Recommendations are the only element of the application on which no applicant has direct control. This sounded somewhat stressful to me at first, but I realized that I could at least influence the outcome by selecting the most appropriate recommenders, and briefing/inspiring them on what they should convey with their words. This is what I reckon business schools mostly value: persuading your manager to spend some of his/her precious time writing an essay about you, not only compelling but also coherent with the rest of the application, is a great demonstration of leadership. [Side note: how you should interpret this series of posts on the application process.]
Most schools now require two recommendations, down from three till some years ago. And as far as I experienced, the questions asked by Columbia, Harvard and Stanford were exactly the same (you can find them here). This makes the process much easier than in the past. Easier, but still challenging! I had to identify two people who know my very well professionally and get them to answer two questions in a way which added value to the rest of the application.
Choosing my recommenders wisely and timely
My impression is that the worst mistake any applicant can do is giving in to the temptation of preferring titles over rapport. If I had chosen the CEO of my company (who knows my face and name, but sees me twice a month), simply because he is at the top of corporate pyramid and not for having closely interacted with me, the recommendation would have been most likely be generic and ineffective.
I realized I had to pick two people who could speak candidly and vividly about my work performance, attitude and ethics, bringing to life what they state through interesting anecdotes.I immediately identified a close colleague of mine, who managed me for two years at an earlier stage of my career, and whom I have a great relationship with. I actually discussed with her my MBA intentions before even taking the GMAT, and she has been supportive from the outset. So she was very happy to help when I asked her to be a recommender.
I then wondered for a few months whether to involve or not my boss. It is unusual in the music industry to pursue an MBA, so I was not sure how he would perceive my plans. However, I thought that the risk was worth taking. He has always been a great fan of my work, we achieved many great goals together, and we have a honest and respectful business relationship. I was confident that, If I were able to explain my career vision and the fact that an MBA was not an exit option from my position, he would be a great recommender. It turned out I made the right decision. He reacted positively saying “this is great, tell me what I have to do to give you maximum chances for admission”.
Based on my experience, another risk that I think any applicant runs is to engage recommenders too late. I am surely very busy, and my manager even more so, so I made sure to give him ample time to put together an initial draft, revise it and submit it. In my case, I broke the news to my boss in early June, he started working on the recommendations in mid-July and he submitted just about a week before the first deadline in September. 3 months!
Briefing my recommenders thoroughly
Recommenders’ knowledge of the MBA application process can vary widely. My industry stands at one end of the spectrum. My recommenders had no idea of what was required of them, and the risk I was running was perhaps a passionate but unfocused letter. At the other end of the spectrum, some friends of mine who applied to an MBA worked in consulting or banking, and it is likely that their chosen recommender had already written several letters before. The risk there could have been a formal and soulless recommendation instead.
In either case, I believe it is important to have a bespoke meeting with each recommender. In these meetings I explained: 1) what was the purpose of the letter of recommendation, and how it sat along all the other elements of an MBA application; 2) what were the key themes and attributes at the core of my application (not my case, but I reckon this is still important even if a recommender wrote dozens of recommendations before).
I equipped both recommenders with a copy of my resume and essays, reviewed with them both documents in the meeting and refreshed their memory on some appropriate stories/anecdotes. I also provided my recommenders with a copy of the attributes that each school is looking for (which I discussed in the post about profile building), and suggested them to cover each specific aspect in their letter.
Being patient and resilient
The briefing meeting went very well in my case, since I knew I had picked the right people. However, I immediately felt that I had not put the recommendations to bed yet. Indeed, I had to remind my boss several times of the deadline. He would always apologize and say he would complete the letter “this coming week”. Then the deadline got really close (10 days away), and I had to use all my assertiveness to make sure that the recommendation would be submitted on time. Luckily, it was!
Waiving my right!
One last little detail, that I wasn’t aware of until I formally selected my recommenders in the online application. Every applicant has the choice to waive his/her right to read the recommendation. At first, I was tempted to uncheck the box. On the other hand, it’s my right!
However, based on my research I decided to waive the right. It simply means that you want to guarantee 100% secrecy to what recommenders will write. And this can in turn imply that they are likely to speak more honestly. I have no idea whether the Admission Committee puts any emphasis on this element. However, waiving the right certainly signals to the AdCom that you have complete trust and confidence in your recommenders, and, if anything, this can’t hurt.