All right—you've kicked off your MBA application process, chosen your schools, and are diving into the application itself. Now it's time to turn your attention to the recommendation letters.
Let's start with the basics:
What is the MBA Letter of Recommendation, and Why Is It So Important?
The reference letters are a critical part of your application. MBA admissions officers value them so highly because they represent a chance to learn about you from an independent third party.
This, of course, is what makes them so challenging—they're the one part of your application over which you don't have complete control. It's important, therefore, to choose your letter-writers wisely, prepare them adequately, follow up with them throughout the process, and thank them afterward.
Who Should I Ask to Write My MBA Recommendation Letters?
Who you choose to write your letters of recommendation is the most important decision in the process. A good choice, and a good letter, can make or break your application, so give this step the time and attention it deserves.
So how do you choose? We recommend compiling a list of all possible recommenders, then ranking them according to a set list of criteria, so you can make an informed decision.
Below are the six criteria to consider when choosing your MBA letter-writers:
1. School Requirement
First and foremost, does the recommender meet your targeted school's criteria? Each MBA program offers detailed instructions about who should write letters of recommendation, so make sure you're following those instructions. Some schools require that your recommender be your current direct supervisor; others mandate that one of your recommenders hail from an academic background. Check beforehand, and follow these guidelines.
2. Strength/Length of Relationship
How well does the recommender know you? How long have they known you? This is perhaps the single most important factor in choosing a recommender. Yes, it’s nice if your recommender is the President of a Fortune 500 company, and went to the same business school you’re applying to, but it’s much more important that they know you inside and out, and can speak about your personal and professional achievements from deep experience. A heartfelt letter from your previous supervisor at your Analyst job is far more valuable than a copied-and-pasted note on Jamie Dimon’s letterhead.
3. Level of Support
Is the recommender excited about you applying to business school, and are they open to collaboration? If so, they’re a good fit. If they’re skeptical or openly against you applying, or seem too busy to write a thoughtful letter, consider someone else. A negative or even a simply neutral letter can dramatically reduce your chances of admission.
Is the recommender articulate, both in person and in writing? Will they be able to compellingly answer the recommendation questions at your chosen schools, speak eloquently about your professional competencies, and present a clear image of you as a candidate? How well your recommender communicates will determine how effective their letter is, so make sure the person you choose knows their way around words.
Can the recommender speak about you from a perspective not found elsewhere in your application? Great letters of recommendation cover different angles of you, personally and professionally. It’s better to have one letter from work, for instance, and one from a local charity you support, than two from work. Diversify by choosing recommenders in different categories!
Finally, is the recommender a senior executive, or do they have an MBA? Remember, this is absolutely not a requirement; this is the last criteria on the list, but all things equal, it’s nice if your recommender has an impressive title, and a bonus if they have an MBA from your dream school.
To help you evaluate all of your options, we recommend making a side-by-side comparison. To do that, use our helpful Recommender Chart. Fill in the criteria for each recommender; as you go, you may also want to assign numeric values for each criterion, to facilitate your final decision.
*Note that if you’re a deferred MBA candidate, these same criteria apply to you—you’ll simply choose from a more limited set of options, likely personal mentors and managers from internships.
What Are the Parts of the MBA Recommendation Letter?
So, you've picked the mentors/colleagues who will write your MBA letters of recommendation. Well done!
Next up is to actually ask for, and secure, fantastic letters. To do that, you'll first need to understand the two different types of letters.
They are as follows:
1. GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation (LOR)
Writing a different letter of recommendation for each school you're applying to would be a lengthy, difficult task. Thankfully, most top MBA programs use the Common Letter of Recommendation(LOR), published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). Download the Common LOR Sample Instructions here.
The Common LOR contains three sections:
1. Recommender Information —Basic details like title, role, and contact information
2. Leadership Assessment Grid — A series of questions where recommenders can rank their candidate on various behaviors and attributes in the following five categories:
- Cognitive abilities
- Personal qualities
3. Recommendation Questions — Longer form questions that comprise the bulk of the actual recommendation, as follows:
- Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (up to 50 words)
- How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (e.g., what are the applicant’s principal strengths?) (up to 500 words)
- Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (up to 500 words)
- Is there anything else we should know? (optional and no word limit)
GMAC Common LOR Schools:
- Asia School of Business, in collaboration with MIT Sloan Management
- Boston College, Carroll School of Management
- Boston University, Questrom School of Business
- Brandeis International Business School
- Carnegie Melon University, Tepper School of Business
- College of New Jersey
- College of William & Mary, Mason School of Business
- Cornell University, SC Johnson School of Business
- Dartmouth College, Tuck School of Business
- Duke University, Fuqua School of Business
- Emory University, Goizueta Business School
- Fudan University School of Management
- Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business
- Georgia Tech University, Scheller College of Business
- Harvard Business School
- Indian School of Business
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT Sloan School of Management
- New York University, Stern School of Business
- Northeastern University, D’Amore-McKim School of Business
- Notre Dame University, Mendoza School of Business
- Pennsylvania State University, Smeal College of Business
- Rice University, Jones Graduate School of Business
- Sabanci University, Sabanci School of Management
- Santa Clara University, Leavey School of Business
- Simon Fraser University, Beedie School of Business
- Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business
- Stanford Graduate School of Business
- University of California at Davis, Graduate School of Management
- University of California at Irvine, Merage School of Business
- University of California at Los Angeles, Anderson School of Management
- University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
- University of Florida, Warrington College of Business
- University of Georgia, Terry College of Business
- University of Kansas, School of Business
- University of Michigan, Ross School of Business
- University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management
- University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School
- University of Rochester, Simon Business School
- University of San Francisco School of Management
- University of Texas at Austin, McCombs School of Business
- University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
- Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management
- Washington University in St. Louis, Olin Business School
- Yale School of Management
Below, we provide you with a free recommender prep doc that you can send to your recommenders when recommending a LOR. This document works well for the Common letter of rec as well.
Specific Letters of Recommendation
Of the top MBA programs, there are three schools that do not accept the Common LOR. They're here below, along with the questions they ask:
University of Pennsylvania, Wharton:
- Please provide an example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success in the Wharton MBA classroom.
- Please provide an example(s) that illustrate why you believe this candidate will find success throughout their career.
- (Optional) Is there anything else we should know?
- Two Assessments: Choose up to two traits that you feel best represent the candidate you are recommending
Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Business:
- Kellogg has a diverse student body and values students who are inclusive and encouraging of others with differing perspectives and backgrounds. Please tell us about a time when you witnessed the candidate living these values. (300 words)
- How does the candidate’s performance compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (300 words)
- Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the candidate. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (250 words)
- (Optional) Is there anything else we should know?
Columbia Business School:
- One letter of recommendation from a professor, mentor, internship supervisor or employer. We ask recommenders to consider the following when writing their recommendation (recommended limit - 1000 words): Please share how you feel the applicant will contribute to the Columbia Business School classroom and community.
How Do I Ask for an MBA Letter of Recommendation?
Now that you've decided on your recommenders, and are familiar with the different types of letters, it's time to make the ask.
So, how do you do that?
We recommend being as direct and honest with your recommenders as possible. Meet them in person, if you can, and tell them that you'll be applying to business schools this coming year, that you value their input tremendously, and that you'd be grateful for their support.
We also recommend making your ask as early in the process as possible, at least three months before your application deadlines. This will give your recommenders a chance to write excellent supportive letters, and for you to pivot to other recommenders if, for whatever reason, your first choices fall through.
Have more questions on application timing? Click here for A Comprehensive MBA Application Timeline.
To get the absolute best recommendation letters possible, we suggest bringing a short prep packet for each of your recommenders, to guide them through the process. This brings us to:
How Do I Get the Best Recommendation Letters Possible?
Before we get to the aforementioned recommender packet, let's cover a few basic things. All recommendations must do the following things:
1. Be Authentic
This goes without saying, but any letter of recommendation submitted on your behalf must actually be written by your recommender. You are free to offer suggestions and guidance, in the form of the recommender packet, and even to review a draft of the recommendation letter (if you've indicated as much on your application), but you cannot write your own letters. Business schools take issues of integrity like this very seriously, and the surest way to get rejected is to cross the line here. It's better to have an imperfect but honest letter from a mentor or current supervisor than to get dinged because you wrote the letter yourself. Just don't do it.
2. Answer the Prompts
Okay, this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many recommenders don’t actually answer the given questions. It's not enough to simply state that you're an amazing employee, or that you performed excellently in your last annual review. Business schools ask very specific questions, therefore a great letter of recommendation must provide very specific answers.
3. Be Hyper-Specific
A great letter must also be hyper-detailed. It’s not enough for your supervisor to claim that you’re the best employee she’s ever worked with. Without specifics, that statement is useless. Your recommender needs to share concrete professional and personal information, precise details about your performance, and specific examples of how you went above and beyond expectations. This level of specificity will alert the admissions committee that this recommender knows you well, and will give weight to their claims about your prospects as an MBA candidate.
4. Be Effusive
Finally, provided your recommender can, in fact, share concrete details about, yes一they should be extremely effusive. No admissions committee ever accepted a candidate who was merely “proficient” or “satisfactory.” The job of the letter of recommendation is to indicate to the admissions committee that you are a diamond in the rough: a candidate so exceptionally rare that they’d be crazy not to admit you.
The MBA Recommender Prep Packet
All right—you need to get specific, glowing praise from your recommender. How? By preparing your recommenders with a detailed packet.
A strong recommender packet should do the following things:
- First and foremost, thank your recommender for agreeing to help you. They’re busy people, just like you, and writing a strong letter is a substantial time commitment
- Outline the schools you're applying to, and their respective deadlines. Juggling due dates is hard enough; make sure your recommender is crystal clear about the date by which they need to complete everything
- Explain the sections of the recommendation
- Offer suggested responses to each of the recommender questions, with specific examples. Anecdotes from your shared work experience are particularly helpful; we recommend the same STAR framework that you should use in your MBA resume and essays: situation, problem, action, results, and key learnings. The more detailed you are in your prep document, the more detailed your letter will be
To help you out, fill out this form to get our Free Recommender Prep Template, which comes with a specific example. Feel free to use the template to assist your recommenders, and check out the example as a means of inspiration, but of course, do not copy the material!
Sample MBA Recommendation Letters
As promised, we're including here a sample MBA recommendation letter. This set of answers earned this candidate a spot in the Chicago Booth Scholars Program (University of Chicago's deferred MBA program).
Question #1: How does the applicant’s performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?
I’ve known [ candidate ] personally since he was 6 years old, and professionally in his capacity as an Intern at [ energy company ]. In my 22 years of running this company, [ candidate ] ranks among the very highest Interns we’ve ever employed, and it is my privilege to wholeheartedly recommend him to your program.
[ candidate ] graduated with distinction from the [ university ] petroleum engineering program. Now, I know that [ university ] doesn’t immediately conjure up associations of academic excellence, but in the world of petroleum engineering, the school is a known powerhouse, and graduating with distinction is a significant achievement, one not to be overlooked. [ candidate ] went on to further distinction after the [ university ] by enrolling in the Graduate Student at Large program at the University of Chicago Booth, where, he informed me, he earned an A minus in his microeconomics course (where he was enrolled alongside some of the country’s top MBA candidates). [ candidate ] has, in my estimation, demonstrated academic excellence throughout his education; I believe he’ll be a powerful contributor in the classroom of the Booth School of Business.
[ candidate ] also demonstrated exceptional performance at [ energy company ]. First, I selected him as an Intern, over hundreds of other candidates, not because of his industry knowledge—there were, in fact, many others whose knowledge of natural gas far outstripped [ candidate ]—but because of his stated, earnest desire to have a positive impact within the company. [ candidate ], in his interview process, was clear that he wanted to see [ energy company ] take a firmer stance on environmentally sustainable practices, and I respected and valued his perspective. Then, when we hired him, he didn’t disappoint. We asked [ candidate ] to organize and digitize oil well documentation; essentially, that meant he needed to transcribe a series of well parameters and production data into our system. Not only did [ candidate ] complete the project ahead of time, but he built an interactive database that allowed us determine what methods produced the highest amount of gas—work I might have expected from an overachieving full-time Landman or Engineer, but not an Intern. In a nutshell, [ candidate ]’s work went well above and beyond what we’d hoped for and has helped us fine-tune our operations and oil recovery to this day.
Finally, from my observations, [ candidate ] not only excels academically and in the workplace, but he also has tremendous vision for his future, and the future of our planet. I’ve had the opportunity to discuss his long-term goal of creating a geothermal venture that will ultimately make existing oil wells carbon neutral, and though he still has some kinks to iron out and obstacles to think through, as a veteran of this industry I can say with conviction that his idea is both novel and plausible, and something I’d like to see him succeed in creating.
Question #2: How does the applicant’s performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?
It was, in fact, in these conversations about [ candidate ]’s geothermal venture that I offered my most significant constructive input. When [ candidate ] first came to me with his passion about renewable energy, his ideas were premature and lacked focus. Put simply, [ candidate ] had too many ideas, including (but not limited to) integrating solar panels on oil wells, bio-algae and hydroelectric integration into residential pool systems. The most important piece of constructive feedback I gave [ candidate ] was to narrow his focus, significantly, and develop a single idea that he believed had the greatest potential for positive impact.
[ candidate ] took this advice to heart. In each of our subsequent conversations, he presented a more refined, focused idea. He quickly discarded less feasible ventures, for instance solar panels on oil wells and hydroelectric integration with residential pools, and settled on geothermal, which strongly aligns with his undergraduate training in petroleum engineering. [ candidate ] then, quite intelligently, came up with an idea for a business that would leverage his family’s extensive background in oil production, but which would nonetheless move our energy industry towards sustainability. Most recently, he’s identified a single operation, a site in [ location ], which will serve as the first test case for his venture, and plans to prototype his idea during the coming year. I’m proud of how much progress [ candidate ] has made in the time since our first conversation, and I look forward to continuing to mentor and guide him on his path in any way I can. Given his background, and his current trajectory, I strongly believe that [ candidate ] has the acuity, technical skills, and passion to make a real dent in global climate change.
If you have any questions, I hope you’ll reach out so I can further endorse [ candidate ] for acceptance to your school. I believe he’ll be a meaningful contributor, and one day, an accomplished alum.
How to Time Your Letters of Recommendation
Lastly, a few tips on timing your letters of recommendation.
1. Start Early 一 At Least 3 Months Before Deadline
Writing a letter of recommendation takes time and effort. Out of respect for your recommender’s time, and to make sure you get the best letter possible, sit down with your letter writers at least three months before the submission deadline.
2. Touch Base 一 Six Weeks Before Submission
Touch base with your recommenders no later than six weeks before the deadline, just to make sure they’re on track. If your recommenders are willing to collaborate with you, they might offer to review a draft of their letter at this time. Feel free to offer suggestions, but remember: it’s their letter, so they’ll have the ultimate say.
3. Final Check-In 一 One Week Before
Finally, check in with your recommenders one week before application deadlines, in case they have any questions about the letter, or how to submit it. Encourage them to submit a day or two early, as well, so there are no surprises at the finish line.
Follow these steps, and you’ll be on your way to a great MBA recommendation letter, submitted ahead of schedule! Don’t forget to put in your email here for access to our free recommender prep template for some additional guidance.
Where Can I Start?
Applying to business schools can be a daunting ordeal. Thankfully, you don't need to do it alone. Below are some of our highest-rated MBA admissions coaches; browse all of them here.
Here are some other articles you may find useful as you put together your applications.
- MBA Recommender Questions and Criteria for the Top 10 Business Schools
- How to Write a Powerful MBA Essay
- How to Craft the Ultimate MBA Resume-With Examples
- How to Get Started on Your Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School
- Rejected From an MBA Program? Here's What to Do Next
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