In this video, you'll discover why the Reference Letter preparation process is like a relay race. In the role of team captain, you need to recruit a great team, ensure your team is focused on the goal, clear on their role within the team, and on track from start to finish.
First, you'll learn what admissions officers are looking for in your recommendation letters so that you can ensure your letters exceed their expectations. Second, we survey the Reference Letter Preparation Process as a whole and the proper timing of each step in the process. Finally, we offer you some Reference Letter Best Practices so that you will arrive at the finish line of the race with an outstanding set of reference letters for your application.
The competition for a spot in a top tier MBA Program is a lot like a decathlon. There are many events you must excel at in order to win. In this lecture, we're going to talk about winning in the Reference Letter Competition. Some applicants make the mistake of assuming that this is one event in the Decathlon that other people – their references -- will run for them. I tell my clients that the reference letter process isn't a spectator sport, it's more like a relay race where the winning teams work together all the way to the finish line.
While it's true that your references are the most important runners in the race – you need to play the role of the team captain. You need to recruit a great team, ensure your team is focused on the goal, clear on their role within the team, and on track from start to finish. Because, trust me, the other teams you are running against are in this race to win.
As we did in our Resume Lecture, let's start off by peering into the mind of the admissions committee. If you know exactly what admissions officers are looking for, you can make sure your letters don't just meet their expectations, but exceed them.
The first question an admissions officer wants answered is "How well does the reference know the candidate? Too many applicants choose their references based on a fancy title or business-celebrity status. You must choose references that you have worked with closely and, ideally, for more than a year.
Following from the first question, does the reference provide evidence to back up their high opinion of you? If you don't remember anything else from this lecture, remember that a reference letter that touts your strengths but doesn't back them up with vivid examples isn't going to advance your candidacy much at all.
The next question in the admissions committees mind when they read your letters is whether or not the letter reinforces or contradicts information you've provided in other elements of your application. If applying to business school were a trial – and in a way it is – your references are your key witnesses – the evidence your references present needs to support your case, not convict you of stretching the truth.
One of the admissions committee's favorite questions is "Whether or not the person writing the letter views you as a leader?" Have you simply done your job or have you gone beyond the call of duty and made a difference? Have you just supported people in your organization – or have you led them?
Admissions officers are also going to be curious how your references rank you versus your peers. When my clients ask me whether or not they should seek a reference from a particular person, my test question is, would that person feel comfortable stating without reservation that you are in the top 10-20% of employees they have ever managed. I realize that's a high bar to set, but the best schools only accept the top 10%-20% of applicants, so they've set the bar that high and it's up to you to reach it.
Related to the question about how well your references know you, the admissions officers will expect your references to know you well enough to have insights into your weaknesses and developmental needs. Questions about weaknesses are particularly worrisome to candidates, and we'll offer you some best practices for handling this potentially thorny topic later in the lecture.
Lastly, the admissions officers will be vigilant for signs that the applicant wrote his or her own letter. Never underestimate admissions officers' ability to figure out when you've written the letter, and your reference has simply signed and submitted it. Whenever possible, choose references who care enough about your success to invest the time needed to write a compelling letter. This is a leadership challenge that you'll need to navigate in your role as captain of this relay team.
Well, now that you know what exactly admissions officers are looking to learn about you through your recommendation letters, let's take a look at the Recommendation Letter Preparation Process as a whole and the proper timing of each step in the process. After helping you understand the process in it's entirety, I will offer you some best practices for each step.
While some of the reference letter process is 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 materially increase the likelihood that great letters will result.
The most important step in the process is your first one – about 6-8 weeks to go before the application deadlines, you will choose your references and secure their agreement to write your letters.
Once you've locked in your references for each school you'll build a one-page Reference Guide for each recommender, and officially kick off the reference letter process with a face-to-face meeting about 6 weeks before the application deadlines.
Next, about 3-4 weeks out, you will want to check in with your letter writer to see how they are progressing, offering assistance if they need any further direction or information.
Last, you will verify submission of their letter a couple of weeks before the application deadline.
Now let's take a closer look at our first step, choosing your references.
About 8 weeks from the application deadline, you should devise your short list of potential references.
So who should you include on your short list?
Start with a careful reading of schools reference letter requirements. Many schools require two recs, and and a handful require three. At the time of this recording, Stanford, for example, requires two superiors and a peer reference. Harvard requires three letters and they all must be written by people who you've worked for in a "supervisory capacity." Read the application instructions carefully because not following the rules could undermine your entire application.
Your immediate, direct supervisor should be on your short list. In fact, most schools specifically ask for a letter from your direct boss or, if that's not possible, expect you to explain why. A manager or supervisor is what we call an "anchor reference." Their input counts the most as they can best provide specific testimony about your performance and qualities.
The second reference is where you might get a little more creative with your choices. That letter could be from another superior at the office, but may also be an opportunity to go outside the office. If you sit on the Junior Board of a charity, consider putting the Executive Director on your short list. Or if you have spent a few years volunteering on a crisis hotline, put your program supervisor on your short list. Secondary references can add dimensions and demonstrate the breadth of your passions and character, while still adding to the committee's appreciation of your skills and leadership capabilities.
Deciding not to ask your boss for a references is a potential red flag, and you'll need to explain the reasons why in the optional information essay. There are certainly legitimate reasons for not asking your boss to write a letter for you—like maybe you don't want 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.
Third, a reference who is MBA friendly and appreciates the value of an MBA, or has written MBA recs in prior years will be a better bet than somebody who has very little idea of what an MBA is, or worse, feels an MBA is not really relevant to your future.
Fourth, you've seen your contacts in action, so you need to evaluate how "collaborative" they are likely to be. Other things being equal, a colleague who is open to listening to your input is better than a reference who will resent any changes or suggestions that you might believe are critical.
Next, let's face it, not everyone has a talent for the written word and a knack for communicating persuasive, compelling arguments. We definitely suggest you choose contacts who are good writers. Along those lines a reference with poor English skills can hurt you. I have had clients who obtained permission for their references to write in their native tongue and then had the letter translated. You definitely don't want writing skills or a language barrier to hurt your chances of admission to a top school.
Next, titles do matter and in the best case scenario, the leaders of your firm or organization will write your recs. That being said, a Director who will sing your praises with passion and supply concrete examples to back up that praise is always better than a form-letter from your CEO.
It's also important to choose superiors you've worked for recently because your contributions will be fresh in their minds – and the examples they have to draw from will likely feature your most advanced skills. College professors are rarely good choices – unless the nature of your working relationship was such that a professor can provide concrete examples of your contributions in a professional setting.
We've saved one of the most important points for last – choose your most enthusiastic supporters to write your letters. Remember my litmus test – will they write a letter that positions you in the top 10-20% of employees they've managed in their career? Choose a devoted fan who truly values the relationship you have built over the years.
So you can certainly make assumptions when you're building a short list – but when it comes time to make your choice of who will write your letters – you actually need to "test the waters."
Your first step is to ask each member on your short list if they'd be available for a confidential conversation about some career decisions you've been thinking about.
Wait until they have time for a face-to-face meeting, so that you can gauge their reaction to the conversation and pick up on important non-verbal cues.
This is a high stakes meeting so you should certainly prepare. There are critical issues on the line – like your job security. At the beginning of the meeting, highlight the importance of discretion given you really don't want the whole company to know you might be thinking of leaving.
I always tell my clients – even those that are 100% sure they want to go to business school – to ask their mentors opinion on whether or not they believe they would be a competitive candidate and if now is the right time for them to apply. If the response isn't immediately positive, just listen to what they have to say. You can certainly argue your case, but if they don't quickly come around then you probably have your answer about their appeal as a reference.
If you know the person you're meeting with is definitely going to be one of your references, then you don't have to beat around the bush. Just ask them straight out. In many cases, you might find them offering to write a reference letter before you've even asked.
If a particular contact agrees to write the letter but seems lukewarm, you can always tell them that you'd like to come back to them once you have a better understanding of what the schools will require in terms of personal/community vs. professional references. This leaves you an out if you decided they aren't the right person to recommend you after all.
In any case, yes, no or maybe, thank your contacts and tell them you appreciate their support and their discretion.
After testing the waters, you'll be ready to review your list and make your final choices.
If, while testing the waters, your choice of reference becomes clear that's great and you can skip this step. But some candidates need to weigh the pros and cons more carefully.
If you're really perplexed at this point, you can seek the advice of a parent, a sibling or even an admissions consultant. Remember, you're choosing the members of your relay team for one of the most critical races of your life – so don't make these choices lightly.
Your final selection comes down to separating the must haves from the nice to haves in a reference. We feel the most critical factors are the direct supervisory relationship, how recently you've worked together, and the reference's ability and willingness to provide specific stories and examples that portray you as top-performer. The red flags that might disqualify an otherwise attractive reference are weak writing or language skills – that's really tough to manage around – a lack of enthusiasm about your candidacy, a negative attitude towards the MBA degree, or tension around your leaving the firm and your responsibilities.
Let's look at an example of how one of my clients weighed the pros and costs of two anchor references.
This candidate had a tough choice. Her current boss, who was a huge fan of her work, was a VP of Product Development and was 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 degree was irrelevant to becoming a successful product marketer.
On the other hand, another one of her supervisors, though only a young Director and not a native English speaker, was very supportive of my client and told her he was open to her advice on the letter. What's more, though some time had elapsed since they had worked together, my client had stayed in touch with her prior boss and they'd seen each other frequently at software conferences and for business lunches.
So, my client chose her ex boss, despite his lower title and lack of industry clout, and explained why she made this choice in an optional essay. Hopefully, you won't be faced with the decision of passing up a reference from your current boss, but you need everyone on your relay team giving it their all and running in the same direction.
Well, once you've picked your team, you're ready to proceed to stage 2 of the process, which is sitting down with your recommenders to get them started. I recommend creating a Reference Guide for each of your references, which will you will leave with them after your meeting.
The purpose of the Reference Guide is to convey to your reference the importance of their letter, to ensure they are clear on due dates, and to gently suggest some strengths they might reinforce while "jogging" their memory about the most important contributions you've made over the months and years you've worked together.
The Reference Letter Guide shouldn't be longer than a single page – though you can include your application resume with the package if it's ready.
When building your Reference Guide, you'll be using the strategic building blocks you created as part of the preparation phase of creating your resume – the idea being that, with a little direction from you, your reference letters may be able to help reinforce those strategic messages and provide additional evidence in their letters.
Let's take a moment for a quick refresher on those strategic building blocks.
Valued Qualities, Leadership Capabilities, Functional Expertise, Points of Difference, and Career Readiness are the strategic building blocks for your reference letters as well as your resume.
Given how busy your references are, they don't have time for finer points of MBA Prep School's building blocks. My point is that they don't need to know a valued quality from a POD. Just give them a few key messages and jog their memory about some of the projects and assignments that you've worked on together that you'd love for them to write about.
You may recall, Mark, the young-brand manager we talked about in the resume lecture. The way he used his strategic building blocks to build his Reference Guide is instructive.
Mark took a fresh look at the top achievements on his resume and thought about ways his reference could reinforce some of these same strategic messages.
He decided his anchor reference could best speak to his global viewpoint, adaptability, and creativity because they'd worked together on the new product task force. There were also some functional skills his reference could write about such as pricing analysis and retail strategy.
As we were talking about the option my client made the astute observation that his softer skills weren't coming through all that clearly in his application or resume. This is natural because softer skills such as fairness or flexibility are always more credible coming from someone else.
To address this issue, my client went back to his list of achievements and found one that didn't fit on his resume, about leading regular meetings with executives from other departments more than a decade his senior. His boss had rated him highly in the areas of "Integrity and Collaboration" in large part because of his success facilitating these meetings. So he included this experience in his Reference Guide.
To sum up, after you finish your reference preparation you will wind up with a list of stories and achievements, many from your resume and some not from your resume, that exhibit the skills and qualities you would most like your reference to emphasize. You should create tailored Reference Guides for each of your recommenders – because they are likely to be reinforcing different qualities and supplying unique examples. We've included a Reference Guide template in the self-study materials associated with this video that you can use to help you create your own Reference Guides.
Once you've finalized your Reference Guides, your are ready for a face-to-face meetings with your references. People tend to take deadlines and suggestions more seriously when you are meeting in person.
Our best practice recommendation is give them about a month to complete the letters and to make the deadline for reference submission two weeks prior to the actual deadline. Therefore, you'll schedule these meetings 6 weeks from the application deadlines.
The tone of these meetings 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. When you walk them through the Reference Guide, convey that you are simply trying to make their job easier and save them time. Like a good manager, adapt your approach to the personality and style of the person you are "managing." Don't assume all of your contacts want to be told exactly what to do. Some may appreciate guidance, and some may want you to be very hands-off.
The last thing you want is for them to feel that you are pushing your own rigid agenda or micromanaging them. Our experience is that your contacts will be receptive to suggestions, but never intrude if they prefer to fly solo. At the end of the day, you chose them for your relay team and you need need to trust them to run the race to the best of their abilities.
If you haven't been in close contact with your reference, we suggest that at about 3-4 weeks out from the application deadline and a couple of weeks before your agreed submission deadline – it's time to check-in.
Check in with your references without making them feel like you're checking up on them. Contact them to see if they need any additional information or support. Meeting face to face is not necessary but, again, might not be a bad idea if it's possible. Use your judgment, as you want to make this check in as low pressure as possible.
One piece of advice I give my private clients is use this opportunity to update your reference on how your application is progressing – perhaps you're hoping they'll reinforce a key theme that you have decided to push in your essays. This will make the check in less about their progress and more about an update on your own.
Hopefully your reference has your letter fully drafted or at least expresses confidence in getting it done over the next two weeks. At this stage, if not before, applicants are sometimes asked to write the letter or at least help outline it. We always advise not writing the letter yourself, but you might need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves to some extent to get the team over the finish line.
Finally, remind them of the application deadline and your intent to have all your materials in a bit early.
When asked to provide feedback on the letter, you want to evaluate the draft from the point of view of an admissions officer. We started this lecture by helping you better understand what admission committee's are looking for when they read a letter. Your goal now is to make strategic suggestions that will move the letter closer to fulfilling those expectations.
When reading the answer to the question "What is your relationship with the candidate." Make sure that your reference has made it clear that you've worked closely over a fairly long period of time. A letter from a relationship developed over years with frequent contact is always more compelling than a recent contact or somebody who only knows you tangentially. Some times references don't realize this and don't adequately express how intimately they've known you and for how long.
Examples and evidence are key. If your references don't back up their glowing superlatives with stories and examples of their observations of you in action that's a real problem. Have they written about actual projects and challenges you faced and successfully navigated? If they've touted your strengths but haven't backed them up with vivid examples suggest some ways they might do so.
You should ensure that the reference letters are consistent with the picture you've painted with the rest of your application. Does the letter reinforce or contradict the other elements of your application? If you see inconsistencies you need to diplomatically point them out and find the best solution whether it be suggesting changes to the letter or modifying the elements of your application to ensure consistency.
When you're reading the reference letter, remember the admissions officer is most keen to see evidence of your leadership capabilities and potential. Stated another way, are you painted as an individual contributor, or are you painted consistently as a leader who achieves objectives by harnessing the energy of others?
Finally, you chose your references on the basis that they would rate you in the top 10-20% of employees they have ever managed. When you're reading this letter, have they stated explicitly or implicitly that this is where you're ranked? If it doesn't, depending on your relationship, you might need to be candid about including an explicit ranking statement.
Providing feedback and diplomatically managing your references can make the difference between a good letter and a great letter. The key is to understand where the strategic adjustments need to be made, and to avoid micro-managing or a wholesale rewrite of the letter. That could actually back-fire! Pick your battles and decide where the letter needs fundamental improvement.
Well, now you are 1-2 weeks out, and the finish line is in sight.
With the date you and your reference agreed to nearing, you should check in with your references to see if the letters are in. In some cases, schools will also allow you to verify submission through their application portal.
If the letters aren't in and it's getting down to the wire, email them and thank them one last time for their support, and ask when the letters will be ready. Again, offer to help out in any way you can including proofing the letter if they feel comfortable with that. Certainly, you want to create a sense of urgency.
If the agreed submission deadline has slipped, check in by phone. This can be a tense time, so maintain your composure while reminding them that if your application isn't complete, you won't be considered in that round. Offer any additional assistance to get to the finish line on time.
Speaking of the finish line, we've almost reached ours. I'd like to finish up by addressing some of the questions that my clients frequently ask me during the reference letter preparation process.
A question I get every year during the reference letter process is "Should I waive my right to see their reference letters?" Our recommendation is that you should. This does not preclude your reference writer from deciding to share their letter with you along the way. We recommend waiving your right to receive copies of your letters because it shows you are confident in your relationship with your reference. References, by the way, will be informed about your answer to this question. Some Admissions Officers say they don't hold an applicant's decision to retain the right to view rec letters against the applicant one way or the other, but, still we advise our students to do so.
Another common question is whether it's OK to seek a reference from an influential family friend or a VIP alumnus, even when there has been no direct supervision or a work connection with this individual. I'll refer you back to one of the very first slides in this lecture. You must choose references who have worked with you extensively in a direct supervisory capacity. In some case, admissions committees may even feel that you are trying to get in via influence rather than by merit. In certain instances, if you have had some direct interaction with an influential business leader or alum but not enough to qualify them as one of your primary references, you can see if the school will accept a supplementary or "side letter" from this person. Side letters of support will sometimes be considered outside of the formal application process once your application is in. We recommend asking the helpful party to wait to send the letter until a couple of weeks after you've submitted your complete application.
Next, I want to directly address the one reference letter question that terrifies almost all applicants: Tell us about the applicant's weaknesses. My clients ask me what is a good weakness to pick that will satisfy the admissions officer without hurting the candidacy as a whole. Clearly, your references should steer clear of any character weaknesses like stubbornness or an inability to control one's temper. The biggest pet peeve of admissions officers is the "strength disguised as a weakness" answer. For example, like you try to take on too much work. On the other hand, an appropriate answer could be the flipside of a strength. For example, if you are an extremely results oriented person, you may rush past the sometimes painstaking process of building consensus for decisions.
Whatever you and your reference choose, try to make it a weakness that you have started to address and have shown improvement on.
The next question only affects a subset of applicants who work in family businesses - you can't ask mom, dad, or any family member for that matter, to write you a reference – it's simply not going to be viewed as objective – so you'll want to find another supervisor in the company or even possibly a client or customer who you've impressed over the years. I often suggest that applicants from family firms also try to get a non-work reference—maybe from a community service or non profit organization they've volunteered with.
What do you do if asking for a reference from your current employer will jeopardize your job security or threaten your next bonus? You may have to seek a reference or two from a previous employer or outside of work.
I'm also asked if its permissible for your references to write one general letter rather than answering the specific questions on each school's reference letter form. Let your references know that they need to answer the questions asked to allow an apples to apples comparison with other candidates.
Next, every year we're asked should references rank you in the top category across the board? Your letter loses some credibility if you are ranked in top 2% in every aspect of your job. Certainly they should never rank you below average in any category. Advise your references that their rankings should be consistent with the substance of their letter. For example, if your reference has praised your communication skills in the letter and provided evidence of this strength, then a top 2% ranking would be appropriate.
Finally, your references have worked hard for you throughout this process. Send them a hand-written thank you note to show them how much you appreciate their support.
Well, you are ready to choose your reference team, guide them, support them, and get over the finish line. MBA Prep School is also here to support you every step of the way. Our Admissions Consultants can work with you in private, one-on-one tutorials that will guide your reference strategy, help you build a top notch resume, and develop and execute on essays that will set you apart from the competition.
Your reference letters are a critical component of your MBA Application, and we are here to help.
So good luck in developing and executing on your reference strategy, and PREPARE TO BE ACCEPTED!
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Reference: Lecture Slides and Speaker Notes
Tool: Reference Selection Template (Word Format)
Tool: Reference Selection Template (PDF Format)