Every year, MBA Prep School students ask similar questions about the reference letter process. We have compiled these questions and address each one here.
Should I waive my right to see their reference letters?
Our recommendation is that you should. We recommend waiving your right to receive copies of your letters because it shows you are confident in your relationship with your reference. This does not preclude your references from sharing their letter with you along the way.
Your 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 read recommendation letters against the applicant one way or the other, but we still advise our students to waive this right.
Is it okay 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 person?
We have already addressed this question in the previous unit. It is critical that you choose references that have worked with you extensively in a direct supervisory capacity. Furthermore, you don’t want to send the impression that you are attempting to be accepted because of influence rather than by merit.
In certain instances, if you have had some direct interaction with an influential business leader or alumni but not enough to qualify them as one of your primary references, you can check to 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 have submitted your complete application.
What should references write when asked about a weakness or to provide a constructive criticism?
We are often asked 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 such as stubbornness or an inability to control one’s temper.
On the other hand, one of the biggest pet peeves of admissions officers is the “strength disguised as a weakness” answer. For example, “this candidate can’t say ‘no’ to projects and takes on too much work.”
Your references are expected to know you well enough to have insight on where you need to improve. An appropriate answer, however, could be the flipside of a strength. For example, if you are an extremely results-oriented person, you may rush past the painstaking process of building consensus before taking action. It is a good idea for a reference to point to opportunities for improvement that you will be able to address as part of pursuing your MBA.
To mitigate the impact of a weakness on your candidacy, your reference might want to point to proactive ways that you have been working to address a shortcoming and to note that you are already showing improvement.
Can my parents or other family members write me a reference?
This question usually only comes up for candidates who have worked in a family business. The answer is no. A letter from a family member will not be viewed as objective. Therefore, you need to find another supervisor in the company or even possibly a client or customer whom you have impressed over the years. We often suggest that applicants from family businesses also seek out non-work references – perhaps from a community service or non-profit organization they have volunteered with.
What do I do if asking for a reference from my current employer will jeopardize my job security or bonus?
This is a very delicate situation. The only solution may be to seek a reference or two from a previous employer or from leadership activities outside of work. As we mentioned in an earlier unit, if you cannot obtain a reference from your current direct supervisor, you need to explain why in an optional essay.
Is it permissible for my references to write one general letter rather than answering the specific questions on each school’s reference letter form?
Schools provide a list of questions to be answered as a guide for references, but also because they want those particular questions answered. Let your references know that they need to answer the questions asked. If not, the admissions committee will not be able to make an apples-to-apples comparison with other candidates when they read your letter and your application will likely be undermined.
If ranking questions are included, should my references rank me in the top category across the board?
The answer to this one is no. Your letter loses some credibility if you are ranked in top 2% in every aspect of your job. Certainly, you don’t want to be ranked below average in any category. Advise your references that their rankings should be consistent with the substance of their letters. 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.
Unit Review: Reference Letter FAQs
- Waive the right to view your recommendation letters after they have been submitted.
- Don’t send a reference letter from an influential alumni or business celebrity who you haven’t worked for directly.
- Advise your references to avoid strength-disguised-as-a-weakness answers when asked about your weaknesses.
- References from family members are not viewed as objective and, therefore, not appropriate.
- Don’t risk your job security for a reference letter. If you must choose someone outside your current employer, explain why in an optional essay.
- Ask your references to answer the specific questions asked by the school’s reference letter form.
- If rankings are required, advise your references to make the top rankings consistent with the evidence provided in their letter.