provide evidence to back up their high opinion of you? If you don’t remember anything else you read in this article, remember that an MBA recommendation letter raves about you but does not present any evidence of your positive attributes will do little to advance your MBA candidacy.

Do these recommendation letters support or contradict the other elements of the MBA application?

Another question in the admissions committee’s mind when they read your letters is whether the recommendation letters reinforce or call into question information you have provided in other elements of your MBA application. If applying to business school were a trial – and in a way, it is – your references function as your “star witnesses.” The evidence presented by those witnesses must support your case, not convict you of stretching the truth.

Does the reference view this candidate as a leader?

One of the admissions committee’s favorite questions is whether or not your references view you as a leader. Have you simply done your job or gone beyond the call of duty and made a difference for the organization? Have you emerged as a leader?

Where does the reference rank the MBA applicant relative to his peers?

MBA admissions officers want to know how your references compare you to your peers at the office. When deciding whether or not to seek a reference from a particular person, a good test question is: “Will this person be comfortable writing that I am in the top 10-20% of employees they have ever managed?” While that’s a high bar, keep in mind that the most selective business schools only accept the top 10%-20% of applicants. The bar is indeed high, so it’s up to you (and the people who write your MBA recommendation letters) to reach it.

Does the MBA recommendation letter writer have insight into the applicant’s developmental needs?

The admissions officers will expect your references to know you well enough to have insights into areas where you need to grow. Constructive feedback questions that appear on the reference letter forms tend to worry MBA candidates, so later in this article, we’ll offer you some tips for handling this potentially thorny topic.

Who actually wrote this MBA recommendation letter?

Lastly, the admissions officers will be looking for signs that you might have written your recommendation letters for your recommenders. Never underestimate admissions officers’ ability to figure out when you have penned the letter and your reference has simply submitted it. Whenever possible, choose references who care enough about your success to invest the time needed to write an outstanding MBA recommendation letter. This decision is one of the leadership challenges you’ll need to navigate in your role as captain of the “relay team.”

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The MBA Reference Letter Process

Now that you know what admissions officers will be looking for in an exceptional MBA reference letter, let’s take a look at a well-managed MBA recommendation letter process and the ideal timing of each step in the process.

While some elements of the reference letter process are outside of your control, by making good choices about who will write your letters and then coaching and supporting them along the way, you can significantly increase the likelihood that excellent recommendation letters will result.

8 Weeks+ Before the Deadline: Select Your Recommenders

The most important step in the MBA recommendation letter process is your first one. About six to eight weeks before the MBA application deadlines, you will select the people you want to serve as your references and secure their agreement to write your letters.

6 Weeks Before the Deadline: Build Reference Guides

Once you have picked your references for each school, you need to build a Reference Guide for each recommender. We recommend you finalize your guide and meet with your references about six weeks before applications are due. Next, we tell you what kind of information to include in your Reference Guide.

4 Weeks Before the Deadline: Offer Support

With about three to four weeks until the MBA application deadline, you will want to check in with your letter writers to see how they are progressing. Offer to assist them if they tell you they need active support from you.

2 Weeks Before the Deadline: Verify Submission

A couple of weeks before the application deadline, you will want to verify that your recommenders have submitted their letters.

Now that you understand the steps in the process, let’s delve into who you should select as your references. We will also advise you on ways to effectively collaborate with your references to increase the probability of outstanding MBA recommendation letters.

How to Select Your MBA Application References

There are three steps in the process of selecting your references. You need to:

  1. Make a Shortlist
  2. Test the Waters
  3. Select Your References

Make a Shortlist

About eight weeks before the application deadlines, you should create your shortlist of potential references. Below, we summarize the most important qualities to look for in a reference:

Match with each business school’s reference letter requirements

Start the reference selection process by carefully reading each MBA program’s reference letter requirements. Most business schools require you to submit two references, while some ask for one. Harvard Business School, for example, requires two professional references from individuals who have supervised you. Read the MBA application instructions carefully because choosing a reference who does not satisfy the admissions committee’s requirements could hurt your application.

Anchor and secondary references

Your current direct supervisor should be on your short list of references. Most business schools specifically ask for a letter from your current boss. A manager or supervisor is your “anchor reference” because they are in the best position to provide firsthand testimony about your performance and qualities.

However, there are legitimate reasons for not asking your boss to write a letter for you – such as not wanting to risk losing your job. If given the space on the application form, you should proactively address why your direct supervisor isn’t providing a recommendation letter; if you don’t, the admissions board might wonder if there are performance issues at work.

The second (and even third) reference is where you might want to be a little more creative with your reference choices. That letter could be from another superior at the office, or it could even be an opportunity to take the admissions committee outside the office. For example, one MBA Prep School client sat on the junior board of a charity and asked the organization’s Executive Director to write his MBA recommendation letter.

Your second reference can add dimension to your profile and demonstrate the breadth of your passions and character while adding to the committee’s views on your skills and leadership capabilities.

Values an MBA and understands the recommendation letter process

A recommendation letter writer who is “MBA friendly” and appreciates the value of an MBA is always a better choice than a person who is skeptical about MBA programs. If this individual also has prior experience writing MBA recommendation letters, that’s a plus. Avoid asking for a letter from anyone who tells you an MBA is a waste of time.

Open to collaboration and input

From experience working with your superiors, you have a sense of how “collaborative” they might be. Other things being equal, a supervisor who is open to listening to your input on the MBA recommendation letter is better than a reference who will resent or reject any suggestions you might have about what they write.

Strong communication skills

Let’s face it; not everyone has a talent for the written word or a knack for designing persuasive arguments. We suggest you select recommenders who write well. You don’t want writing skills or a language barrier to hurt your chances of admission to a top business school. Consider asking references for whom English is a second language to write in their native tongue and have their letter professionally translated.

Senior-level in the organization

A manager who will sing your praises passionately and supply concrete examples to back up that praise is always better than a form-letter reference from your CEO. Then again, the seniority of your references can matter to the MBA admissions committees, so in the best-case scenario, a leader of your organization will agree to write your recommendation letter.

Recent interactions

It is essential to choose superiors you have worked for recently because your contributions will be fresh in their minds. Moreover, the examples they incorporate in their letters are more likely to feature your most advanced skills. College professors are rarely good choices as MBA references unless the nature of your interaction can match the kind of experiences other MBA applicants have had in a professional setting.

Enthusiastic supporter

We have saved one of the most critical selection criteria for last: choose your most enthusiastic supporters to write your letters. Remember our acid test: will they write a letter that argues that you are in the top 10-20% of employees they have managed in their career? Whenever possible, you want to choose a devoted fan who truly values the relationship you have built over the years to pen your MBA recommendation letter.

Test the Waters

Your next step is to meet with the people who made your shortlist so that you can make your final decision. When it comes time to make your choice of who will write your recommendation letters, you need to “test the waters.”

Ask for a confidential conversation

Your first step is to ask each member on your shortlist if they’d be available for a confidential conversation about some career options you have been considering.

Sit down face-to-face

A face-to-face meeting is best so that you can gauge their reaction to the conversation and pick up on important non-verbal cues. The stakes are high; you should certainly prepare. There are critical issues to consider, including your job security with your current company. At the beginning of the meeting, highlight the importance of discretion given you do not want the whole company to know you might be thinking of leaving to go to business school.

Ask their opinion about your MBA fit and career timing

We always advise that even if you are 100% sure you want to go to business school, you should ask your mentors’ opinions on whether they believe you would be a competitive MBA candidate and if now is the right time for you to apply. If the response isn’t immediately positive, simply listen to what they have to say. You can certainly argue your case, but if they don’t quickly agree, then you should probably look elsewhere for a reference.

If it feels right, ask them for a recommendation letter

If you know the person you are meeting with is sure to be one of your references, you don’t need to beat around the bush. Ask them! Ideally, they offer to write a reference letter before you even have to ask.

If you aren’t sure, wait

If your supervisor agrees to write the letter but seems lukewarm, you can always tell them that you would like to circle back later once you know what the business schools will expect in a reference letter. This pause leaves you an “out” if you later decide you have better options.

Express your appreciation

In any case, yes, no, or maybe, thank your contacts for the meeting and tell them you appreciate their support and their discretion.

Select Your References

After testing the waters, you will be ready to review your list and make your final selections. At this stage, for some MBA candidates, the choice is crystal clear; others still need to weigh the pros and cons more carefully.

Ask for a second opinion

If you are still perplexed at this point, you can seek the advice of a parent, a sibling, or an admissions consultant at a firm like MBA Prep School. Remember, you are picking your relay team members for one of the most critical races of your life; don’t make these decisions lightly.

Stick to the must-haves

Your final selection of MBA references comes down to separating the “must-haves” from the “nice to haves.” We feel the most critical factors are:

  • The direct supervisory relationship
  • How recently you’ve worked together
  • The reference’s ability and willingness to provide specific stories and examples that portray you as top-performer

Some red flags that might disqualify an otherwise attractive reference are:

  • Weak writing or language skills that cannot be managed around
  • A lack of enthusiasm about your candidacy
  • A negative attitude towards the MBA degree
  • Tension around your possibly leaving the firm and your responsibilities

Let’s look at an example of how one of our clients weighed the pros and cons of two anchor references.

Case Study: Select Your References – Stephanie

Stephanie had a tough choice to make. Her current boss, a big fan of her work, was a VP of Product Development well-known in the software business. The problem was he didn’t have an MBA, and, more importantly, he told her that he believed the MBA degree was irrelevant to her becoming a successful product marketer.

On the other hand, another of her supervisors strongly supported her desire to pursue an MBA but was only a director-level product manager and not a native English speaker. He was also open to her advice on the recommendation letter. Although some time had elapsed since they had worked together, she had stayed in touch with the young director, and they’d seen each other frequently at conferences and for business lunches.

In the end, Stephanie chose her ex-boss, despite his more junior title and lack of industry clout. She explained her reasons for making this choice in an optional essay she submitted with her application.

Hopefully, you won’t face the difficult decision of passing up a reference from your current direct supervisor. However, it does happen. You are better off when everyone on your relay team gives it their all and runs in the same direction.

Once you have picked your MBA recommendation letter writers, you are ready to begin the reference letter process.

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How to Support Your References

With about six weeks to go until the deadlines, you will have selected your references and secured their agreement to write your letters.

There are five critical steps to managing your reference letter process the right way:

  1. Create Reference Letter Guides
  2. Meet With Your References
  3. Check-in
  4. Provide Feedback
  5. Verify Submission

Create MBA Recommendation Letter Guides

The purpose of the Reference Letter Guide is to convey the importance of the letter to your references, ensure they are clear on due dates, and suggest some of the most important talking points and evidence that they might include in their recommendation letter.

Your Reference Letter Guide should only be a page or two in length. You should also include your MBA application resume with the package.

When building your Reference Guide, you should refer back to the evidence you gathered when creating your MBA Application Resume. That’s because you want your reference letters to provide the kind of evidence admissions officers care about.

That includes evidence of:

Before you create your Reference Guides, we recommend that you read the description of each of those evidence categories.

Given how busy your references will be, they don’t have time to learn the finer points of MBA application strategies and don’t need to know a Fit Quality from a Point of Difference. All they need to know is that you want their MBA recommendation letters to supply the kind of evidence and examples that admissions committees value.

Design your Reference Guide to help jog your reference’s memory about the assignments you have worked on together and how you have impacted the organization. Be sure to create tailored Reference Guides for each recommender because you want them to reinforce different qualities and supply new stories, or at least a fresh perspective on the same story.

Case Study: How to Manage the Reference Letter Process – Mark

Mark, a young brand manager, started the process of constructing his Reference Guide by taking a fresh look at the top achievements on his resume and thinking about ways each of his references could reinforce his general management potential, career readiness, leadership, Fit Qualities, and Points of Difference.

Mark decided his anchor reference could best speak to his general management potential, creativity, and global viewpoint because he had supervised the project most prominently featured on Mark’s resume. He let his reference know that emphasizing the cross-functional skills he had utilized and Mark’s ability to manage and motivate the team would be ideal.

When considering his resume and essay drafts contents, Mark realized that his softer skills weren’t coming through all that clearly in his application. To address this issue, Mark asked his boss to mention a series of tense meetings with senior executives that Mark had facilitated during the reorganization of an underperforming division.

Meet With Your References

After you have finalized your Reference Guides, you should meet face-to-face with your references. People tend to take deadlines and instructions more seriously when you sit down with them in person. The tone of this meeting with your references must be gracious and supportive. Express your willingness to help them in whatever way you can. Let them know that you value their time and understand how busy they are. You shouldn’t assume all of your references want you to tell them precisely what to write. Some may appreciate the guidance, whereas others may prefer you to be more hands-off.

In our experience, most references will be receptive to suggestions, but you should tread carefully and watch for signals that they prefer to fly solo. You chose them for your relay team, and you must now trust them to run the race to the best of their abilities.


A couple of weeks before your agreed submission deadline – three to four weeks out from the actual application deadline – it’s a good idea to check in with your recommenders. Check-in without making them feel like you’re pushy. Ask if they need any additional information or support. Use your judgment, as you want to make this check-in as low pressure as possible.

Use a check-in as an opportunity to update your reference on how your application is progressing. Perhaps while writing your essays, you discovered a key theme you want to communicate in your application. By providing new information to your reference, you will make the check-in less about their progress and more about an update on your own.

Hopefully, by this stage, your reference has your letter fully drafted or at least expresses confidence in getting it done over the next two weeks. Reinforce your intent to have all your materials submitted on time to avoid missing the application deadline.

Providing Feedback to your MBA References

If asked to provide feedback on the letter, you want to evaluate the draft from an admissions officer’s perspective. Refer back to our advice about what admissions committees are looking for in MBA reference letters. Your goal is to make strategic suggestions.

If asked to provide feedback, It is time to double-underscore that vivid examples and clear evidence are the keys to outstanding reference letters. If your references haven’t backed up their glowing superlatives with crisp examples of you in action, then that needs to be fixed. For example, if your references have touted your strengths, but haven’t backed those claims up with any evidence, then you want to suggest some ways they might do so gently.

Another essential thing to assess is if your reference letters are consistent with the picture you have painted with the rest of your application. Does the letter reinforce or contradict the other elements of your MBA application? If you spot inconsistencies, you need to diplomatically point them out and find a way to address them.

Ultimately, you need to evaluate whether the letter passes the acid test and positions you as one of the top 10-20% of employees your reference has ever managed. They probably don’t need to say that explicitly. Instead, that should be the overarching message of the points they make about you and the evidence they present.

To sum up, providing targeted, diplomatic feedback to your references can make the difference between a good letter and a great letter. The key is to identify where the strategic adjustments need to be made and avoid micromanaging or rewriting the letter, which could seriously backfire. Pick your battles and decide where the letter will benefit from fundamental improvements.

MBA Recommendation Letter FAQ’s

Every year, MBA Prep School clients ask similar questions about the reference letter process. We have compiled these questions, and we briefly address each one.

Should I waive my right to see their reference letters?

We recommend that you waive your right to receive copies of your letters because it shows you are confident in your relationship with your reference. Waiving your right to have the schools send you copies of your reference letters does not preclude your references from sharing their letters with you directly.

Your references, by the way, will be informed about your answer to this question. Some admissions officers say that reserving the right to read recommendation letters doesn’t count against the applicant, but why take the risk?

Is it okay to ask an influential family friend or a VIP alumnus, even when there has been no direct supervision or work connection with this person?

You must choose references who have worked with you in a direct supervisory capacity. Furthermore, you don’t want admissions officers to feel that you are trying to be admitted based on outside influence rather than merit.

If you know an influential alumnus who wants to support you, you can ask if the school would accept a supplementary recommendation from that person. If a “side letter” is permitted, we recommend asking your supporter to send the letter in a couple of weeks after submitting your MBA application.

What should MBA references write when asked about a weakness or asked to provide constructive criticism?

MBA applicants often ask us what sort of weakness will satisfy the admissions officer without damaging my MBA candidacy. It is a good idea for a reference to point to opportunities for improvement that you will address during your MBA studies. Your references should steer clear of any character flaws, such as stubbornness or a bad temper.

On the other hand, one of the biggest pet peeves of admissions officers is the “strength disguised as a weakness” answer. They can see right through a statement like, “this candidate can’t say ‘no’ to projects and works too hard.”

MBA admissions officers expect your references to know you well enough to have insights about where you can improve. Sometimes your weakness is the flip side of a strength. For example, if you are a results-oriented person, you may rush past the painstaking process of building consensus before taking action.

Your recommender may want to point to ways you are working on a shortcoming to portray you as an MBA candidate who is aware of their weaknesses and attacks them head-on.

We recommend that you read an article we wrote dedicated to the infamous weakness question.

Can my parents or other family members write me an MBA recommendation letter?

This question frequently comes up during our work with MBA candidates employed by a family business. The answer is no. The admissions committee won’t view an MBA recommendation letter from a family member as objective. Therefore, you need to ask another supervisor to serve as your reference or possibly a client or customer whom you have impressed over the years. Alternatively, family-business MBA applicants can consider asking a superior from a community service or non-profit organization to write them a recommendation letter.

What do I do if asking for a reference from my current employer might jeopardize my job security or bonus?

That is a tricky situation. One solution is to seek a reference or two from a previous employer or a community service organization. Remember, if you cannot obtain a reference from your current direct supervisor, you may be asked to explain why in a brief optional essay.

Is it permissible for my references to write one general letter rather than answering the specific questions on each school’s reference letter form?

Most business schools provide specific reference letter questions, and they expect your recommenders to answer those precise questions. If not, the admissions committee will have difficulty making an apples-to-apples comparison with other MBA candidates when they read your letter, which could undermine the strength of your application.

If ranking questions are asked, should my MBA references rank me in the top category across the board?

The answer to this one is no. Your letter loses credibility if your references rank you in the top 2% in every skill area. On the other hand, you don’t want to be rated below average either. Advise your references that their rankings should be consistent with the substance of their letters. For example, if your recommender has praised your communication skills in the recommendation letter and provided evidence of this strength, then a top 2% ranking is warranted.

Final Thoughts on MBA Recommendation Letters

Now you understand that your role in the MBA recommendation letter process doesn’t end the day you select your references. While your reference needs to do the writing, you can still play an active role in managing the MBA recommendation letter process. Providing proper guidance and feedback to your recommenders will significantly increase the odds that you arrive at the finish line with a glowing letter of recommendation.

Free MBA Reference Guide

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