While much of the MBA recommendation letter process is outside of your control, the choice of who will write your reference letters is something you do control. In fact, selecting your references will be among the most important decisions you will make in your MBA application campaign.
Unfortunately for most applicants, misconceptions about who the admissions officers would like to hear from end up hurting the chances of admission. By choosing wisely, you can significantly increase the quality of your overall application. In this article we discuss four of the most important criteria to consider when selecting your business school references.
Match with the school’s reference letter requirements
When it comes to choosing your references, it is important to keep in mind that there is not a “one-size-fits-all” solution. Although it is rare, you may actually decide to choose different references for each of the schools you apply to. It is very important to ensure that your references match each school’s specific reference letter requirements. Start with a careful reading of the criteria supplied by each program. Many schools require two references, while a handful require three. At the time of this writing, Stanford, for example, requires two superiors and a peer reference. Harvard requires three letters from people who have supervised you. Read the application instructions carefully because choosing a reference who does not meet the admissions committee’s specified requirements could undermine your entire application.
Ask your current boss for a letter
Your current, direct supervisor should certainly be on your short list of possible references. In fact, most schools specifically ask for a letter from your direct boss. If you don’t submit a letter from the boss, most schools expect you to explain why. A manager or supervisor is what we call your “anchor reference.” Their input counts the most as they can best provide specific testimony about your most recent performance and qualities.
Of course, there are certainly legitimate reasons for not asking your boss to write a letter for you – such as not wanting to risk losing your job. Whatever the reason, proactively address this issue in an optional essay; otherwise, the admissions board might assume you’re trying to hide performance issues.
Choose references that believe in the MBA degree and understand the expectations of an MBA recommendation letter
A reference who is “MBA friendly” and appreciates the value of an MBA is a good choice. Even better is if this individual has written effective MBA recommendation letters in prior years. These individuals will be a better choice than a recommender who has very little idea of what an MBA is, or worse, feels an MBA is not really relevant to your future. Another tip is that, other things being equal, a senior colleague who is open to hearing your input on the letters is better than a reference who will resent any changes or suggestions that you might believe are critical.
We have saved one of the most important points for last: choose your most enthusiastic supporters to write your letters. The definitive question to ask when making your final decisions on who will write your MBA recommendation letter is: will they write a letter that states that you are in the top 10-20% of employees they have managed over the course of their career? Remember that top-tier business schools only admit the top 10-15% of applicants. Therefore, it is critical to request reference letters from your two or three most devoted fans — senior colleagues who truly value your contributions to the organization and the relationship you have built with them over the years.