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Every MBA aspirant dreams of getting admission into the best B-school possible. So, what exactly is required to get a seat in a prestigious B-school such as Harvard, Wharton, INSEAD, Stanford, ISB or NUS? Admissions committees take into consideration GMAT score, past-academic record, work experience, essays, recommendation letters and interview while evaluating prospective applicants.

Why are letters of recommendation important?

All business schools want you to submit two or three recommendation letters from people who have taught you or supervised you. This gives B-schools a third-party opinion about the applicant.

Nowadays, most B-schools require letters of recommendation to be submitted online. The applicant gives email ids of the recommenders in the online application form of the B-school. The university application system then sends an email to the recommender. This email usually contains a URL and access code, using which the recommender submits the letter of recommendation.

Now, will you take a letter of recommendation from someone who you know is going to write bad things about you? Of course, not! What this means is that everyone’s letters of recommendation say good things about them.

So, how can you make your letters of recommendation different? Well, here are some pointers.

Choice of recommender: Who is the right recommender for me?

The first thing will be to select your recommender very carefully. While selecting recommenders, it is important to choose people who can comment on different aspects of your profile. Therefore, while one recommender highlights your professional career, another could talk about your strong academic or extracurricular achievements.

Very often, applicants take one letter from one supervisor and the second, from the supervisor’s supervisor. This is a sheer waste of a letter of recommendation. Similarly, taking a letter of recommendation from one’s current supervisor and the second from an ex-supervisor also shows a poor choice of referees.

Ideally, one should choose recommenders from his college and workplace-a professor who can highlight your learning potential, a colleague or client who can put in a few good words about your crisis management or client-servicing skills and of course, your supervisor who can expound on your efficiency, out-of-box thinking, team dynamics, etc.

Now, it’s possible that you may not be in touch with any one from your alma mater. In that case, your recommenders would necessarily be from your workplace. But you could certainly choose the manner in which they describe your unique qualities—while one talks about career progression, another talks about client handling.

If you are a fresher with no full-time work experience, you could ask for a letter of recommendation from the person whom you reported to while undergoing summer internship. If you are involved in volunteer or community work, your manager could be a recommender too.

Content and storyline: What points must be covered?

The second thing is to have your recommender spend time on your recommendation and add original inputs. Most B-schools require letters of recommendation in a Question & Answer format. This makes it easier for the recommenders to write the letter. Some of the common questions that B-schools ask of recommenders are:

For how long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
What are the salient strengths of the applicant?
What are the areas for improvement of the applicant?
How would you rate the applicant in comparison to his peer group?

While answering these questions, it is very important to give relevant examples to highlight the winning traits of the applicant and to differentiate the applicant from his peer group. Even weaknesses or areas of improvement need to be delivered as constructive criticism.

Recommenders should avoid both generic and verbose statements. Though most universities set word limits to the answers, it will be still enough for the recommender to give 2-3 instances when the applicant exhibited leadership quality. You might want to schedule a 15-20 minute brainstorming session with each of your recommenders in order to ensure the high quality of the content of the letter of recommendation.

Turnaround time: How to get a speedier response

It’s a serious matter! Drive home this point to your recommender. For your letters of recommendation, you will be depending on someone other than yourself. There is a high probability that that person might not take your application process as seriously as you do. They may even be quite busy and genuinely short on time. So, choose your recommenders wisely. They should be serious about submitting the letter of recommendation on time. You would not want to miss out on a B-school deadline just because the recommender failed to submit the letter of recommendation before the deadline of the university.

To be on the safe side, give your recommenders at least 10-15 days to submit the letter of recommendation. And, of course, conduct regular follow-ups with them to ensure that the letter is submitted before the deadline of the B-school to which you are applying. Sometimes, it is helpful to give pointers to your recommender to help them fill out the letter of recommendation. This usually expedites the process.

Have back-ups ready: Why build and sustain connections

Most B-schools will require 2-3 letters of recommendation and most MBA aspirants apply to about 6 B-schools. So, each of your recommenders would need to submit 6 separate letters. This might be quite a daunting task for your recommenders who might have time constraints. So, you should have a couple of recommenders ready as back-up in case your original choice of recommenders have trouble submitting all your letters of recommendation.

Busting some myths

There are a lot of myths regarding who a referee should be and what a letter of recommendation should look like. Here are some:

  1. Designation of your recommender does not matter: Very often, applicants try to take letters of recommendation from vice-presidents of their organizations or principals of colleges, even though they don’t know the applicant personally. This is a very serious mistake! The only requirement is that the person should know you well and should have had the opportunity to assess your work.
  2. Educational qualification of your recommender does not matter: In fact, B-schools do not even ask for that!
  3. No extra weightage if your recommender is a B-school alumnus: B-schools do not verify the academic backgrounds of your recommenders. So, if your recommender happens to be an alumnus of the B-school that you’re applying to, you get no special credit. For instance, if you are applying to Wharton and your recommender is an alumnus of Wharton, this will not have any impact on your chances of admission.
  4. Not much weightage to the language of the letter of recommendation: What matters is the content of the letter. So, do not make the letter of recommendation too verbose. However, the letter should be grammatically correct, and as far as possible, it should read well, even if it is written in simple English.

The bottom line is that choosing your recommenders wisely is probably one of the most important decisions that you will take during your MBA application process. So, spend enough time, and choose well!

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