How to Write a Recommendation for MBA Candidates

Today’s post comes from Ivy MBA Consulting. Ivy MBA Consulting is a leading admissions consulting firm that offers comprehensive, personalized, strategic consulting services, focused on getting clients accepted into the leading MBA programs in the world. Ivy was established by graduates of some of the world’s top MBA programs – people who were in your shoes not long ago. Ivy MBA Consulting is currently the only MBA consulting company in the world whose success rate is examined by Deloitte.

This article is for those who have been asked to write a letter of recommendation for their candidate. If you’re a candidate stumbling across this post (let’s face it, that is most likely the case), consider forwarding this on – we promise to keep it on point, as we know your recommenders are busy people.

MBA programs are interested in action over accolades. Most recommenders are tempted to write lists of superlatives, in an effort to wholeheartedly stand behind the candidates about whom they are writing. But imagine the reader of this letter – all they will see are things like “Angela is staggeringly creative” or “Angela is the most qualified individual I know to lead a team.” These statements, on their own, are completely empty. The admissions committee will read them, and forget what was said before they reach the next sentence.

So how do we write memorable letters? By anchoring every strength statement with a demonstrative anecdote. That means that each paragraph of the letter should start with a statement of one or two strengths (like in our example, creativity and the ability to lead) – and then an anecdote that shows a time in which the candidate demonstrated creativity and leadership in a unique way.

One of the most important things to remember is to pick anecdotes that don’t seem obvious. Writing that someone is creative and then describing a mediocre example renders the anecdote meaningless. We want to make sure that the anecdote seems admirable enough to warrant a strength statement in the first place. Another way to think about this is: “am I showing a strength that is above and beyond what is expected of the average employee in this position, or am I simply showing that the candidate was doing their job.” If your example demonstrates the former – great! If the example demonstrates the latter – try to restructure the anecdote in a way that sounds more impressive, or choose a different one all together.

Another thing that you want to consider is the variety of strengths you highlight. First of all, you want to make sure that not all strengths are analytical. Or execution based. Or social. In other words, try to show a wide variety of strengths from each facet of the applicant’s work, work style, and character. Maybe show a couple strengths that highlight the candidate’s professional skills and how they get the job done, whether it is their analytical skills, their creativity, their stamina, or their sharp strategic eye. Another genre of strengths can be interpersonal – how does the candidate deal with people. Remember, it’s not enough to say “they are great with people” or “they have a lovely sense of humor.” Describe a time that illustrates these qualities so that the admissions committee can see for themselves what is so lovely or humoristic about the candidate’s approach to difficult situations.

It’s also important to note that these programs are team-based, and the interpersonal approach of a candidate means a lot. So make sure that you describe the candidate, how they interact with people, and what they do for their fellow teammates that that others wouldn’t necessarily do.

As for the much-debated “weakness” or “feedback” question – you don’t have to try to backdoor brag on this one. In other words “so and so is a perfectionist!” is not considered a weakness until it is anchored in an anecdote that shows how this affects their work. Keep in mind though that it is important to pick pieces of feedback that are approach or method based, rather than character based. For example, being stubborn is not easily changed or improved, whereas being scattered or too friendly in negotiations are approach related and can be worked on. In these sections, make sure you don’t only describe the piece of feedback that you gave and the context, but that you also mention how the candidate received the feedback, and – most importantly – how they went about improving their approach.

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