Choosing the right recommenders

Reference letters are an important part of your MBA application. The admissions teams, just like hiring managers, would like to get second opinions about the candidates. Because your resume and your LinkedIn profile can tell mostly your side of the story, they turn to your recommenders for help.

Luckily, you get to choose who they should be contacting! Reference check is a very basic process; all schools look for very similar things. They would like to learn more about your professional accomplishments and gauge your leadership potential.

You might be thinking “How can you trust a stranger when it comes to my work?” While references do play a role in your application decision, always keep in mind that it is one of the requirements, not the requirement. Your MBA application has six components and all of them are important.

Is there a rule of thumb for selecting recommenders?

Yes, there is!

One of the most common questions we get asked is about academic references. If you’re not applying for a direct entry Master’s or a delayed entry 2+2 program, academic references shouldn’t be used. Since you’re hoping to enter into a business school to pursue a professional degree, admissions teams are more interested in your achievements at work not in your classroom accomplishments (your academic abilities are measured through your GMAT or GRE scores and your GPA).

MBA Admissions teams are seeking individuals with strong career aspirations, who are high achievers, who would like to contribute to the growth of their community, and who can work well with people from all walks of life. The MBA programs are becoming more diverse and admissions teams are looking for global citizens to be part of their incoming cohorts. These programs are heavily based on teamwork/group work, therefore they’re looking for strong interpersonal skills and team work. Thus, professional references provide a far better insight into the qualities business schools are looking for.

Whom should I choose as recommenders?

Your direct supervisor should definitely be on the list. Since this person has worked with you directly, he or she would have the best insights about your professional skills. However, if you’re keeping your MBA application hidden from your supervisor, you could choose another senior colleague to comment on your work. Here’s one important tip: Don’t simply go after big titles. A CEO or a Senior Vice-President might know you, but if that person cannot comment on specifics of your work, his or her reference will not be a good one.

What should the recommenders talk about?

While you should never write your own recommendation letters (and none of our consultants will write or edit one for you), you could still have influence over what your recommenders could be taking about. Remember that they are likely busy people who may not be very familiar with the MBA application process and you may need to provide some guidance about the expectations for the reference letters.

Simply saying how great you are is helpful, but unfortunately not enough. The admissions teams would like to see specific examples. So feel free to give your recommenders a heads up to refrain from generic comments.

What if I’m an entrepreneur or self-employed?

If you are self-employed, you can choose a client, a supplier or a vendor that you work with closely. If you work in a family business, refrain from choosing family members as your recommenders. While we’re sure they have great things to say about you, they wouldn’t make the best references as they wouldn’t be completely objective!

When is it OK to use academic references?

If you would like to include an academic reference, you can do so if you worked with this person while you were at school. As mentioned before, the recommendation questions are directly related to your professional performance, so a professor who taught you a course would not be able to provide good answers for most of the questions. It would be to your advantage to choose someone you have worked with in a professional setting.

Traditional reference letters vs. electronic questionnaires…

Some business schools accept reference letters in the traditional letter format. While these letters do provide valuable insight into the application, sometimes schools do not find them to be a consistent tool. Every recommender takes the liberty to discuss a different quality. To be fair to all applicants, many schools created online questionnaires. Usually there are fewer than ten open-ended questions and one scoring matrix.

Since answering questions is easier than writing a letter, online questionnaires take less time to complete. Most of the recommenders would find this format more efficient. Furthermore, using online questionnaires is advantageous for you because if you have a good recommender who doesn’t like writing letters, filling an online questionnaire instead of writing a letter would be less stressful and may result in a better recommendation as a result! These questionnaires are a fair method as all applicants are rated based on the same criteria.

Submitting the electronic questionnaire is a simple process. When completing your application, you will be asked to provide the email contact information of the two recommenders. Once you submit their contact details, the system will send them the questionnaire instantly. As soon as the recommenders complete the form, you will be notified by email that your references are completed. Simple and easy!

Tip #2: Needless to say, you should always ask your recommenders if they’re OK to provide references before you give their contact information to the school. This simple courtesy will go a long way!

Tip #3: Whenever possible, use a work email address and not a personal one. Not only there is a greater chance that requests for references could end up in a personal spam folder of your recommender, but business schools prefer a work email address as it increases credibility of the recommender.

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