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.

One response to “how much do MBA recommendations matter?

  1. Pingback: Finding a Relevant Recommendation | TeachStreet Blog

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