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Who are the right people for your MBA reference letters

Getting into B-Schools is a daunting task. Getting a good GMAT score is the first order of the task followed by writing an impressive CV and the essays which are a whole new level of scary.

Next part is the submission of reference letters and whilst it may feel that everything from here is out of one’s control, there are still some things we can do to influence this next bit.

Choosing the MBA recommenders

In most cases, the business school provides guidelines around the recommendation letters. Unless there are instructions to the contrary, go with people who know you professionally.

Who to ask for an MBA reference letter


It makes sense to get recommended by higher level managers. You need to find such people; whose top tier of high performing employees includes you.

Since, you would be applying to many colleges, it would make a lot of sense to have more than one suitable person for this job. Since writing these letters take time and thought, it would surely not be easy for a single person to write 5-6 letters.

In case you can’t ask your direct supervisor

If you can’t include your current, direct supervisor in your reference pack, it is advisable to complete the optional essay where you could explain this. 

In such situations, turn towards supervisors you have had in the past, or other, more-senior employees of your current company if you can. A client that you work closely with would also work.

Don’t ask these people:

Do not approach your family (even if that’s who you work with), your juniors and big name business people that you’ve never worked closely.

Admissions officers never want to see these reference letters – even if you’re applying to their alma mater.

Tips to guide your MBA recommender

Once you’ve figured out who you’ll ask, do not leave it there.

It is a good idea to walk through your application with them. It will help your recommender the strengths that you intend to portray. They may offer suggestions about some characteristics that have not been represented. 

However, the recommenders are obligated to discuss your weaknesses; it is important to let them know that you are happy to face those. Be honest with your recommenders about the weaknesses you can already discern – and the ones they can identify too.

Anticipate the probable problems

It is extremely important to stay in constant touch with the recommenders, gently nudging them to finish well before time. Last minute responses can be quite disadvantageous to your application.

What to do when your key MBA recommender says no

This is not an ideal situation but, if your top-choice recommender doesn’t have the time or inclination to help you, don’t force them into it.

Hence it is advisable to have a pool of probable recommenders from the beginning to fall back on.

If a recommender asks you to write it yourself

It should never be done, still, a lot of applicants are told that they would be happy to sign off on what you deem is good. 

It may seem innocuous and harmless in a way that would come to bite you later. If things have been left to the last minute, the situation would have become direr than it would appear also. No matter how tempted you are to write your own recommendation, there’s a chance your writing style will resonate from your essays. You could be setting yourself up for a ding.

If you can’t convince your recommender to write your letter, you should move along to the next person.

You can’t see your reference letter

Depending on your relationship with your MBA recommender, you’ll have a chance to see a draft of his or her letter before it’s sent (or uploaded), but there is a chance that you might not.

While it can be disappointing if your recommender isn’t prepared to show you his or her letter, you can do little about it but trust that you’ve chosen the right person to help you.

The alternative is to discuss this possibility with your chosen recommenders before it becomes an issue. While you shouldn’t control the content of these letters, you might be able to help fit a letter better within the context of your entire application.

Just because you shouldn’t write your own recommendation letter, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to put time into the process. Reference letters are an important wedge of a cohesive application. Adhering to some pre-set timelines is the best way to avoid running into issues later. 

Have you found MBA recommenders that will make you shine?

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