A Bit About Recommendations |
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By Gil Levi

Most business schools require two or three letters of recommendation as part of the admissions process. In most cases, the schools request that the recommender send the recommendation online, through the school’s application system.

The recommendations are among the most significant components of your application. Below are some frequently asked questions about this process.

You should start thinking about recommendations once you decide to apply to business school, even if you make this decision several years beforehand.

There is no need to acquire recommendations written years in advance. However, you will need to do the following:

  • Identify potential recommenders.
  • Develop solid and meaningful relationships with three or four potential recommenders.

Recommendations are usually assessed according to three guidelines. These guidelines will help you select the right recommender:

a. The content.
For example, the level of enthusiasm and support conveyed by the recommender and the reasons for it. These reasons will preferably include specific real-life examples.

b. The nature and length of your acquaintance.
The longer and more intensive the acquaintance is, the better. The most effective recommenders are usually those that have supervised your work (unless the specific school guidelines instruct you otherwise). It is therefore not usually recommended to present a recommendation from professors (unless you worked for them, or unless such a recommendation is required.)

c. The recommender’s background.
Assume two potential recommenders for which criteria ‘a’ and ‘b’ are equally strong. Under this scenario, a recommendation from a CEO or a government minister, for example, would be considered more powerful than a recommendation from a junior manager. Similarly, a recommendation from a graduate of the school you are applying to would be more effective than a recommendation from someone who did not attend the school.

When selecting your recommenders, find the right balance of these three criteria, while placing the greatest emphasis on the recommendation’s content. A standard and lukewarm recommendation will not get the job done, regardless of who gave it.

Most letters of recommendation are 2-4 pages long. One page recommendations are usually too short to demonstrate and highlight the significant nature of the relationship (see clause ‘b’ in How do I choose the right recommenders?, above). In most cases, the recommender has to asnwer specific questions in the school’s online recommendation system, where each question has a defined word limit (250-500), but the following schools have no word limit for recommendations: Berkeley, Chicago, Duke, HEC Paris, INSEAD, NYU, Tuck.

Most powerful recommendations use specific and concrete examples, which serve to explain and illustrate the recommender’s assertions. For example, it is often not enough to state that “Joe is a wonderful manager”. A powerful recommendation should detail specific cases where Joe displayed his impressive leadership potential.

Your candidacy will be stronger if the recommender prepares a specific recommendation for each university and responds to the specific recommendation questions each university presents. In the past few years, several business schools partnered with the Graduate Management Admissions Council (GMAC) on the GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation, and set the following questions:

1. 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.

2. Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.

Overall, strong relationships and close acquaintance with your recommenders are the key to acquiring effective recommendations. Such recommendations are essential for a successful application.

Good luck!


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