Let’s begin by peering into the mind of an admissions committee member who is reviewing your reference letter. If you know what admissions officers expect when they read your reference letters, you can make sure your letters exceed those expectations.
When reading reference letters, admissions officers ask themselves the following questions:
How well does the reference know the candidate?
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.
Does the reference provide evidence to back up their positive opinions of the applicant?
Does the reference provide evidence to back up their high opinion of you? If you don’t remember anything else from this unit, remember that a reference letter that touts your strengths but does not back up the positive attributes with vivid examples is not going to support your candidacy.
Do these letters reinforce or contradict the other elements of the application?
The next question in the admissions committee’s mind when they read your letters is whether or not the letter reinforces or contradicts information you have 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 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 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?
Where does the reference rank the applicant relative to his peers?
Admissions officers are also going to be curious how your references rank you versus your peers. When our students ask us whether or not they should seek a reference from a particular person, our test question is: “Would that person be comfortable stating without reservation in their letter that you are in the top 10-20% of employees they have ever managed?” We realize that is a high bar to set, but the best schools only accept the top 10%-20% of applicants; so they have set the bar that high and it’s up to you (and the people who recommend you) to reach it.
Does the reference have insight into the applicant’s developmental needs?
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 this section.
Who wrote this letter?
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 have 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 an outstanding recommendation letter. This is a leadership challenge that you’ll need to navigate in your role as captain of this relay team.
Unit Review: What Are Admissions Officers Looking for in a Reference Letter?
- A reference letter is like a relay race and you must play the role of team captain.
- Choose references based on how well they know you, not a fancy title.
- A letter filled with superlatives but lacking examples will not bolster your candidacy.
- Your reference letter must reinforce, not contradict, your other application elements.
- Choose references that view you as a leader.
- Choose references who rank you in the top 10-20% of your peer group.
- References should know your development needs as well as your strengths.
- Support your references but not to the extent of writing the letter for them.