The process of selecting your references includes three steps. You need to:
- Make a Shortlist
- Test the Waters
- Select Your References
Make a Shortlist
About eight weeks before the application deadline you should create your shortlist of potential references. Below, we summarize the most important qualities to look for in a reference:
✅ Match with the school’s reference letter requirements
Start with a careful reading of the school’s reference letter requirements. 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 satisfy the admissions committee’s requirements could undermine your entire application.
✅ Anchor and secondary references
Your current direct supervisor should be on your short list. In fact, most schools specifically ask for a letter from your direct boss, or if you don’t submit a letter from your boss, the schools will 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.
Deciding not to ask your boss for a reference 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 – 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.
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, but may also be an opportunity to go outside the office. For example, one of our MBA Prep School students sat on the junior board of a charity and had the Executive Director on his shortlist. Another student volunteered on a crisis hotline and put the program’s supervisor on her shortlist.
Secondary references can add dimension to your profile and demonstrate the breadth of your passions and character, while adding to the committee’s appreciation of your skills and leadership capabilities.
✅ Values an MBA and understands the process
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 MBA recommendation letters in prior years. These individuals 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.
✅ Open to collaboration and input
Hopefully, you have seen your contacts in action and will be able to gauge how “collaborative” they are likely to be. Other things being equal, a colleague who is open to listening to your input on the letters is better than a reference who will resent any changes or suggestions that you might believe are critical.
✅ Solid communication skills
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 letter written by a reference with poor English skills may hurt your candidacy. We have had students 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.
✅ Senior-level in the organization
Titles do matter, and in the best-case scenario, the leaders of your firm or organization will be willing to serve as your references. 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 reference from your CEO.
✅ Recent interactions
It is also important to choose superiors you have 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 interaction was such that a professor can provide concrete examples of your contributions in a professional setting.
✅ Enthusiastic supporter
We have saved one of the most important points for last: choose your most enthusiastic supporters to write your letters. Remember our acid test: will they write a letter that states that you are in the top 10-20% of employees they have managed in their career? Choose a devoted fan who truly values the relationship you have built over the years.
Test the Waters
Your next step is to meet with the people on your shortlist before you make your final decision. When it comes time to make your choice of who will write your letters, you actually need to “test the waters.”
✅ Ask for a confidential conversation
Your first step is to ask each member on your short list if they’d be available for a confidential conversation about some career options you have been thinking about.
✅ Sit down face-to-face
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, including your job security with your current company. At the beginning of the meeting, highlight the importance of discretion given you really do not want the whole company to know you might be thinking of leaving.
✅ 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 or not they believe you would be a competitive 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 come around, then you probably have your answer about their appeal as a reference.
✅ If it feels right, ask them for a reference
If you know the person you are meeting with is definitely going to be one of your references, then you don’t have to beat around the bush. Ask them straight out! In many cases, you might find them offering to write a reference letter before you have even asked.
✅ If you aren’t sure, wait
If a particular contact agrees to write the letter but seems lukewarm, you can always tell them that you would like to come back to them once you have a better understanding of what the schools will require in terms of things like work and non-work references. This leaves you an “out” if you later decide someone who offered to write a letter is not your best choice.
✅ Express your appreciation
In any case, yes, no or maybe, thank your contacts 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 choices. At this stage, for some candidates the choice is clear; others still need to weigh the pros and cons more carefully.
✅ Ask for a second opinion
If you are really perplexed at this point, you can seek the advice of a parent, a sibling or even an admissions consultant. Remember, you are choosing the members of your relay team for one of the most critical races of your life; so don’t make these decisions lightly.
✅ Stick to the must-haves
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
- 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, 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 MBA degree was irrelevant to her becoming a successful product marketer.
On the other hand, another one of her supervisors, though only a director-level product manager and not a native English speaker, was very supportive of her desire to pursue an MBA. He was also open to her advice on the recommendation letter. Although some time had elapsed since they had worked together, my client had stayed in touch with the young Director and they’d seen each other frequently at software 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 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.
Once you have picked your team, you are ready to formally begin the reference letter process.
Unit Review: How to Select Your References
- Select your references in compliance with the school’s reference letter policies.
- Your current direct supervisor is your “anchor reference.” You might be more creative with your choices of secondary references to add dimension to your candidacy.
- A reference who values the MBA degree, is open to collaboration, and has solid communication skills is most desirable.
- Never choose someone with a lofty title over a reference who can provide real substance in the letter.
- Select references you have worked with recently and who are willing to testify that you are in the top 10-20% of people they have ever managed.
- Test the waters before you ask for a reference by asking whether or not the references on your short list think you are a good candidate for an MBA.