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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

November 22, 2010

Further Comments on Selecting the Right Recommenders

This is a follow-up to my post, 10 KEY POINTS FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE RECOMMENDATION. I suggest reading that post first.

In my previous post I provided some general guidelines for selecting the right recommender:
"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."

Here are some other criteria to keep in mind:

1. Select a group of recommenders who can best evaluate you.  Don't think about your recommenders in isolated terms, but rather as a group.  For most schools, your group will consist of two recommenders.  For Stanford and HBS, your group will consist of three recommenders.  The reason to think of recommenders as a group is because you are trying to maximize rather minimize their coverage of you.  In other words, you don't want recomenders who are going to say the same thing because their experience of you is essentially the same.  Sometimes such duplication is impossible to avoid, but, in most cases, there is always a way to differentiate between recommenders.

2.  Think about the period of time that the recommender can cover.  Try to pick recommenders who have long experience working with you.  Selecting your current supervisor who you just started working with would not be terribly effective.  In such cases, select a previous supervisor who can serve as a better evaluator of your abilities.  While schools want recommendations from current supervisors, if that supervisor's experience of you is too limited, they can't write an effective recommendation.    Unless someone's work with you was particularly intense, I can't see much point in getting a recommendation from someone who has only known you for six months or less.  One way to select recommenders is to write down all the recommenders and consider their period of coverage.  Here is an example for someone who has been working since 2006 at the same company:

1. John, previous supervisor, worked with me from 1/2006-11/2007.
2. Roberta, senior colleague, has worked with me from 2/2007-present.
3. Hugo, current supervisor, has worked with me from 1/2009-present.
4. Alex, project leader, has worked with  me from 1/2010-present.
5. Helen, previous supervisor, worked with me from 12/2007-3/2008. 

In the above mix, Hugo is an obvious choice (Current supervisor for to select regardless of whether you needed 1, 2, or 3 recommendations, but who to pick next?  Since Roberta and Alex are above you, that is, they are not peers, they both can be effective supervisor substitutes.  The advantage of Roberta is that she can cover you for a long period of time.  The advantage of Alex is that he lead a project you were recently on.  If your role in that project is something you really wanted to highlight you could use him.  While John would be an option, unless there was something about your work with him that you really wanted highlighted, he is an easy one to reject because he is not in a good position to speak to your current abilities.  Helen is not effective choice because the period of coverage is very short.

As you can see in the above there is no simple formula for selecting the right person, but if you evaluate your options you can probably narrow the choice down easily enough.

3. Think about diversity. It is always nice if you can select a diverse group of recommenders in terms of nationality, profession, gender, linguistic abilities, and/or education.  This sends a nice subliminal message to admissions about your willingness to be evaluated by very different kinds of people.  In the above example, selecting Roberta makes sense because she has worked with you for a long period of time, but also because she is a woman.  Especially for male applicants, such a selection shows your comfort with women in the workplace. For international applicants, having both native and non-native speakers of English as recommenders is a common way to add to the diversity of who you select.

4. The MBA factor.  It is valauble to have recommenders who have MBAs, especially from the school you are applying to, but not to the exclusion of other factors.  In other words, don't select an MBA simply because he or she is an MBA, but select them because they really can write an effective recommendation for you based on working with you. See also my comments about this issue in regards to HBS.

5.  The VIP factor.  Just like with the MBA factor, the important thing is that the VIP actually know you.  If you dad is friends with the Senator, President, famous writer, etc. who does not really know you and has not worked with you,  such a recommendation will not help you.

6.  The willingness factor.  The more willing the recommender is, the better.  It will not be great if you have to select someone who is not committed to helping you.  If someone says they can do it, but lack enthusiasm and are sending you mixed signals, you should really look for someone else.

I hope the above suggestions help you in your recommender selection process.

Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to. Before emailing me questions about your chances for admission or personal profile, please see my post on "Why I don't analyze profiles without consulting with the applicant." If you are interested in my graduate admission consulting services, please click here.

-Adam Markus
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