Choosing Recommenders

July 3rd, 2007

I was asked via email about the topic of choosing recommenders for the MBA application. You can find a lot of advice on the subject in various MBA-related sites (ClearAdmit, Accepted – see my list of resources in Must Have Links for MBA Applicants), and even before that – the schools’ websites and their application instructions: the school actually guides you how to choose your recommenders, so do follow their instructions! Might sound trivial, but you’d be surprised how many people do not do it, for various reasons.

For example, from HBS FAQ page:

The Admissions Board requests that of the three recommendations, two come from professional references. Of these two, one recommendation should come from a current or recent supervisor. Recommenders should be individuals who know the candidate well and who can attest to the candidate’s leadership ability. (bold font is mine)

DO’S:

  • One recommender should be your current – or last – direct supervisor.
  • The second can be a former supervisor or a current indirect supervisor (like your supervisor’s boss), provided they “know you well and can attest to your leadership ability”.
  • If these people cannot be your recommenders for whatever reason (you cannot tell them you’re applying to b-school, you’ve just started a new job, you have your business and don’t have a supervisor), other alternatives can be a customer or a supplier you work with. Another possibility is someone who worked with you or supervised you (better) in an extracurricular activity like a charity organization etc.
  • The third recommender (if necessary) can be a university professor, a team member, a customer or a supplier, someone from an extracurricular activity.
  • The emphasis is on people who know you well. A generic recommendation singing your praise in vague terms, without mentioning specific anecdotes and stories related to you, will not work.

DONT’S:

  • Don’t choose an academic recommender (a university professor), unless you worked for him (as a research assistant or in another position). The recommendations are supposed to attest to your leadership and business capabilities, not your academic capabilities. The academic recommender can serve as your third recommender (peer) if necessary.
  • Don’t choose a recommender just because he’s a famous person / senior person / HBS alum, when he doesn’t know you well. The (small) added value from using a famous name will be completely discarded when realizing this person doesn’t know you.

My own recommenders were my current and former supervisors and the “peer recommender” was one of the team leaders in my company, a guy I’ve worked with in different positions for ~6 years.

I think recommendations are a very important part of the application; at least as important as the essays. So choose you recommenders wisely, and don’t forget to follow school’s instructions about choosing them.


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