Written by Arthur Redillas, Director of Admissions and Recruitment, Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia
While the letters of recommendation remain the one aspect over which MBA applicants don’t retain full control, you can still help your application immensely by choosing your referees carefully.
You’ve already done what you can to showcase your strengths for the admissions committee through your essays, resume, GMAT exam, and GPA. But one of the main reasons that b-schools value the recommendations is that they give us another person’s opinion on your strengths and weaknesses and help round out the picture that will often be completed by your interview. A glowing recommendation tells us that your work is highly regarded, that you’ve demonstrated strong leadership and management skills in your past experiences, and that you’ll be an asset to the class.
However, admissions committees can see through laundry lists of positive traits, trumpeting someone as hard-working, a “go-getter,” or a “true leader.” Instead, we want to see specific examples that demonstrate these characteristics in action.
That’s where you can help your referees provide great recommendations. First of all, with MBA applications, professional references usually trump academic. Look to previous or current supervisors who have worked closely with you and can comment specifically on your achievements. Entrepreneurs should seek out colleagues or clients.
Second, don’t assume that someone will write a recommendation that will help your application surge ahead of the competition even though they’ve praised your work. Don’t just ask your potential referees whether they would be willing to write you a recommendation. Meet with them, take them out for coffee, and have a discussion about your aspirations and why the MBA is the next logical step in your development. Remind them of specific projects on which they observed your work. Those examples set you apart from other candidates.
Make sure that you are choosing referees for their knowledge of your work and not merely for their job titles. And while recommendations from alumni of the school can be helpful, they will not sway admissions committees if they demonstrate only casual acquaintance rather than a professional relationship.
Schools usually ask for two or three references. Don’t exceed the number asked for—additional recommendations will likely be ignored. However, if you want to present a more well-rounded picture of who you are, obtaining a recommendation from someone who’s observed your management skills outside the workplace—for example, in a volunteer or extracurricular activity—can provide the committee with even more valuable information.