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

May 25, 2013

Columbia Business School MBA Recommendation for January and August 2014 Admission

In this post I analyze the Columbia Business School MBA recommendation MBA for January and August 2014 admission.  For my analysis of the MBA application essays and whether to select J-term Class of 2015 or August Class of 2016, please see here. For my analysis of Columbia Business School application interviews, please see here.

Before reading my post below on Columbia, you might want to read  two of my other posts first. For overall MBA recommendation advice, I would suggest beginning with my 10 KEY POINTS FOR WRITING AN EFFECTIVE RECOMMENDATION: WHAT EVERY RECOMMENDER SHOULD KNOW, which provides core advice for what recommenders need to know.  Applicants can use this post to help educate recommenders.  In Further Comments on Selecting the Right Recommenders, I provide applicants with some very detailed advice on how to select the right recommenders. This post addresses the most common kinds of questions that my clients and blog readers have asked me about selecting recommenders.

Columbia Business School previously had the single most burdensome recommendation form of any top MBA program (Ten separate questions plus a numerical evaluation table).  Applicants for 2014 admission are indeed fortunate in this respect because Columbia made the highly recommender friendly move of eliminating all specific questions and just asking for the recommender to cover the basics. In this respect Columbia is following Booth, which previously had the most recommender friendly form of any top MBA program.  Unless some other school, including Booth, simplifies their form even more, Columbia is looking like winner in terms of reducing the burden on the recommender.

So simple, it is shocking!
From the perspective of someone who has been helping clients with MBA recommendations since 2001, this change is quite shocking. I think this is a very smart move because I know applicants  had frequently considered the recommendation form as a major disincentive to apply to Columbia: The questions were just such a burden for recommenders (or often the applicants, who might have to explain, outline, or draft the recommendation). Now, unless the other schools follow Columbia, everyone will be complaining why the schools are not like Columbia. The instructions for the recommendation are very simple (taken from the online recommendation form):
“Recommendation Upload
Thank you for your willingness to recommend a candidate to Columbia Business School. Your recommendation adds vital perspective to the admissions process. Please consider the following guidelines when writing your recommendation:
  • Your relationship to the applicant.
  • The applicant's performance.
  • Strengths and weaknesses of the applicant.
  • The applicant's interpersonal skills.
  • The applicant's written and spoken communication skills.
  • The most important thing you would like the Admissions Committee to know.
Please limit your recommendation to 1000 words.
There is no quantitative evaluation form and no specific questions are being asked.
Short: In the past, Columbia recs could be easily be 1500-2000 plus words long, but now a single letter of a maximum of 1000 words is required.  Given that the recommendation is simply uploaded as a MS Word or PDF file, clearly they are not really counting words. I will surely suggest that recommenders keep to around a 1000 words, but if  it is a bit over, clearly not something to worry about.  That said, keeping it to 900 to 1100 words would be a general rule of thumb.
Not set questions, just suggested topics for the recommender’s consideration: This is particularly user-friendly because it means that the recommender can really focus on the best stuff they want to mention about the applicant.
Beyond the suggested topics, I suggest you provide your recommender (Especially if they are not a Columbia MBA alumnus) with some background information on what Columbia is looking for.  Fortunately Columbia provides a very nice FAQ on this issue:
Who makes a good applicant?
The Columbia MBA Program is carefully designed to instill both the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the fast-moving, competitive world of business. Many top managers credit the skills they acquired at Columbia Business School as the springboard to their successful careers.
Columbia Business School looks for intellectually driven people from diverse educational, economic, social, cultural, and geographic backgrounds. Students share a record of achievement, demonstrated, strong leadership, and the ability to work in teams.
The Admissions Committee seeks intellectually inquisitive applicants with superior academic credentials from their undergraduate and graduate programs. Excellent written and oral communication skills are essential. Fluency in multiple languages is not required for admission but is increasingly desirable for the study and practice of global business.
Over the past five years, competition for admission to Columbia Business School has continued to rise steadily. The School typically receives and reviews 5,500 to 7,000 full-time MBA applications each year, and in recent cycles only 15 percent of applicants were admitted.
I will refer to this statement in what I discuss below.

Let’s look at each of the topics that your recommenders need to consider:
“Your relationship to the applicant.” 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. 

“The applicant's performance.”
While Columbia does not require the recommender to compare the applicant to his/her peers or others in a similar role or anyone else in particular, if you are applying to other MBA programs, you should advise your recommender to evaluate your performance comparatively because your recommender will have do this anyway. If you are only applying to Columbia, comparing your performance to others is one very clear way to address your performance. While a recommender should not unrealistically overstate the applicant's performance, it will not be helping the applicant very much if they are not positively distinct in one or more ways. Ideally the recommender should provide at least one very concrete example of what makes the applicant special in comparison to others. The recommender should make it clear who they are comparing the applicant to. They should make that comparison in a way that supports the applicant. Measurable positive indicators of performance, especially in the recommendation by a supervisor or former supervisor who regularly evaluates/evaluated the applicant, can be an effective way to highlight the applicant’s performance, especially if the numbers relate well to one of the applicant’s accomplishments.

Strengths and weaknesses of the applicant.”
The recommender may discuss an applicant’s strengths or weaknesses in relationship  to overall performance, interpersonal skills, and  language skills or simply in terms of specific qualities or skills.
I suggest focusing directly on three-five strengths and one or two weaknesses. With consideration to other recommendations that the recommender might be writing, there is a high possibility that they  will eventually need to write on more than one weakness.
I find that many recommenders resist writing about weaknesses, yet to do so reveals a deeper understanding about the applicant. While I think it is necessary to practice good judgment when writing about weakness, I think it is also important that the recommender actually reference your areas for future development. One standard defensive strategy that many recommenders seem drawn to is to write about knowledge or skill areas where the applicant is weak, but such weaknesses, unless specifically connected to past failures,  are rather superficial.  To quote my  general advice for recommendersBE 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 object ive 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.
Compared to weaknesses, strengths are easier for most recommenders to write about. While making general statements about strength (“She is a decisive leader who gets the job done. “ ”He is really smart.”) is important, it is insufficient.  Your recommender should provide evidence that you have that strength. In other words, good strengths should be linked to specific examples.

Is it a good strength or weakness? Some questions to ask yourself:
1. Does the strength demonstrate the applicant’s potential for future academic and/or professional success? If so it is a probably a good topic. If not, why does Columbia  need to know about it?
2. Is a weakness fixable? If you are writing about a weakness that cannot be improved upon, why do want to mention it to Columbia?
3. Is there sufficient context provided to really understand the strength or weakness? Providing a low context answer unsupported by evidence is likely to have little impact.

“The applicant's interpersonal skills.”
A good recommendation will help admissions understand why the applicant will make a good classmate and has the potential to be personally effective throughout their career. This topic might be addressed in relationship to the applicant’s performance or strengths and weaknesses or as a stand alone topic.   Since Columbia is looking for applicants with  strong leadership  and the ability to work in teams, interpersonal skills are a very important consideration.  Interpersonal skills relate not only to aspects of leadership (For example, ability to motivate others and ability to manage up/down/across an organization) and teamwork (For example, ability to work well with teammates, ability to help with teammates, and ability to gain support from others on a team), but also in a number of o ther ways (For example, sales skills,  ability to gain the trust of others, ability to influence others, charisma, winning personality).  Given the importance of the Cluster System at Columbia,  admissions is looking for applicants with the ability to work effectively with their classmates.  

“The applicant's written and spoken communication skills.”
Columbia takes this category very seriously as should be clear from the FAQ above: Excellent written and oral communication skills are essential. Fluency in multiple languages is not required for admission but is increasingly desirable for the study and practice of global business. This topic might addressed very briefly or might simply be stated in terms of a strength (or weakness)  of an applicant or in relationship to their interpersonal skills.  Depending on the applicant, it might also be connected to statement about their performance.

For non-native English speakers and international applicants in general,  a positive statement on the topic of the applicant’s written and spoken communication skills should hopefully be in at least one of the recommendations.  Admissions officers are always concerned about English speaking ability on the part of international applicants in general because low-level English speaking ability can significantly impact both a student’s and their classmates’ experience, which is to say that it is a gate keeping/overall student satisfaction issue.  Given that Columbia has been known to conduct post-interview English checks of non-native speaking applicants, it is surely important that a recommendation not overstate the applicant’s English abilities.  

If the recommender has a basis for commenting positively on your non-English  language skills, they should do so. Especially for American and Canadian- Not many of my Anglophone Canadian clients have had solid French skills- and British applicants (At least the Aussies I have worked with seem to be better in this respect), if one or both of your recommenders can positively comment on your foreign language skills, they should do so. Again, they should only do this if they actually would have observed you using your foreign language skills.   In most circumstances, I don’t necessarily recommend that Indian applicants have their recommenders discuss their  non-native Indian language skills (Even if for example, you are native in Tamil and you use Hindi in your work, assume that admissions will not get the fact that Tamil is a Dravidian language while Hindi is Indo-European.) because it is surely much more important that the specific language is not mentioned and/or assumed to be English.  East and Southeast Asian applicants might have a recommender mention their non-native non-English skills, but in general mentioning an applicant’s native Japanese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese, or Thai language skills would not necessarily have much positive impact on admissions.   Use of a non-native non-English language (A French applicant using German, a Japanese applicant using Mandarin, a Chinese applicant using Spanish, a Korean applicant using Thai, an Australian applicant using Japanese, a Indian applicant using Portuguese, etc.) is surely worth mentioning if the recommender has a basis for doing so.

“The most important thing you would like the Admissions Committee to know.”
I don't think it is necessary for recommenders to write, "This is the most important you should know...",  but they might. At minimum, the point of this statement is help recommenders understand that they should feel free to emphasize a killer selling point about the applicant. Here is how I suggest you think about this question:  What is that one accomplishment story you could tell about the applicant that would really help Columbia understand why the applicant should be admitted? As an advocate for the applicant, provide a meaningful and memorable example that will really help to set the applicant apart.

Finally, recommendations play in an important role in the admissions process at Columbia, so make that you give recommenders both sufficient time and appropriate input for them to be your strong advocates. 

-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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