Harvard Business School MBA Letters of Recommendation Guide - Questions, Tips, & Examples

Looking to secure glowing letters of recommendation for your Harvard Business School MBA application? This comprehensive guide provides expert advice, essential questions, insightful tips, and real-life examples to help you navigate the recommendation process with confidence and success.

Posted January 10, 2024

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Harvard Business School (HBS), one of the most prestigious business schools in the world, attracts ambitious professionals who strive to pursue an MBA to accelerate their careers. As part of the HBS application process, applicants are required to submit letters of recommendation. These letters play a vital role in the admissions committee's evaluation of an applicant's potential and fit for the program. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore the various aspects of HBS letters of recommendation – from the questions asked to tips for writing powerful letters – and provide you with real examples from successful admits.

Harvard Business School & the Role of Letters of Recommendation

Before diving into the specifics of HBS letters of recommendation, let's take a moment to understand the significance of this renowned institution and the purpose behind these letters. Harvard Business School, established in 1908, is known for its rigorous and transformative MBA program. Its objective is to develop leaders who can make a difference in the world.

Harvard Business School has a rich history that spans over a century. It has consistently been at the forefront of business education, shaping the minds of countless individuals who have gone on to become influential leaders in various industries. The school's commitment to excellence and innovation has earned it a reputation as one of the top business schools in the world.

When it comes to the application process, Harvard Business School takes a holistic approach in evaluating candidates. While academic achievements and test scores are important, the admissions committee also values personal qualities, leadership potential, and a diverse range of experiences. This is where letters of recommendation play a crucial role.

Letters of recommendation provide the admissions committee with valuable insights into an applicant's abilities, experiences, and character. They offer a perspective that goes beyond what can be captured in an applicant's own essays and test scores. These letters are typically written by individuals who have worked closely with the applicant in professional or academic settings, such as supervisors, professors, or mentors.

These letters serve as a way for the admissions committee to assess an applicant's potential for success in the MBA program and beyond. They provide evidence of an applicant's leadership skills, teamwork abilities, and overall fit with the values and mission of Harvard Business School. The committee looks for letters that highlight the applicant's unique strengths and contributions, as well as their potential for growth and impact.

It is important for applicants to carefully select their recommenders, choosing individuals who can provide meaningful and specific examples of their capabilities and potential. Recommenders should have a deep understanding of the applicant's professional or academic achievements, as well as their personal qualities and aspirations. This ensures that the letters of recommendation are authentic and compelling, giving the admissions committee a comprehensive view of the applicant's profile.

Overall, letters of recommendation are a vital component of the Harvard Business School application process. They provide valuable context and insights into an applicant's abilities and character, helping the admissions committee make informed decisions about who will be admitted to the prestigious MBA program. As applicants navigate the application process, it is crucial to approach the selection of recommenders thoughtfully and to provide them with the necessary information and guidance to write compelling letters.

HBS Recommender Questions (2023-2024)

Now that we understand the purpose of HBS letters of recommendation, let's explore the specific questions that are asked of recommenders. Note that these questions can vary slightly from year to year, so it is important to refer to the most up-to-date application guidelines. Here are the questions for the 2023-2024 application cycle:

  • How long and in what capacity have you known the applicant?
  • How does the applicant's performance compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (E.g., what are the applicant's principal strengths?)
  • Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.
  • Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)

These questions are designed to elicit specific examples and insights about the applicant's professional abilities, personal qualities, and potential for growth.

When answering the first question, it is important to provide a clear understanding of the length and nature of your relationship with the applicant. The admissions committee wants to know if you have had sufficient exposure to the applicant to make a credible assessment of their abilities and potential. You should mention the duration of your acquaintance and the context in which you have interacted with the applicant. This could be in a professional setting, such as working together on a project or being colleagues in the same organization, or in an academic setting, such as being their professor or advisor.

The second question is aimed at understanding how the applicant stands out among other qualified individuals in similar roles. The admissions committee wants to know what sets the applicant apart and what their principal strengths are. It is important to provide specific examples and evidence to support your assessment. You can highlight the applicant's achievements, skills, and qualities that make them exceptional. This could include their leadership abilities, problem-solving skills, ability to work in teams, or their innovative thinking.

For the third question, you are asked to describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. This question aims to assess the applicant's ability to receive feedback and their willingness to learn and grow. Provide details about the circumstances in which you provided the feedback and how the applicant responded to it. Did they take the feedback positively and make improvements? How did they demonstrate their ability to learn from feedback and adapt their behavior or approach? This question provides insights into the applicant's coachability and their capacity for personal and professional development.

The final question is optional but provides an opportunity to share any additional information that you believe is relevant to the applicant's candidacy. This could include unique experiences, challenges overcome, or any other aspects that you think would help the admissions committee gain a better understanding of the applicant's potential. Use this space wisely to provide valuable insights that may not have been covered in the previous questions.

Overall, the recommender questions for the 2023-2024 application cycle are carefully crafted to gather comprehensive information about the applicant's abilities, strengths, and potential. As a recommender, it is important to provide specific examples, evidence, and insights to help the admissions committee make an informed decision about the applicant's fit for Harvard Business School.

Expert Tips for Powerful HBS Recommendation Letters

Writing an impactful HBS recommendation letter requires careful consideration and thoughtfulness. Here are some expert tips to help you craft a powerful letter:

  • Know the applicant: Before you start writing, take the time to understand the applicant's goals, achievements, and areas for improvement. This will enable you to provide a well-rounded evaluation.
  • Provide specific examples: Support your statements with concrete evidence and anecdotes. Share instances where the applicant showcased their leadership skills, problem-solving capabilities, or resilience.
  • Be honest and balanced: While emphasizing the applicant's strengths, it is also important to acknowledge areas for growth. This shows that you have a comprehensive understanding of the applicant's abilities.
  • Highlight impact: Emphasize the applicant's ability to make a lasting impact in their field of work or community. Evidence of their potential to effect change will strengthen their candidacy.
  • Follow the guidelines: Familiarize yourself with the specific requirements and word limits set by HBS. Adhering to these guidelines shows your attention to detail and professionalism.

By following these tips, you can ensure your letter makes a strong impression and contributes to the applicant's chances of admission.

When writing an impactful HBS recommendation letter, it is crucial to go beyond the surface level and truly understand the applicant. Take the time to delve into their background, experiences, and aspirations. By gaining a deep understanding of who they are and what they hope to achieve, you will be able to provide a more comprehensive evaluation of their abilities.

One effective way to make your recommendation letter more powerful is by providing specific examples of the applicant's accomplishments. Instead of simply stating that they are a strong leader, share a specific instance where they demonstrated exceptional leadership skills. This could be a project they successfully led or a team they effectively managed. By including concrete evidence and anecdotes, you will make your letter more compelling and convincing.

While it is important to highlight the applicant's strengths, it is equally important to acknowledge areas for growth. HBS values candidates who are self-aware and actively seek opportunities for improvement. By addressing any areas where the applicant can further develop, you are demonstrating your understanding of their potential and commitment to their growth.

Another crucial aspect of a powerful HBS recommendation letter is highlighting the applicant's impact. HBS seeks individuals who have the potential to make a difference in their chosen field or community. Provide examples of how the applicant has made a lasting impact in their previous endeavors. This could be through innovative ideas, transformative projects, or their dedication to creating positive change. By showcasing their ability to effect change, you are strengthening their candidacy.

Lastly, it is essential to carefully review and follow the guidelines set by HBS. Pay attention to the specific requirements and word limits provided. Adhering to these guidelines shows your attention to detail and professionalism, which are highly valued by the admissions committee.

Example HBS Letter of Recommendation From a Successful Admit

Now, let's delve into a real-life example of an HBS letter of recommendation that was successful in securing admission for the applicant.

Question #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.

XXXX had an immediate impact upon joining our team. He quickly dove into the product to master its functionality, thereby greatly enhancing the user experience. He consistently led the team in terms of both quantity of customer interactions (through our email and community platforms) as well as the quality of his user interactions (as measured by his quality reviews). What really set him apart from his peers was his dedication to the job and the team. He wanted to be present in the office as much as possible to train and assist his teammates. Each member of our team valued the relationships built with XXXX in addition to the positive contribution he made to the group collectively.

XXXX’s performance was at the very top of those of his peers. Generally, the interns that join our team spend the vast majority of their time doing the core work, but are unable to derive the insights from these interactions that can then lead to foundational changes to the product or to our processes. XXXX, on the other hand, has a knack for seeing the bigger picture and finding opportunities for efficiency gains. He created a system of automating our sales lead process so that our support team did not have to focus on selling the product, and could instead focus on educating and supporting our users. This was a critical contribution because as YYYY’s third largest source of sales leads at the company, support tickets significantly impact our sales revenue. Thus we need to not only hire people with great technical skills, but also identify individuals who have great business acumen. In my mind, XXXX personifies the intersection of these two skill sets.

Prior to XXXX’s arrival, our team spent a significant portion of time handling these support sales leads. It was a drain on our resources and team members rightfully questioned their effectiveness. XXXX effectively tracked the volumes of these sales leads and their respective conversion rates to sales. Using his analytical skills and experience, he created dashboards that allowed us to better monitor any fluctuations in the types of sales leads we received. He then used his technical prowess to significantly automate these tasks, leading to a 45% increase in efficiency in terms of time spent. This also led to an ~15% increase in the total number of upgrades and trial conversions. These instantaneous responses help users quickly self-serve and upgrade their accounts upon receipt.

Beyond the operational benefits, XXXX was also able to communicate his vision to all those involved—from those on his team most impacted by the changes all the way up to senior leadership whose approval was necessary. His leadership in this technical project inspired others on the team to similarly look for opportunities to make an impact at a much higher level than they previously were comfortable doing.

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Harvard Business School Letters of Recommendation FAQs

Lastly, here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) regarding HBS letters of recommendation:

  1. What role do letters of recommendation play in the Harvard Business School (HBS) application process?
    Letters of recommendation are a crucial component of the HBS application process. They provide insights into your professional and personal qualities, helping the admissions committee assess your fit for the program.
  2. How many letters of recommendation do I need for an HBS application?
    You need two letters of recommendation for your HBS application. These should come from individuals who can speak to your qualifications, character, and potential as a future business leader.
  3. Who should I ask to write my HBS letters of recommendation? Choose recommenders who know you well, preferably one from a current or recent direct supervisor and another from someone who can provide a different perspective on your candidacy. Recommenders should have worked closely with you and be able to assess your abilities.
  4. Can I submit more than two letters of recommendation for my HBS application?
    HBS only requires two letters of recommendation, and submitting more than the requested number is discouraged. Focus on quality over quantity.
  5. Is it necessary to inform my recommenders about HBS's expectations for the letters?
    Yes, it's crucial to brief your recommenders about HBS's expectations. Provide them with guidelines and discuss your MBA aspirations, accomplishments, and why you're applying to HBS to help them craft effective letters.
  6. Should I waive my right to access my HBS letters of recommendation?
    HBS encourages applicants to waive their right to access the recommendation letters. This demonstrates your trust in your recommenders' candid assessments and enhances the credibility of the letters.
  7. How should my recommenders submit their letters for my HBS application?
    Recommenders should submit their letters electronically through the HBS online application portal. Make sure they are familiar with the submission process and deadlines.
  8. What is the recommended content for HBS letters of recommendation?
    Recommendation letters should address your qualifications, leadership potential, teamwork, and interpersonal skills. Recommenders should use specific examples to support their assessments.
  9. Can I submit additional letters of recommendation beyond the required two?
    HBS does not encourage or accept additional letters of recommendation unless specifically requested by the admissions committee. Stick to the two required recommendations.
  10. Is it acceptable to submit academic recommendations for my HBS application?
    While HBS primarily seeks professional recommendations, you can submit academic recommendations if they provide valuable insights into your qualifications and character. However, prioritize professional recommenders.
  11. Can I update or change my HBS recommenders after I've submitted my application?
    Once your application is submitted, you cannot change your recommenders or submit updated letters. Ensure you select the right recommenders before applying.
  12. When is the deadline for submitting HBS letters of recommendation?
    The deadline for letters of recommendation typically aligns with the HBS application deadline. Be sure to check the specific deadlines for the application round you are applying to.
  13. Should I follow up with my recommenders to ensure they submit their letters on time?
    It's a good practice to gently remind your recommenders about the deadlines, but be respectful of their time and commitments. Ensure they have the necessary information and access to the submission portal.
  14. How can I express my gratitude to my recommenders for their help with my HBS application?
    After submitting your application, it's a thoughtful gesture to send a thank-you note to your recommenders, acknowledging their support and effort in helping you achieve your MBA goals.

By understanding the role of HBS letters of recommendation, familiarizing yourself with the recommender questions, following expert tips, and drawing inspiration from successful examples, you can effectively navigate this crucial component of the MBA application. Remember, a well-crafted recommendation letter can significantly contribute to the applicant's chances of gaining admission to Harvard Business School and kickstarting their exciting journey towards becoming a global business leader.

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