How to approach recommendation letters?

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Recommendation letters as part of your MBA application strategy.

Recommendation letters as part of the application should be tailored to each school, based on its requirements and your personal strategy. When you put forward your application (for most schools), recommendation letters provide the only external view on your candidature. While you select which recommenders, you need to give up your rights to review the recommendations themselves, which means you will never actually recognize what your recommender had to say about you. Here are a few pointers regarding recommendations:

Step 1: Carefully read the recommendation letter requirements for each school. How many are required? Are additional letters allowed? Are there guidelines regarding your choice of recommenders (i.e., supervisor, peer, subordinates)? Are there forms, or can a more generic letter be used?

Step 2: Review your application strategy and select recommenders who can write about the areas that will be important for you to cover. Within the context of the prior step, identify potential recommenders from whom to choose. If you are applying to several schools, you may need three to four different recommenders, depending upon the application prerequisites and your strategy. If possible, avoid choosing recommenders who will cover similar topics (for example, a superior and peer from the same project).

Step 3: Ask your potential recommenders if they would be able to take out time for you. Writing recommendations is a time-consuming process. Therefore, it is important to call your recommenders and ask if they would be willing to do so and if they have the time. If the recommender says yes, follow up with them to ensure they conform to the timeline. This is important because some senior people could be traveling or could be busy with other priorities. Getting the task done gently and still not being pushy is an art you need to develop.

Step 4: Find time to meet with your recommenders. In order to help them, sit down with each to discuss your aspirations and why you’re seeking an MBA, and then talk a bit about your career progress to date. Bring a copy of the recommendation form(s) to review in case they have questions regarding the form or the process.

Step 5: If your choice of recommenders falls outside the school’s application guidelines, explain the reason for the choice. It is not uncommon for schools to request a specific type of recommendation, which may not be possible for you to include (for example, the school may request a recommendation from a current supervisor, and you have worked for that person only for a few months). Rather than make the admissions committee guess why you did not follow its guidelines, write a brief paragraph explaining the reasons for your choice. Do the same if you choose to send an additional recommendation.

Step 6: Thank your recommenders. While it is likely you will need to gently remind them about deadlines, remember to also thank them for taking the time. While they may be submitting similar letters for all your schools, each school requires further effort. If appropriate, a small token of appreciation is never a bad idea.

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