Monthly Archives: October 2009

how much do MBA recommendations matter?

Anybody who knows me well (or knows my GMAT blog well) has heard me say that work experience is the most important part of your MBA admissions profile. By far. Honestly, nothing else is even close, and that includes the GMAT.

The GMAT, for what it’s worth, is a relatively small part of MBA admissions. Most schools just use the GMAT to make sure that the tougher academic classes (particularly the quantitative stuff–statistics, microeconomics, financial accounting, macroeconomics) won’t make you go running home to your mommy. Other than that, the schools are concerned with the GMAT only insofar as it impacts their rankings. Unfortunately, GMAT scores are part of some rankings formulas, and, since the rankings are part of an MBA program’s prestige, b-schools are forced to pay attention to their averages.

Other than that, nobody really cares about the GMAT. A 780 or an 800 gets you nowhere by itself. Haas, for example, rejects 86% of all students with a 750 or above. At most schools, a 780 doesn’t really get you much further than a 700 or a 720.

So one of the other questions I frequently field is this: how important are MBA recommendations, and what constitutes a great recommendation?

In a way, I think that recommendations are a little bit like the GMAT in terms of the role that they play in the admissions process. The GMAT isn’t really an issue at all, unless your score is relatively weak. As long as your GMAT score is close to the interquartile range for your chosen MBA program, you’ll probably be OK. Recommendations, similarly, aren’t much of an issue, unless they’re flawed in some way.

I’m pretty convinced that the vast majority of MBA recommendations are solid-but-boring, and that’s probably good enough. Your boss will probably say “yup, this employee of mine is great,” without really putting too much emotion into the writing. This type of recommendation does almost nothing for you–good or bad. It won’t help you, but at least it won’t hurt. I suspect that somewhere between 60% and 80% of recommendations fall into this category, but that’s just a guess.

How might you get hurt by a rec? Well, your boss might secretly hate you. You might also make the mistake of choosing an irrelevant recommender. If, for example, your recommender is your supervisor from a job you had eight years ago, he or she might be completely unable to speak competently about your current skills and situation. Worse yet, the recommendation will make the adcom wonder why you can’t get a more recent colleague or supervisor to write a recommendation for you.

Oddly enough, I occasionally get requests to write recommendations for my clients. That’s a terrible, terrible idea. I’m just an admissions consultant and GMAT tutor who gets paid by the hour. I could write a great recommendation for you, but it would be blisteringly obvious to the adcom that I have an economic stake in your success, and that I am a long ways from being an unbiased colleague or supervisor with legitimate knowledge of your talents. Similarly, I think it’s a mistake to ask career coaches, mentors, or friends to do the recommendations. Stick very strictly to people who met you in a professional context, and you’ll be fine.

That said, what can you do to make a recommendation great? If a good recommendation doesn’t really help or hurt… well, is there a way to engineer a recommendation that stands out in some way, and really helps your candidacy?

First of all, you want to be 100% sure that your recommenders know exactly what your plans are for business school and beyond. Give them your CV or resume, and a full rundown of your plans. Give them your essays, if you can. If your recommender can specifically address your goals and strengths, it makes the recommendation much more credible and powerful.

The very best recommendations are the ones that grab the adcom by the collar, stare the adcom in the eyes, and force them to listen. For example, an outstanding recommendation for somebody named Sarah might feel a little bit like this: “Listen, butthole. I know everything there is to know about Sarah. She’s applying to your school, and she’s a f**king amazing human being, and she’s an unbelievable employee with senior management written all over her, and you’re a damned fool if you don’t get down on your knees and beg her to attend your school. She’s the best. You hear me, a**hole! She’s the best. Now, get down on your knees, and BEG her to come to your school. You’ll be glad you did… on your knees, NOW!… ” The swearing is unnecessary, but if your recommender can write with that sort of spirit, you’ll catch the adcom’s attention.

(A little side story: back when I was a teaching assistant in the economics department at Stanford, one of my macroeconomics students asked me if I would be willing to serve as a reference for a VC job he’d applied for. I didn’t really know him all that well, and I don’t think that he was a particularly great student. On the other hand, I knew that he probably had almost no access to his professors in giant Stanford economics lectures, and I understood that I was his best option. All I knew about him was that he probably asked more questions than any of my other students, and I respected him for it. And he was very polite and well-spoken, if not brilliant.

When the VC firm called me, I had nothing else to say, but I kept going on and on about how unusual it was to meet an undergraduate who was so unashamed to ask questions, and who was so persistent and likable all at the same time. I rambled on about how great he was, without offering any real detail–I didn’t even remember what his grades were, so I couldn’t talk about those–until the VC lady made me shut the hell up. My student got the job. I’m sure that he earned it in other ways, but I’m also pretty sure that my effusiveness and wordiness helped at least a little bit.)

Let’s be honest: not everybody can (or will) write an enthusiastic, engaging, energetic recommendation. But if you have any colleagues, clients, or supervisors who can go to bat for you like that, beg them to write your MBA recs.

But if you don’t know anybody who is that persuasive, no worries. Just don’t screw it up, and you’ll be fine.

how high can you go?

I received an interesting email a week or two ago, and thought that I should share it with everybody, since I regularly receive similar questions:

I took the GMAT this week and scored 640 (Q44, V33).

I did about 3 or 4 practice tests, one from the downloadable MBA.com, and others from old editions of Kaplan and Princeton. I spent about $0 on prep (they were old CD’s and books from my friend) and about 1 week’s worth of time studying.

After reading your blog, somehow I’m dying to know…IF I were to work hard at it, do you think it be possible for me to reach, say 750 within a year?

This email came from a (very polite!) complete stranger who is nowhere near NYC. So without knowing anything else about her, I gave her a completely honest answer. In her case, I think it’s fair to say that she has some quantitative talent, since she got a 44 on the GMAT quant without much effort. I’m pretty convinced that she’d be able to raise her GMAT quantitative score into the high 40s, and nearly anybody who works hard enough can pull his or her verbal score up by at least a few points. A 700 would be a reasonable goal for her, and it might not be crazy to think that she could achieve that without the help of a GMAT tutor.

Beyond that? A 750? I have absolutely no idea. I would have to spend at least a few hours tutoring her before figuring out how high she could go.

Here’s the way I see it: almost any fluent speaker of English is capable of getting a 650, unless they have some extenuating circumstances such as learning disabilities or debilitating test anxiety (both of which are far more common than most people think–I have all sorts of thoughts about both, and might share them on this blog at some point). I’m not saying that it’s easy to get a 650 on the GMAT. I’m just saying that a truly, deeply dedicated student could work like a lunatic and–on her best day–get a 650. I’ve seen plenty of people start at a very low level (say, 380-420) and ultimately crack 600. For them, 650 is doable.

After that? No guarantees, at all. It isn’t fair, but I would argue that you need to have some sort of particular talent for “the GMAT way of thinking” if you want to crack 650. This “talent” might not be correlated to other forms of intelligence. You could be absolutely brilliant, and never have any shot at beating a 650 on the GMAT. Sorry, but that’s just reality. Once you get beyond 650-level questions, you have to have a knack for “seeing” something in the question, or “making a connection” in ways that can’t always be taught easily. A good GMAT tutor can increase the odds that you’ll get the tough questions right, but some people really, really struggle to make much headway on those.

(Random example of a GMAT “hard gainer”: one of my all-time favorite students started with a 420. She worked hard, but was bizarrely erratic with her GMAT practice tests, scoring everywhere from 380 to 540. On the real test, she stunned us both by scoring a 570, and got into her first-choice MBA program with a fourth-round application. She has zero GMAT talent, but she has been wildly successful in business school, and I swear that she will be CEO of something huge someday. She’s intelligent, motivated, and awesome, and will be an outstanding business leader. Screw the GMAT, right?)

So whenever somebody contacts me–from NYC or from afar–and says that their goal is a 700 or a 750, and that they’ll do anything to achieve that goal… I always try to tell them to chill the f*** out, as politely as I can. For some people, a 750 or a 780 is doable with a year’s worth of studying. For others, a 700 is possible with a herculean effort. And for some, 650 would take a crapload of studying. It isn’t fair, but it’s reality. After a few hours of tutoring, I usually have a good idea of which category a GMAT student falls into, but it’s awfully tough to tell from an email or a phone call.

One more thing I can tell you without knowing much about you: your work (and other) experience is far more important than the GMAT in the admissions process. If you’re an amazing candidate with an amazing work ethic, the GMAT will be an irritation, but never an obstacle.