How to Get the Perfect MBA Letter of Recommendation—With Examples

The ultimate guide to the MBA recommendation letter, including examples of letters that helped applicants earn admission to top 10 MBA programs.

Posted July 9, 2024

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Alright—so 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?

Reference letters are a critical part of your business school application. MBA admissions officers value them so highly because they represent a chance to learn about you from an independent third party. Specifically, they provide an external evaluation of your abilities, potential, and character in both academic and professional settings.

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, then, 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.

4. Communication

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.

5. Angle

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!

6. Seniority

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 for choosing someone to write your business school letter, we recommend making a side-by-side comparison. To do that, try using 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.

MBA Recommender Chart

*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 full MBA letter 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:

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 accept 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 groups, each with a handful of subcategories:

  • Cognitive Abilities: Problem Solving, Strategic Orientation
  • People: Respect for Others, Team Leadership, Developing Others
  • Influence: Communication, Professional Impression & Poise; Influence and Collaboration
  • Personal Qualities: Trustworthiness/Integrity, Adaptability/Resilience, Self-Awareness
  • Achievement: Initiative and Results Orientation

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 Mellon 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 University, 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
  • Indian School of Business
  • 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
  • The College of New Jersey
  • University of California at Berkeley, Haas 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’ve provided you with a free recommender prep doc that you can send to your recommenders when writing a LOR. This document works well for the Common letter of rec as well.

Specific Letters of Recommendation

Among the leading business schools in the country, there are still a handful of schools that do not accept the Common LOR. We’ve added some 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.

To see more specific questions asked of some MBA programs, take a look at our article Recommender Questions of the Top 10 MBA Programs.

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 prime your recommender to write an all-star recommendation? We believe there’s three critical pillars to correctly asking for a letter of rec.

Make Your Initial Request Memorable

It’s likely that you’ll be one of a handful of other MBA applicants asking your recommender for a letter, and even if that’s not the case, you’re still going to want to impress your recommender with a strong “Why MBA” elevator pitch. That being said, make sure that your initial conversation with them is thoughtful and personal.

If possible, request a face-to-face meeting at least three months before your application deadlines to discuss the letter, as this adds a personal touch and emphasizes the significance of the recommendation. Once you sit down with them, begin by explaining why you value their opinion and how much you appreciate their support in this important step of your career. Express your enthusiasm for getting an MBA and explain why their letter in particular could positively impact your application.

Provide Necessary Information

Your recommender likely doesn’t know everything about you and your life, so it’s best practice to help them by providing materials such as your resume, a summary of your achievements, and specific examples of your work that you’d like highlighted. Additionally, share some key details about the MBA program you are applying to, including any specific qualities or skills the admissions committee is looking for. The more context and information you provide, the easier it will be for your recommender to craft a comprehensive and effective letter.

Set Clear Expectations

Getting a “no” in response to asking for a letter of recommendation isn’t hardly as bad as getting a “yes,” only for your recommender to ghost you later on in the process. With that in mind, setting clear expectations is crucial for ensuring your letter of recommendation is completed on time and meets the requirements. Clearly communicate the deadlines for submission and any specific guidelines provided by the MBA program.

Your recommender should ultimately have a firm understanding of what you’re asking them to do for you and should be able to make a value judgement based on the information you give them. Remember, it’s alright if they say “no,” because you should ideally have several other backup options lined up.

Of course, remember to regularly follow up with your recommenders with gentle reminders as the deadline approaches, and offer to provide any additional information they might need to complete the letter.

For more top-notch advice on asking for letters, read our article How to Ask for Letters of Recommendation--An Expert Guide.

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 out, we've put together an MBA Recommender Prep Doc that you can download below! Also, feel free to read our guide on How to Prepare a Recommender Prep Doc for Your MBA Applications.

MBA Recommender Prep Doc & Example

Download our free recommender prep doc used by thousands of applicants to get the strongest possible letters of rec

Sample MBA Recommendation Letters

As promised, here is a sample MBA recommendation letter. This set of answers led to acceptances to both Stanford GSB and Harvard Business School. For 100+ more sample applications, including letters of recommendation, check out Leland+.

Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.

Perhaps the most important feedback I provided XXXX was to dive into his work head-first without any fear of making mistakes. Working on our team can be quite daunting for interns since we are in many ways the face of the company to our users, and the recommendations we make to our product and engineering teams can potentially impact the user experience of over 15 million users. When XXXX first started on the team, his inclination (like most people) was to handle issues he was confident he could solve. I encouraged him to instead embrace tackling the unknown. It’s only through trials, tribulations and iteration that we push ourselves towards finding innovative and revolutionary solutions.

XXXX took this feedback to heart and quickly sought out the toughest challenges facing the team and our users. He soon evolved into one of the more technical individuals on the team, tackling some of our thorniest issues (for instance, our integrations with products like Okta, Confluence, SAML). He recognized that the nature of the role meant he would not be able to address everything that came his way, and through necessity became extremely adept at prioritizing based on impact. The fact that XXXX was training more senior, full-time members of the team to navigate our most technical issues is a huge testament to his talent and perseverance.

The project that best encapsulates XXXX’s ability to think big and impact change is his macro revamp project through which he identified an opportunity to vastly improve our team’s ability to help users at scale. Macros are the foundation of how we help our users, and XXXX led our team’s efforts to quickly identify the most important data points we needed from users for each issue type. This made it possible for our team to consistently reach the proper solution as quickly as possible. This was no small feat, as our macros number over fifty.

XXXX takes feedback to heart, and as a result has continued to build his skills at an incredible pace. After leaving my team, XXXX continued to dive into his work head-first as he led the admin product team at [company]. He keeps identifying bigger and bigger challenges, and confronts them without inhibition.

Overall, I feel that XXXX’s unique background, leadership abilities, technical aptitude and perseverance in light of challenges will allow him to thrive in Stanford’s MBA program. Beyond that, his magnetic personality and sense of humor will positively impact all who cross his path. I have no doubt that he will leverage his experiences at [company] to build and contribute to the next great entrepreneurial innovations of the world. In my first one-on-one interaction with XXXX, he stressed to me his goal of adding value to the team. In reality, he set a new benchmark for our team in defining what a successful intern looks like and his impact is still being felt years after his departure.

How does the applicant’s performance compare to other well-qualified individuals in similar roles?

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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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.

Have more questions on application timing? Click here for A Comprehensive MBA Application Timeline.

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