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How to Ace Your Recommendation Letters: Who to Choose, How to Communicate, and What to Focus On

The MBA application journey can seem nothing short of Herculean. Test prep, interview dates, and essay prompts are probably all that runs through your head lately.

One commonly overlooked, but crucially important, aspect of your application will be the Letters of Recommendation (LORs) sent to your admissions panel. It’s easy to forget about this part of the application. Applicants usually trust their recommenders to write a good LOR, and send it across with their application without much thought or effort. Performance and ethics are commonly covered in LORs, but a strong LOR has even more.

LORs are one of the most important parts of your application. They give you a unique opportunity to showcase your skills, qualities, and interests from someone else’s perspective. LORs go beyond the realm of essays or resumes, where you showcase the things you have done. LORs offer the admissions panel a window into the experience of working with you. This certainly demonstrates more about your personality fit for the program than your test scores will.

These are reasons to craft a narrative for your entire application through a great LOR. Aligning your LOR with the rest of your application also shows your admissions committee that you’re prepared, and clear about your goals.

So, How Can You Ace Your Letter of Recommendation?

Tip 1: Choose Wisely

Choosing a recommender for your LOR makes up for most of the value of the letter. Since a good LOR shows what you can contribute to the progra, and what you plan on doing once the course ends, it’s critical to find the right recommender.

A few parameters to keep in mind when choosing a recommender are:

  1. Are they from the field you intend to work in?

  2. What is their network like? Business schools love to see what network you bring to the table. An acclaimed industry name makes you a stronger candidate.

  3. Are they known for a niche you can see yourself joining?

  4. Have they worked closely with you?

  5. Do they understand what you intend on doing with their LOR? Are they supportive of it?

Asking these five questions to yourself before you hunt for the perfect recommenders is vital. When it comes to choosing a recommender, go beyond a liked colleague, and try to talk to someone like your closest senior manager, or even a client. These recommenders are aware of how you work and can vouch for you in a way that a distant connection cannot.

Tip 2: Communication is Key

Let’s say you’ve found amazing recommenders. What’s next?

The chances are slim to none that your recommender, be it your manager or a colleague, will know everything about you. You’ll need to talk to them and guide them through your interests and goals. The more they understand, the better your letter of recommendation will be. Your recommender needs to write about you with high regard, so don’t be afraid to give them pointers on what you want it to include.

Break down key aspects of your application into personal qualities, positions of responsibility, deliverable-based performance, passions or hobbies, and fill each category in with what you think is best to highlight. Share these ideas with your recommender to help them structure out a great LOR for you.

It’s a bonus if your recommender is particularly good at writing business school LORs and can help you with an error free letter. It’s ideal to share a great relationship with the recommender and have it reflected in your letter. The more you communicate, the stronger your letter will be.

Tip 3: Show, Don't Tell

The best LORs show what you’ve done, instead of telling what you are and what you can do.

For example - a letter that says, “Denise is great at problem solving,” holds much less value than, “When we were faced with a major internal setback, Denise took charge and cleared blockers. Following this, she communicated well with the clients to ease any inconveniences.”

The latter showcases your skills and ability. Request that as many anecdotes be included in your LOR as possible. Another good way to craft a great LOR is by breaking it down in qualities, skills, and experience.

Leadership is a quality, effective communication is a skill, and leading a diverse team is an experience. This shows what you’re capable of, and how you execute it when push comes to shove.

Tip 4: Build A Story

Lastly, try to keep your LORs in a storytelling format. Compelling stories always draw more attention than simple information.

Don’t forget…

Letters of Recommendation are meant to show off the best sides of you, and you don’t have to be humble about it because someone else is saying it. An LOR that portrays you as average is a big red flag for any recruiter. So don’t forget to get the best out of your LOR journey, and choose a recommender who is supportive of showing you in the best light possible.

Start your LOR process in a timely manner and make sure your recommenders have substantial time (a month, at least) to construct, edit, and finalize a great LOR around the pointers you give. Another interesting option would be to tap recommenders who are alumni of the schools to which you’re applying. The admissions panels are certain to value perspectives of alumni even more than an average recommender.

Take your time, communicate well, and tell a story - that’s the recipe for a great LOR. Good luck!

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