With about six weeks to go until the deadlines, you should 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:
- Create Reference Letter Guides
- Meet With Your References
- Provide Feedback
- Verify Submission
Create Reference Letter Guides
The purpose of the Reference Letter Guide is to convey to your references the importance of their letter, to ensure they are clear on due dates, and to gently suggest some of the most important evidence that they might include in their letter.
The Reference Letter Guide should only be about a single page. 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 resume. The idea being that, with a little direction from you, your reference letters will provide the kind of evidence admissions officers are most interested in.
By way of review, that includes evidence of:
- General Management Potential
- Career Readiness
Before you create your Reference Guides, we recommend that you re-read the description of each of those evidence categories to refresh your memory and then go through the notes you wrote-up in preparation for drafting your resume.
Given how busy your references are, they don’t have time to learn the finer points of MBA Prep School’s Content Building Blocks. They don’t need to know a Fit Quality from a POD. All they need to know is that you want their letters to supply the kind of evidence and examples that admissions committees are looking for.
Your Reference Guide is meant to jog their memory about some of the achievements you have made on projects and assignments that you have worked on together. The clear message from you is that you would love for them to share some of these experiences in the recommendation letter that they will soon write.
Case Study: How to Manage the Reference Letter Process – Mark
You may recall Mark, the young-brand manager we introduced in the Create Your Resume unit. The way he constructed his Reference Guide is instructive. Mark started by taking a fresh look at the top achievements on his resume and thought 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 new product launch of the alcohol-free baby cologne that was the centerpiece of Mark’s resume. He let his reference know that emphasizing the cross-functional skills he had utilized and writing about Mark’s ability to manage and motivate the team were very important.
When considering the contents of his resume and essay drafts, Mark also made the astute observation that his softer skills weren’t coming through all that clearly in his application so far. This is somewhat to be expected because evidence of softer skills such as integrity and emotional intelligence is always more credible coming from someone other than you.
To address this issue, Mark went back to his list of achievements and found one that he had not been able to fit into his resume or essays about leading regular meetings with executives from other departments more than a decade his senior. He recalled that 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 the Reference Guide he prepared for his boss.
In conclusion, your Reference Guides will be a one-page list of stories and achievements, many from your resume, that exhibit the strengths and qualities you want each of your references to emphasize. To be clear, you should create tailored Reference Guides for each of your recommenders so that they will reinforce different qualities and supplying different stories or at least a unique perspective on the same story.
Meet With Your References
About six weeks from the application deadline, 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 meet in person.
You want to give your references about a month to complete the letters by setting the deadline for reference submission two weeks prior to the actual deadline.
The tone of this first meeting 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.
The critical moment in the meeting is the point at which you walk them through the Reference Guide. Be sure to 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 references want to be told exactly what to do. Some may appreciate guidance whereas others may prefer you to be hands-off.
The last thing you want your references to feel is that you are pushing your own rigid agenda or micromanaging them. Our experience is that most references will be receptive to suggestions, but you should tread carefully and never intrude if they signal to you that they prefer to fly solo. At the end of the day, you chose them for your relay team and you must now trust them to run the race to the best of their abilities.
If you have not been in close contact with your references, we suggest that 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.
Check in with your references, but don’t make 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.
Use this opportunity to update your reference on how your application is progressing. Perhaps over the course of writing your essays you have hit upon a key theme that 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. At this stage, if not before, you might be asked to write the letter or at least help outline it. To reiterate what was said earlier, we discourage candidates from writing the reference letter. Nevertheless, you might need to be prepared to roll up your sleeves to some extent to get the team over the finish line.
By the end of the check-in you should have reminded your references of the deadline and your intent to have all your materials in on time so that you will not be shifted into the next application round where competition may be more intense.
If 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 MBA Prep Step™ section by telling you what admissions committees are looking for when they read reference letters. Your goal now is to make strategic suggestions that will move the letter closer to meeting and, better yet, exceeding 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 have worked together closely over a fairly long period of time. A letter from a reference who has known you for years and been in frequent contact over the course of your relationship is always more convincing than a recent contact or somebody who you have not worked side-by-side with. Sometimes references don’t realize this and don’t adequately express how intimately they’ve known you and for how long.
It is time to double-underscore that examples and evidence are the key to outstanding reference letters. If your references haven’t backed up their glowing superlatives with stories and examples of their observations of you in action, then that’s a fundamental problem that has to be fixed. If your references have touted your strengths and pointed to appealing qualities you possess but haven’t backed those claims up with vivid examples, then you should point this out and suggest some ways they might do so.
Another important 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 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 are reading the reference letter, remember the admissions officer is most keen to see evidence of your leadership capabilities, general management potential, and career readiness. Stated another way, do the reference letters paint you as an individual contributor, or are you depicted as a high-potential leader who achieves objectives by harnessing the energy of others?
Finally, you need to evaluate whether the letter passes the acid test and ranks you in top 10-20% of employees your reference has ever managed. They probably don’t need to say that explicitly. Rather, that should be the overarching message of the points they make about you and the evidence they present. If possible, an explicit statement about how you have distinguished yourself from other people they have managed can be quite powerful. You need to find a diplomatic way to make sure your references understand this.
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 to avoid micromanaging or trying to rewrite the letter, which could seriously backfire. Pick your battles and decide where the letter will benefit from fundamental improvements.
One week from the agreed upon reference letter deadline, the finish line should be in sight. A few days before the agreed upon deadline, send a friendly reminder to your references.
On the evening of the agreed upon reference letter deadline, verify that your letters are submitted. In some cases, schools will allow you to verify submission through their application portal. If not, then checking in with your references by phone or email is a good practice.
If the letters aren’t in, thank them again for their support, and ask when the letters will be ready. Offer to help out in any way you can, including proofing the letter if they feel comfortable with that. Certainly, you want to communicate a sense of urgency.
A missed deadline can be a tense situation, so maintain your composure while reminding them that without their letter your application is not complete and will be shifted into the next application round or even disqualified from the admissions process. Offer any additional assistance to get to the finish line on time.
Speaking of the finish line, we have almost reached the finish line of this MBA Prep Step™ section. In the last unit of this section, we will address some of the questions that applicants frequently ask during the reference letter preparation process.
Unit Review: How to Manage the Reference Letter Process
- Create tailored Reference Letter Guides for all your references so that their letters will supply the kind of evidence admissions officers want to see in MBA reference letters.
- When creating your Reference Guides, refer back to the Content Building Blocks you assembled for your MBA Application Resume.
- About six weeks from the actual application deadline, meet face-to-face with your references to deliver the Reference Letter Guide and formally begin the recommendation letter process.
- The tone of your first meeting needs to be gracious and supportive. Express your willingness to help them in whatever way you can.
- Three to four weeks before the agreed upon deadline check-in with your references to update them on your progress and offer additional support.
- If asked to provide feedback, read the letter from the point of view of an admissions officer and identify fundamental strategic changes that will most improve the letter.
- Examples and evidence to back up the strengths and qualities highlighted by your references is the secret to outstanding reference letters.