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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 16, 2014

Columbia Business School MBA Recommendation for January and August 2015 Admission

In this post I analyze the Columbia Business School MBA recommendation MBA for January and August 2015 admission.  For my analysis of the MBA application essays and whether to select J-term Class of 2016 or August Class of 2017, 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 KNOWwhich 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 RecommendersI 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 has the most user friendly and simple recommendation of any top MBA program.   The instructions, taken from the recommendation form,  are quite simple:

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:

  • How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
  • Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
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.
Please limit your recommendation to 1000 words. Thank you once again.
Upload a Word or PDF document”
Recommender Friendly: There is no quantitative evaluation form and the recommender needs to only consider the above questions, but unlike on most other recs (Well, we will see what other schools do this year. Previously, only Booth had a similar rec),  the recommender is not forced to answer specific questions.  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.
We look for intellectually driven people from diverse educational, economic, social, cultural, and geographic backgrounds. Our 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. We typically receive and review 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:

While, not stated a good recommendation should always mention the recommender’s 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.

How do the candidate's performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples.
Columbia is asking the recommender to compare the applicant to others in a similar role. You should advise your recommender to evaluate your performance comparatively, which is something many schools require. 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 high light the applicant’s performance, especially if the numbers relate well to one of the applicant’s accomplishments. The recommender may discuss an applicant’s strengths relationship  to overall performance, interpersonal skills, and  language skills or simply in terms of specific qualities or 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.    Since Columbia is looking for applicants with  strong leadership  and the ability to work in teamsinterpersonal skills (via personal qualities) 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 other 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.

For non-native English speakers,  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.

For native English speakers, 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- 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 mig ht 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.

“Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.”
While feedback need not be in response to weakness or need for improvement on the part of the applicant, it is often effective if the recommender does just that.  While good advice is a possible kind of constructive feedback, what is typically meant by constructive feedback relates more commonly to advice designed to help someone improve in the future.  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 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 (an d hopefully delineates) the extent of your criticism.

Is it a good strength (performance, potential, background, or personal qualities) or weakness? Some questions to ask yourself:
Finally, recommendations play in an important role in the admissions process at Columbia Business School, 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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