Who Should I Approach for Letters of Recommendation?

Feb 28, 2012
Tags: Admissions Process, Admissions Requirements, Applications, B-School, GMAT, MBA, Recommendations

Pat HarrisonProvided by Pat Harrison, Associate Director of Admissions at the Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth University

Letters of recommendation provide the committee insight into your career success/potential, as well as your personal and professional strengths and weaknesses. It is the only part of the application not completed by the applicant – but that doesn’t mean that you can’t influence the letter. By picking the best recommenders to make your case and giving them some guidance, you can have a lot of impact on your recommendations. 

Who to pick? Typically, an immediate supervisor - someone who has worked with you closely and can speak to your work experience. Resist the temptation to select the CEO or head of the company, especially if he/she has had little direct contact or interaction with you. It is more important to have someone who has worked directly with you. 

In the event that you don’t want your supervisor to know you are applying, a client, previous manager, or contact from an extracurricular organization can be a good option. If you are not providing a letter from your supervisor, we suggest you include an explanation in an optional essay so we do not assume that it is because you don’t have a good working relationship with him/her. 

We do not recommend asking family or friends.  If you work for a family business, and your supervisor is a parent, consider asking a client, customer, or non-family member in the organization to write a letter for you. Likewise, we do not recommend asking a professor to write the recommendation as they are not usually in a position to provide insight into the areas we are most interested in learning about. 

Once you have selected your recommender, you should ask that person two questions: Are you willing to write a positive recommendation for me? Do you have the time to write a detailed recommendation? If his/her answer to either of these questions is “no,” find someone else to write on your behalf. 

Preparing your recommender in advance is important. It should go without saying, be sure to give your recommender plenty of time to complete the letter by the school’s deadline. Take him/her out for coffee to talk about your goals and reasons for getting an MBA.  Spend some time talking about your recent performance reviews, and talk about your significant accomplishments. This will help them write a more compelling evaluation because they will have specific examples to use in support of their comments. Letters that are brief and state strong feelings either positive or negative without providing examples to support the comments aren’t very helpful.  Just saying “Susan is a great team player” doesn’t provide as much insight as a letter that then supports the comment with a specific example. 

This is not to say that should tell your recommender what to say. The objective is an honest assessment of your skills. Occasionally, we will hear that a recommender asks the applicant to write the letter for them and they will sign their name to it. If this request is made of you, find someone else to write your recommendation. Make sure that your recommender follows the recommendation instructions for each school. 

Finally, be sure to thank your recommender (profusely!).