In this post, I have provided some advice for recommenders (AKA “referees”). While this advice is focused on MBA recommendations (“recs”), much of what is here would apply to recs for other graduate programs.
While this post is meant for your recommenders, I think it also provides key points for you to consider both in terms of who you select for recommendations and also what of role you will have in the process. My post on HBS recommendation questions can be found here, but is best read after reading this post.
A brief note on selecting recommenders: It is important that you select recommenders who know you well enough to serve as effective advocates on your behalf. Selecting someone who has a big title or an MBA to the school you apply to is perfectly fine as long they know you and are an appropriate person to evaluate you. That said, great recommenders need not have a super title, an MBA, or even be able to write in English! A great recommender is someone who can write convincingly of your abilities based on their experience of working with you. A great recommender might need to have their recommendation translated into English. A great recommender might not have the most beautiful writing style, but if they can communicate effectively, that is all that is required. Most schools want a current direct supervisor or someone who can fill that role. Additionally senior colleagues and clients are also common choices. All recommenders should know you in a formal professional or extracurricular context. Causal friends and family members are not effective. Senior colleagues are fine. For some schools, like Stanford GSB, peer recommenders are required and should be someone who is really a peer and not a supervisor. HBS is one of the few schools that will accept recommendations from your undergraduate or graduate school professors. Choose your recommenders carefully because who you choose is one basis on which you will be judged. For more about recommender selection, please see here.
THE 10 KEY POINTS
For Applicants: Feel free to distribute this document to your recommenders or use it as a basis for your discussion with them.
For Recommenders: Below I have tried to provide you with some advice on how to write an effective recommendation (“rec”) that will help the applicant you are writing for gain admission. My advice is based on my work, since 2001, as an MBA admissions consultant.
#1: RECS MATTER. It is that simple. What you will be writing will have an impact on the admissions outcome of the applicant. Take this responsibility seriously. Take the time to craft effective answers, get input from the applicant if you need it, translate your rec into English if necessary, have someone proofread your rec if necessary, and, whatever you do, submit it on time! If you can’t handle this responsibility, admit that, and save the applicant from being damaged by your inability to fulfill your role.
#2: YOU BETTER KNOW THE APPLICANT OR CREATE THE APPEARANCE THAT YOU REALLY DO. Schools (Business Schools or otherwise) get recommendations all the time from VIPs who don’t really know the applicant and can only write really vague things about the applicant or merely report that someone else said something good about the applicant. This is not effective. One reason most MBA recommendation forms ask such specific questions like “Discuss a time you provided feedback to the applicant” or “What are the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses” is that they can use such answers to measure the extent to which you know the applicant. While it is possible, on a long list of questions, to not answer a particular question, generally speaking, you should anticipate the necessity to provide detailed answers to all major recommendation questions. If you have agreed to do this and find you lack sufficient content to answer the questions effectively, please discuss that issue with the applicant.
#3: UNLESS STATED OTHERWISE, USE THE (ONLINE) FORM. While some MBA programs are quite happy with a letter that addresses their questions, most of the top programs in the US and Europe require specific answers to specific questions as part of a rec form. I know that this means that you will have to answer different questions for different schools and that this whole process is a bigger burden than you imagined, especially if the applicant is applying to multiple programs, but that is part of the responsibility you have agreed to take on.
#4: TRY TO WRITE THE LONGEST MOST INVOLVED RECOMMENDATION FIRST. If you have to write recommendations for two or more schools, I suggest reviewing the questions and determining which one looks like the most burdensome in terms of the number of questions asked and length. By tackling this one first, you will find that it will be easier handling subsequent recommendations. If the applicant is applying to Columbia Business School, chances are pretty good that it will be the most burdensome one.
#5: HOW LONG? THIS WILL VARY GREATLY. Some schools like HBS (3 questions, 200 words each, and on 1 page) and MIT (6 questions, 2 pages maximum) provide you with very clear guidelines, but others don’t. In general, I think you can assume that you need to write answers that are somewhere between 100 and 300 words long and that a typical recommendation of 5-6 questions will be about 600-1800 words long. There is a huge variation in what is acceptable. The key issue is not length, but the quality of your response.
#6: GOOD RECS CONSIST OF DETAILS AND ANALYSIS. A good recommendation answer will consist of both your analytical perspective on the applicant as well as specific detailed examples that support that perspective. If you say the applicant is an “X” explain why and, at least in some cases, provide a specific example. “X”= smart, innovative, global, etc. A detailed example is a brief anecdote or story. Some questions will ask that you provide examples, but even if they don’t you really need to provide the admissions committee with enough information so that they can fully understand your support for the applicant.
#7: BE CRITICAL, BUT NUANCED. You will likely be asked to provide a critical perspective on the applicant. Questions about areas for future growth, weaknesses, or characteristics about the applicant you would change are very common on MBA recs. The objective of such criticism is to help the admissions committee understand the applicant and also the extent to which you are relatively objective. Still, make sure that your criticisms are not fatal ( Examples: “The applicant loses his temper easily and has been disruptive on teams.” “The applicant lacks the ability to analyze complex issues.” “She is too aggressive to work effectively with some people.”), but are measured and nuanced. Be honest about the applicant, but when you answer such questions think carefully about the answer and provide a full and complete answer that explains (and hopefully delineates) the extent of your criticism.
#8: NOT SURE ABOUT A QUESTION? ASK THE APPLICANT. If you don’t understand a question, the applicant should be able to. It is better to provide effective answers to the questions than just guessing. There are times when the rec wording may confuse you, but as the applicant has been focused on the admissions process, they should be able to figure it out
#9: GETTING INPUT FROM THE APPLICANT. I think it is fine to get input form applicant when formulating your answers. This may take the form of a conversation, a review of the applicant’s resume and/or essays, and/or written notes from the applicant. Especially if you have not worked with the applicant recently, it is especially helpful to have some reminders. In any event, it is certainly helpful to know what the applicant would like you to discuss. That said, it is critical that the recommendations not appear to be written by the applicant! Even if the applicants sends you sample answers or highly detailed notes that amount to the same thing, you really must alter these regardless of how effectively they represent your viewpoint. The applicant is relying on you to provide your distinct voice and perspective, so at minimum restate in your own words whatever inputs the applicant provides you with. Ideally you should craft your own answer and only use such inputs from the applicant as a starting point. Finally, IF YOU ARE NOT COMFORTABLE WRITING IN ENGLISH, USE A TRANSLATOR AND WRITE IN YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE!
#10: BE AN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATE FOR THE APPLICANT. This is my tenth and last point because it is the bottom line. If you can’t be an effective advocate for the applicant, don’t write a recommendation. The applicant needs your full support based on your ability to demonstrate to the admissions committee that you have an important and positive perspective on the applicant. The admissions committee must be able to not only understand and believe what they are reading about the applicant, but they must also think, based in part on your recommendation, that the applicant is someone who will succeed in their program and afterwords.