Using Recommendations to Strategically Enhance Your MBA Application

While MBA recommendation letters typically will not make or break your admissions decision, they can reinforce the personal brand you’ve presented throughout your application. We encourage you to use recommendations strategically so that they validate and expand upon key themes already introduced.

Selecting Your Recommenders

We advise selecting recommenders who can comment on your post-graduate, professional experiences and accomplishments. Recommenders should know you well and be able to provide detailed insight into working with you, which includes assessing your professional skills and personality traits. This intimate knowledge of your abilities is significantly more important than the job title of your recommender.  The one exception is if you have a senior colleague with significant influence at the school to which you are applying who would be willing to serve as a recommender.

Select recommenders that will provide a well-rounded view of working with you, though you should elect to have each provide a slightly more nuanced focus on a character trait that you exhibit and have spoken about in your application (i.e., leadership and teamwork).

Taking a Strategic Viewpoint

As mentioned, it is critical for recommendations to validate and enhance the existing application content. As such, read through your essays and make note of traits that you are highlighting for the admissions committee, then determine which recommender would best be able to write anecdotes about you exhibiting those traits. Additionally, if you see gaps in your application, you may choose to close those gaps using the recommendation letters.

Setting Your Recommenders Up for Success

Most importantly, provide each recommender with enough time to meet your request. We suggest that you allot two months between making the request and the submission date.

Provide a portfolio of information to each recommender that includes the following information:

  • School names, recommendation questions, and submission date(s)
  • Method for recommendation submission (e.g., online via link)
  • Background information and your future career goals
  • Sample recommendation letter (customized)
  • Illustrative anecdotes from your work together (customized)

The sample recommendation letter and illustrative stories that you provide should be unique for each recommender and should highlight the qualities you are wanting the recommender to expand upon. These inputs will allow you to subtly influence the recommenders’ output and will ensure that the recommendations include concrete and varied examples that reinforce your existing application content.

The timely provision of this portfolio of information will reinforce to your recommenders that you appreciate their time and are serious about your applications. It will also provide much needed direction that will allow them to allocate their time wisely in support of your efforts.  

After the recommender has submitted the recommendations, be sure to thank him/her for spending time in support of your application.

Frequently Asked Questions

I have a great relationship with my college advisor, would it be appropriate to use her as a recommender?

For entry into business school, it is best to use professional references who can speak to your work experience and skills acquired.

What if I don’t feel comfortable telling my direct supervisor that I am submitting applications to business school?

While it is preferable to have a recommendation from a direct supervisor, it may not always be an option and schools are understanding of this fact. Do attempt to have a former boss, professional colleague who is superior to you on an org chart, or someone who knows you in a more professional context write a recommendation. In some cases, this could include someone from a volunteer activity where you demonstrate teamwork and leadership skills.

How many recommendations is it appropriate to ask a recommender to write?

While this depends on how strong your relationship is with the recommender, our general rule of thumb is to ask a recommender for no more than three recommendations per round. This prevents the recommender from having to meet a burdensome number of back-to-back deadlines.

Is it necessary to get specific recommendations written for each school?

While ideally you will get your recommenders to address each recommendation topic directly, it may be necessary for him/her to write a single recommendation that addresses all the questions from your prospective schools together. Many schools have similar or shared questions for recommenders making this feasible. 

Top Ten Things To Consider When Applying To An EMBA Program Part I: GMAT, Academic Records and Recommendation Letters

Executive MBA programs have never been looking for just good students.  They are searching for leaders who will continue their positive trajectory of success after the program is complete. They want to build a class comprised of students who have a diverse variety of talents, qualities, attitudes and backgrounds. 

So, what does this mean for your applications?  Let’s examine each piece of the puzzle.


The Graduate Management Admissions Council created the Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) in 1953 to gauge a prospective students’ ability to compete in the academic rigor of graduate business programs.  The exam, which is 1 of only 2 intellectual measures on the application, was recently updated with an additional section.  It tests verbal skills and analytical writing ability, quantitative skills as well as an aptitude for integrated reasoning.  Most full-time MBA programs value the test’s findings and require the test for admissions, but EMBA admissions committees differ in their opinions regarding the GMAT.  Therefore, you will only be required to take the GMAT when applying to some programs.

--GMAT preparation is critical:  

If you are applying to EMBA programs that require you to take the GMAT, preparation is key.  Give yourself at least 3 months and pick the preparation option that is best for you.  You can either self study using one of the many GMAT guides on the market, take a GMAT prep class or hire a private tutor.  It is important to note that you can re-take the test multiple times because the admissions committees typically only take the highest score.  While the GMAT may seem like a drag, standardized tests continue to be widely used in the higher education admissions process and valued by admissions officers.  You don’t want your GMAT score to be the one aspect of your application keeping you out of your top choice program. 

Academic Records/Transcript

The content and requirement of a transcript on a graduate business application is set in stone.  Applicants will never be able to change that low grade they may have received in college math and admissions deans will never be able to standardize the rigor of classes or grades given at other institutions.  It is simply another predictor, like the GMAT, of future academic achievement.

--The transcript is telling, but only 1 piece of the puzzle:  

When evaluating your transcript, admissions committees will want to ensure you challenged yourself throughout your academic career, especially in quantitative courses, and could maintain a solid GPA.  They will assume, if you were a dedicated student throughout your undergraduate work, you will succeed in the EMBA classroom.  If you have poor grades, you can’t go back and change them. However, a high GMAT score, additional coursework and an essay explaining weaknesses can help to mitigate the negative influence of a poor transcript.

Recommendation Letters

Most graduate business programs require 2 or 3 letters of recommendation, so it is important to make strategic decisions when choosing recommenders.  You will also want to ensure their messages align with your overall application strategy. 

--Choose the right recommenders:  

Choose recommenders who know you well and who will sing praises about your candidacy and fit.  Don’t get the distant CEO to write the letter because you think admissions committees will be impressed.  Identify those supervisors who have worked closely with you and can provide specific examples of your leadership and innovation potential.  The one exception here is if you are connected to a prominent donor or decision maker at the program to which you are applying.    

--Provide recommenders with background information:

If your recommendation letter can provide specific examples and add depth to your position, they could add real value to the admissions process.  In order to achieve this, you will want to provide your recommender with substantial background information – a sample essay or two and some examples that could help them illustrate specific qualities.  Ideally, each recommendation will complement the qualities you’ve brought out the essays, resume and other recommendation letters, by providing evidence of specific professional accomplishments.  You want each application piece to work together, emphasizing different areas of strength and, ultimately, completing the puzzle.   

The application process may seem daunting, but the rigorous admissions standards applied will lead to an unparalleled EMBA experience, a classroom where each seat is taken by a talented leader who is more than merely a test score and a transcript.

Innovation is Key. Is Graduate Business Admissions the Exception? Part II: Assessing Professional Competence

In 1943, when the first Executive MBA Program yielded a class of 52 students, business school admissions processes largely mirrored those practiced in the Ivy League.  Applicants completed a personal facts section and clearly outlined their extracurricular and professional activities.  Recommendation letters, written by persons who knew the applicant well and could speak to their character, were sent to the institution.  The applicant completed personal essays so the admissions committee could gauge the applicant’s aptitude for leadership.  And, finally, the interview would look at the more subtle indicators of future success.  Academic achievement was just one of the 4 pieces.  Was the admissions committee downplaying the value of intellectual accomplishment?

The answer is yes, because it was decided that pure intellectual prowess does not, alone, predict future success.  Factors, unrelated to intellect, like motivation and social skills were also considered crucial. Today, not much has changed.   The admissions process is nearly identical to the one used by the first student’s at Chicago’s EMBA.  This is because MBA programs have never been looking for just good students.  They are looking for leaders who will continue their positive trajectory of success after the program is complete.  Like the officials of the Ivy League, the MBA admissions process is not simply a matter of academic brilliance.  Admissions committees want a student body with a diverse variety of talents, qualities, attitudes and backgrounds. 

The question, then, is not whether the goals of the admissions process are out of line.  The question is whether or not the admissions tactics employed by MBA programs are effective in evaluating top management potential.  Let’s examine each piece of the puzzle.     

 Assessing Professional Competence: Recommendation Letters and Resume

The quality and quantity of an applicant’s work experience is key when determining top management potential, so a polished resume is an absolute must.  But, what about recommendation letters?  Do they really help to set an applicant apart from the pack?  In nearly every circumstance, an applicant will choose a recommender who will gloat about their strengths and minimize or barely mention any perceived weaknesses.  In the competitive world of admissions, choosing a recommender, who will paint the picture of an all-star, seems to be the smart thing to do, but is this really a productive process for admissions committees?  Isn’t there a better way to gauge top management talent?

Evan Bouffides, Associate Dean and Director of MBA Admissions at the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, says that while recommendation letters may serve as a point of differentiation for executive business programs, full time MBA admissions is a different story.  “We no longer require recommendation letters in our full-time MBA application because we found the letters didn’t provide us with a point of differentiation.  More often than not, he says, I thought a letter’s content did not provide honest insight about a candidate.  I could also never be completely sure that the name signed at the bottom was the writer of the recommendation.”

Rather than doing different, when we innovate, we do the same better.  The ultimate goals of MBA admissions committees will remain the same, but as future students and alumni of MBA programs, if we can encourage constant innovation in the selection processes of our classmates, our academic experiences will be richer and the programs, from which we graduate, stronger.