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

June 28, 2012

HBS Recommendations for the Class of 2015

This is the fifth in series of eight posts. My analysis of the HBS Application for the Class of 2015 (and 2+2 Class of 2017) consists of:
My comprehensive service clients have been admitted to the regular HBS MBA for the Classes of 2014, 2013, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and 2005 and one 2+2 client admitted to the Class of 2014. My clients' results and testimonials can be found here. In addition to providing comprehensive application counseling on HBS, I regularly help additional candidates with HBS interview preparation. I have worked with a large number of applicants from Canada, Europe, India, Japan, other parts of Asia, and the United States on HBS application. I think that this range of experience has helped me understand the many possible ways of making an effective application to HBS. In the posts in this series, I provide insights based on that experience.

For more about recommendations in general see my previous posts, "10 Key Points For Writing An Effective Recommendation: What Every Recommender Should  Know" and "Further Comments on Selecting the Right Recommenders."
You will need three recommendations for applying to join the HBS Class of 2015 (2+2 applicants need only two recommenders). I like the HBS recommendation questions best because they are short and sweet. Many other MBA programs torture recommenders with a series of typically 6-10 questions, while HBS takes a relatively recommender-friendly approach.  Another thing that I like about the HBS recommendation questions is that they are found on the HBS website and don't require registering as a fake recommender to obtain. It is really annoying to have to go through the process of a registering as a fake applicant and then registering fake recommenders in order to look at recommendation questions! I try to avoid doing that. Some schools seem to think that no one has figured out how to get access to these things or that there is something wrong in having applicants have easy access. Applicants need to see the questions because there is a very good chance that they will need to advise recommenders on the questions, especially if their recommenders are not familiar with this process.  Why make something that should be so easy to obtain so difficult?

In the next part of this post, I discuss some issues related to selecting HBS recommenders. I then discuss the four recommendation questions. Finally, I discuss the place of the recommendations within your overall HBS application strategy.
In addition to what I have written below, please see here for how to select recommenders.

No Peers Please (Well mostly)! Many other options are possible!
For applicants applying to HBS and Stanford, it is often tempting to use the same recommenders. Given the similarity of 3 out of 4 of the recommendation questions, it would obviously be ideal to do so.  However, Stanford requires a peer recommendation and HBS does not want one: 
Both HBS and Stanford want two professional references, so most applicants to both schools can easily use the same 2 out of 3 recommenders. 

I find that the third recommender is often different for these schools:

Peers: A senior colleague who acts like a mentor would be fine at HBS, but not a colleague who is your true peer in terms of position. While it is possible to use the same colleague for HBS and Stanford in some cases, be careful with this. I find that at least half of my clients who apply to both Stanford and HBS need to use a total of four recommenders.

Professors: Unlike Stanford, HBS is one of the few business schools that will happily take a recommendation from a professor, which is especially good for younger applicants.  HBS's want someone who is clearly in a superior position to you. For Stanford, it would be fine to use a professor if you actually worked for them.  For example, a college senior who served as teaching or research assistant could certainly use his or supervisor. What Stanford does not really want is a professor's recommendation (Strictly academic Letters of Reference generally are less helpful in our evaluation.)

Another Supervisor: For HBS, there is ultimately no problem with having three workplace recommendations from supervisors. For Stanford, it would be fine to have two supervisors and one peer from your workplace.  

HBS is quite clear on the fact that three recommendations can all come from the same workplace:
So, in the hope that this will add clarity, let me re-phrase our guidance: we are fine if ALL the recommendations come from the workplace. Even from the same firm. We are not trying to add the additional hurdle of needing to hear a voice from every phase of your past and present life. If it's not possible to get ANY recommendation from your current workplace, you may wish to explain this situation briefly in the Additional Information section of the application. This is NOT an unusual occurrence - we don't expect every boss in the world to be excited about losing top talent to business school. As is always the case, use your best judgment about this.
If you are applying in secret or can't or don't want to otherwise use your current supervisor: As the above statement from HBS makes clear, this is common enough, so my advice would be to use recent supervisors or effective supervisor substitute.  A supervisor substitute might be a mentor, senior colleague, a business partner, a competitor, or a client. If you are coming from an entrepreneurial or family business background, you will likely need to use at one supervisor substitute.

Using HBS Alumni as Recommenders: I just wanted to mention that given that HBS has the largest alumni network of any MBA program, it is not necessarily the case that one should prioritize obtaining recommendations from HBS alumni.  If you are fortunate to have such a person who can effectively recommend you, that is great, but selecting an HBS alumni simply because they are an alumni is not necessarily smart because there will be so many of them. The most important thing is to have a recommendation that will really standout and fully convinces HBS about your past accomplishments, suitability to enter HBS in 2013, and future potential.

Keep in mind that recommendations must be completed online and that HBS wants all recommenders to follow their standard procedures. My analysis of the four questions below is written from the perspective of providing advice to the recommenders.  It is suitable to be passed on to recommenders as general advice.
Please comment on the context of your interaction with the applicant. If applicable, briefly describe the applicant's role in your organization. (250 words)
Adam's Quick Interpretation: How well do you know the applicant and what do they do? 
As I emphasized in my 10 Key Points Post, "#2: YOU BETTER KNOW THE APPLICANT OR CREATE THE APPEARANCE THAT YOU REALLY DO," it is critical that the recommender establish the legitimate basis upon which they are making this recommendation.  A clear description that is explicit about the time knowing, organizational relationship to, and extent of observation of the applicant is critical.  In addition, this answer should, even though it is not stated, begin the act of advocating for the applicant (My key point #10: BE AN EFFECTIVE ADVOCATE FOR THE APPLICANT).  In the process of describing the applicant's role in your organization, highlight the ways they have added value to the organization. 
How does the candidate's performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (250 words)

Adam's Quick Interpretation: Show how the applicant adds value in ways that are distinct from his/her peers.
Directly compare the applicant to his or her peers in the process of explaining the applicant's role in your organization or similar organizations.  While you should not unrealistically overstate the applicant's role, I highly recommend that you clearly indicate what makes him or her special.  You will not be helping the applicant very much if they are not positively distinct in one or more ways.  Provide at least one very concrete example of what makes the applicant special in comparison to others. You should make it clear who you are comparing the applicant to. Ideally you will make that comparison in a way that favors the applicant. If you come from an organization with highly talented people and the applicant is just one of many talented people, you should especially focus on ways that differentiate the applicant from others, most likely through a very specific example. Don't be afraid to praise the overall group that the applicant is being compared to as long as you especially identify the ways the applicant adds value to your organization.

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response. (250 words)
Adam's Quick Interpretation: If you are qualified to write this recommendation, you have provided constructive feedback to the applicant!
I consider this to actually be the ideal question for determining whether a recommender actually knows an applicant well.  After all, casual acquaintances, your dad's friend, the President of your country, and other such personages that often take the form of bad VIP recommendations, cannot effectively answer this question. As this will be a situation where you are criticizing the candidate, Key Point #7: BE CRITICAL, BUT NUANCED applies. Clearly describe what the candidate did that resulted in you providing feedback. Next describe how the applicant responded. An effective and applicant friendly answer here will be one where the applicant learned from and was, ideally, able to implement your feedback.  Assume that HBS believes that great leaders learn from their mistakes and they are trying to gauge the extent to which the applicant has the potential to be such a leader.

Please make additional statements about the applicant's performance, potential, or personal qualities you believe would be helpful to the MBA Admissions Board. (250 words)
Adam's Quick Interpretation: OK, so what else should HBS really know about the applicant?
Other schools will often ask two questions or more to address this same issue as HBS does in this one question. What I really like about this is that the recommender is not forced to fit the applicant into a specific category. Such attempts at fitting round pegs into square holes can certainly take much time for a recommender to address. HBS makes it easy for recommenders to focus on what they consider most important to say about an applicant.  This space should be used to focus on the absolutely critical selling points about the applicant that the recommender really wants HBS to know and that have not be conveyed in the first three questions.  Core accomplishments, interpersonal and/or professional skills, and future potential are the ideal topics to write about here.  
Keep in mind that the recommendations are an important of your application. With a total word count of 1000 words each possible, your recommenders will likely be writing more than the length of your application essays. In fact, given the limited amount of space you have to discuss your own accomplishments, you really need the recommenders to carry some of that burden. Compared to past years, applicants are even more dependent on what recommenders write because of the greatly reduced word count for the essays. What I think this means is that you as an applicant must really consider what stories and aspects of yourself the recommenders are going to write about. Just as with your own essays, you need to really consider how the recommenders will address your leadership, analytical, engaged community citizenship experience and potential as well as elaborate on what makes you stand out (diversity).  Just as with the essays and the rest of the application, you need to consider how your recommenders will communicate about you in ways that connect to the four core criteria (See my prior post) that HBS uses for admission. 

The following table should help you really plan for this.

Recommendation Strategy PlanningDiversityHabit of LeadershipAnalytical Aptitude and AppetiteEngaged Community Citizenship
Recommender 1
Recommender 2
Recommender 3
(To use the above table for yourself, simply copy and paste it. I checked it on both Google Docs and MS Word and it works.)
 For each recommender consider what stories or examples you would want them to provide to cover 1 or more of the four core criteria.  Consider noting both abstract qualities (For example, "decisive" under Habit of Leadership) and specific examples (For example, "Led team in March 2011 on a complex project" under Habit of Leadership).  Your objective is to try and provide as much coverage as possible of your key selling points and experiences that you can't fully cover in your own essays and/or want additional supportive evidence for. 

While I assume that you will be in an effective position to let the recommender know what you would like them to write about, it is important to keep in mind that you don't want your recommender to write something that completely duplicates what you wrote in essay as that does not look authentic and/or is a lost opportunity to make another point. You are not recommenders, so do keep in mind that you don't want their recommendations to sound like you wrote them. In any case, you want to actively play a role in making sure that your recommenders are making the best possible case for your admission.  You want your recommendations to be both perceived as authentic and as making an effective case for you.

In the next post in this series I discuss interviews.

-Adam Markus

I am a graduate admissions consultant who works with clients worldwide. If you would like to arrange an initial consultation, please complete my intake form. Please don't email me any essays, other admissions consultant's intake forms, your life story, or any long email asking for a written profile assessment. The only profiles I assess are those with people who I offer initial consultations to. Please note that initial consultations are not offered when I have reached full capacity or when I determine that I am not a good fit with an applicant.
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