When you submit your application to an MBA program, you’ll be required to include one or more letters of recommendation (LOR) from a supervisor, colleague, or another person with whom you have a professional working relationship. The LOR is a short letter that explains how the writer knows you, what it’s been like working with you, and how they think you’ll fit in to the MBA program you’re applying for.
Why do schools ask for letters of recommendation?
Most of the information that’s in your application packet comes from you: your grades, your personal statements, your resume. A letter of recommendation allows the school to get another perspective: what do your colleagues or employers have to say about you? Do they enjoy working with you? Are you a team player?
It’s your responsibility to choose someone who knows you well and can portray you in a good light. Typically, you’ll provide the school with the letter writer’s contact information, and the school will contact them directly to provide a prompt for the letter. However, you should be sure to give them enough information on the program you’re applying for and other relevant details so that they can write an accurate letter.
Letters of Recommendation for MBA Programs vs Other Grad Programs
Many graduate programs require letters of recommendation, but LORs for MBAs tend to be more in-depth and more specific than for other master’s programs. You don’t want your letter writer to send a generic letter of reference. It’s important that they provide a recommendation on why you’re a good fit for this specific program.
Some schools have a unique set of questions they send to the letter writer, but many schools are opting to use the Common Letter of Recommendation Form, so that you don’t need to request a separate letter for every school you apply to.
Who should you ask?
Many MBA applicants struggle to decide who to ask to write a letter of recommendation for them. It can be challenging to find someone who knows you well, who worked with you recently enough, and who has an appropriate job title in relation to you.
Ideally, you’ll choose your current supervisor, but that isn’t always an option, such as when your supervisor is new to the job and doesn’t know you well.
It’s important to find someone you have a relationship with, and who has seen you in action. Avoid asking the CEO of your company, or anyone so high up that they haven’t significantly interacted with you. While the CEO’s name on your letter might look impressive, they likely don’t know you well enough to write a convincing letter.
Likewise, avoid asking a subordinate, since the power differential might impact the authenticity of their letter.
If you can’t ask your immediate supervisor, consider a previous supervisor or colleague, or, if it’s appropriate, an academic professor or volunteer coordinator. Some schools require multiple letters of recommendation, in which case you should consider people from two different areas of your life to provide a well-rounded picture.
What should be in a good MBA letter of recommendation?
A letter of recommendation will vary depending on your program, but in general it’s important for the recommender to provide specific, accurate information about your abilities and working style. The admissions committee doesn’t simply want another run-down of the information they already have in your resume. Your recommender should advocate for you, not just state the facts.
For example, your supervisor might say that you’re the best sales manager they’ve ever had, and back that up with some of your sales numbers. Or, your recommender might share a story of how you went above and beyond to help them make up for lost time when they were out sick or had a family emergency.
It’s perfectly fine for your LOR to be emotional and come from the heart, so long as the letter includes evidence and not just generic platitudes.
Provide the relevant information
How can you ensure that your recommender writes the best letter possible? First, give them plenty of notice and ask at least six weeks in advance. Don’t just give their contact information to your MBA program and assume they’ll know what to do about it.
Second, make sure that they’re up-to-date on your intended career path. You should give them a copy of your resume and your essays so that their recommendations are in line with the program you’re pursuing and the goals you’ve set out. For example, if your MBA is in a specific concentration, make sure they emphasize your skills in that area.
While it’s important to prep them, don’t even think about writing the letter for them. If the wording sounds too similar to what you’ve written in other parts of your application, the admissions committee will know. If your recommender has trouble writing in English, consider paying a translator to translate it from their native language.
Waive your right to see the letter
Finally, you should waive your right to see the recommendation. It’s tempting to have access to your letter so you know whether it portrays you accurately. But don’t let your curiosity get the best of you.
If you don’t waive your right to see the letter, your reference might feel like they can’t be candid about your performance (particularly if you still work with them). Even if they have nothing but good things to say about you, they might prefer to share them privately.
Besides, it can be a sign to the admissions committee that you don’t trust your letter writer to do a good job. The admissions team might take the letter less seriously if they suspect you were coaching your reference or looking over their shoulder.
After your reference has agreed to write the letter for you, follow up to make sure they’ve submitted it on time, and thank them for making the effort to do this for you.
The Common Letter of Recommendation
Although some MBA programs have their own LOR prompts, more and more schools are opting to use the Common Letter of Recommendation format. Even if your school is not, we can look at some of the prompts on the Common LOR to get an idea of what to include in your letter. The Common LOR has three sections:
Personal Information About the Recommender
In this section, the letter writer should provide basic information about themselves, their job, and how long they’ve known you or have worked with you. This sets the context for the letter and lets the application team know how to interpret the writer’s assessment of you. In the Common LOR, this information is gathered in a form, however these details should be included in written letters as well.
Leadership Assessment Grid
The Common LOR asks the writer to consider 12 character traits related to leadership and how you demonstrate them in your work. These include assessments of your Influence, Personal Qualities, Cognitive Abilities, and more.
The letter writer can choose from options such as “Reluctant to take on new tasks, waits to be told what to do” or “Volunteers for new work challenges, proactively puts in extra effort to accomplish critical or difficult tasks”.
Even if your school doesn’t accept the Common LOR, these questions can be a good starting point to help your reference decide on what to include in your letter.
The third part of the Common LOR consists of open-ended questions. These allow the writer to give a more personalized perspective on their interactions with you.
Two of the questions are:
- “Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant”
- “How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?”
Your MBA program may have a different set of questions, but they will most likely include similar prompts and address the same general topics. So, when considering what your recommender should include in a letter, these questions are a good place to start.
If your supervisor has been in the field for a while, it’s likely they’ve been asked to write LORs before, so the process shouldn’t be entirely new to then. If it is, send them some references on how to write a good letter of recommendation.
What should you do if you don’t have good recommenders?
Just because you can’t find someone to write you a letter of recommendation doesn’t mean you’re not a good MBA candidate. You may have a valid reason for not wanting to ask your supervisor – for example, you might be embarrassed if you don’t get accepted, or you may not want your employer to know you’re thinking of leaving the company.
If asking your current employer isn’t an option, think outside the box. Is there a previous employer you can ask? A community organization you volunteered with? A client you worked with as a freelancer or consultant?
While academic references aren’t ideal – especially if it’s been years since you were an undergraduate – a professor or faculty member can be a good option too.
A LOR from a non-work-related reference is better than no letter at all – so long as that reference isn’t from a friend or family member. If it’s been a while since you’ve kept in touch with your recommender, meet up for a casual chat beforehand. If you’ve had a good working relationship in the past, chances are they’ll still vouch for you now.
6 Good Examples of MBA Letters of Recommendation
Now that you know what to include and what to avoid in your LOR, let’s look at a few examples so you can see how to make yours stand out. These are just partial excerpts, so be sure to click the link if you want to see the entire letter in context:
“Becky may be my assistant, but she has risen to an unofficial leadership role. When team members in our department aren’t sure what to do in a given situation, they often turn to Becky for her thoughtful advice and support on various projects. Becky never fails to assist them…. I believe that Becky will be able to contribute to your program in a number of ways. Not only is she well-versed in the field of operations management, she also has a contagious enthusiasm that encourages those around her to work harder and achieve solutions for both personal and professional problems.”(Source)
This letter of recommendation shows how Becky’s skills in the workplace will translate to her MBA program. She’s a team player who takes the initiative to work on projects above and beyond her role. The recommender references her experience in a particular field (operations management), while also highlighting her personal qualities. The letter comes across as genuine and enthusiastic.
“I am very comfortable with allowing Julie to represent the office to external constituents. This confidence was evidenced by my recent decision to have Julie accompany a group of seniors to a recruiting conference. She effectively interfaced with corporate representatives and gathered a great number of employment leads for students back on campus. In conclusion, I am certain that Julie will shine as a graduate student and go on to become a very accomplished business person.”(Source)
This letter demonstrates Julie’s skills using concrete examples from work. Rather than simply stating that Julie is trustworthy, her employer shows that he took a chance on her by sending her to attend a senior conference to interact with representatives. His trust in her paid off and he is happy to support her MBA application.
“I have known Leif for 15 years, and he has worked for me (with me) in marketing for approximately eight of those years…. Leif has always taken his role seriously and is passionate about his results…. He’s at his best in a group environment, and is consciously proactive at getting full involvement of all other team members to derive the best results possible.”(Source)
This letter is convincing because it shows a sustained relationship over time. Not only is the letter writer Leif’s current supervisor, but he has 8 years of experience working with Leif, and has known him for even longer. This shows that Leif’s success at his job isn’t an isolated case, but that he maintains long-term connections and consistently puts in his best work, particularly in group settings.
“Claire has worked for Owl Farm Pharmaceuticals for the past 12 years and during this time she has continued to hold positions of increasing responsibility. She has overseen our sales growth in the Bakersfield market by more than 120% percent in the past three years. Prior to that, she helped organize our Accounting department which saved Owl Farm more than $72,000 in annual operating expenses…. Your program will help provide Ms. Savage with the highest skills, experience and qualifications for increased responsibilities at Owl Farm”(Source)
This letter is less personal than the others, but it uses very specific facts to show how Claire’s work has impacted the company. It demonstrates a long-term career that has developed over time, with success in various aspects of the company. Additionally, Claire’s boss expects her to return to Owl Farm after her MBA, suggesting a mutual sense of commitment.
“Karen has served as the Accountant and Senior Finance Manager at Pro Forma Productions since I started the company four years ago. In that time, the business has gone from a small local startup to a fully-fledged company with offices in three major cities…. Karen Beausoleil is not only incredibly qualified and adept in finance management, she is also a bright and charming person who is a joy to work with. While she will be sorely missed from our company, I completely support her decision to move on to new horizons. Pro Forma has greatly benefited from her intelligence, organization, and drive as I’m sure your program will.”(Source)
Once again, this letter demonstrates a successful business relationship evolving over time. Karen’s employer shows how her employment at Pro Forma contributed to the growth of the company, and emphases her specific skills. The letter writer doesn’t hesitate to point out her personal qualities as well.
“Charles has worked as an Junior Analyst in the Equity Research department here at JP Morgan from July 2015 to June 2017, during which time I oversaw his work and progress. I can personally vouch for his capabilities as an analyst. As a Junior Analyst, Mr. Whitman’s responsibilities included creating and maintaining industry databases and financial models, and helping with report writing…. His positive attitude and professionalism set him apart during the interview process and were remarked upon in the office.”(Source)
This letter does a good job of describing Charles’s specific work responsibilities, while also addressing his personal qualities. His boss notes the things that “set him apart” from other candidates and make him stand out in the office. His supervisor says that he will “personally vouch” for Charles, making clear that this isn’t a generic endorsement.
You can use these samples as a template for your own LOR, especially if your reference hasn’t written one before. So long as you pick someone who genuinely supports you, their endorsement will be genuine and their enthusiasm should shine through.
Quick side note: if you’re struggling writing your MBA Statement of Purpose, read this article here.
4 tips to make the Letter of Recommendation memorable
Ask the recommender to set the context
Context is very important. This helps the admissions committee separate you from the thousands of other similar applicants. Ask your recommender to set the context not only of how long she’s known you but also how well she knows you, and whether she knows you in a professional as well as a personal capacity.
It is important to set the context of your achievements as well. Comparing your achievements to your peers is a great way to set the context of the results achieved, and helps the reader understand why your achievements are significant.
Coach your recommender on the rest of your application
We all have several strengths and weaknesses in our professional lives and you’ve carefully chosen the right strengths to display in your essays. But if your recommender is not even be aware of these strengths, they may talk about something completely tangential and dilute the strength of your application.
It’s important that you align with your recommender and help coach them or agree with them on your strengths and weaknesses. This way, your recommender can also speak in agreement about these personal attributes and the admissions committee can remember who you are.
Ask your recommender to provide examples, examples, and more examples
Telling the admissions committee what your strengths are is not as effective as showing them what they are. Ask your recommender to provide instances – in as much detail as possible – where you displayed your personal attributes.
No examples = Not memorable.
Ask the recommender to make the recommendation balanced
A letter of recommendation that’s too effusive in positivity is likely to unrealistic and ineffective. Just as your recommender has written about your strengths through specific examples, ask her to balance the recommendation with a genuine weakness or two that counterbalance the strengths.
It’s your responsibility to be aware of these weaknesses and take action to improve upon them. This way, your recommender can also talk about the effort you’ve put in to improve upon your weakness.