Monday, May 4, 2009

How to Attain the Best Recommendation Possible

I am still working on my project to compile advisory posts from a wide range of bloggers (see work-in-progress in sidebar), but I haven't yet found one that I like on getting good recommendations, so I'm going to give it a shot.

The recommendation potion of the business school application can be daunting because you have to ask colleagues to take time out of their days to write positive things about you, and then you have to trust them to write positive things about you. The asking part shouldn't be difficult, as long as you give each recommender plenty of time. The trusting part is extremely challenging... unless you give them very clear guidance. So the majority of this post will discuss how to guide your recommenders to write exactly what you want them to write, without writing it for them. (Some schools explicitly instruct you not to do that; others don't, but generally it is a no-no).

Three easy steps (well, the third step is actually pretty involved):

1. Select recommenders (a) who are clear thinkers (i.e., articulate both in speaking and writing), (b) who know you well, and (c) who you trust to meet the deadline.

2. Ask them at least 2-3 months before they are due. If you can, ask in person. Ask those you cannot meet in person by setting up a short phone conversation to ask.

3. HELP THEM by providing a short, tailored profile. The profile should be written in the third-person voice and should include:
a) who you are (1-2 paragraph autobiography)
b) why you want an MBA (several bullets)
c) what your short and long-term goals are (several bullets)
d) themed examples of your work with each recommender, which he can use to illustrate your "story" in his recommendation (see below)
e) an updated résumé (one-page)

The profile gives each recommender broad context of YOU--who you are, what you've done, what you want to do, and why you want an MBA--so that he can write a convincing recommendation. Parts a, b, c, and e can be recycled across all recommenders, but part d must be tailored for each recommender. In total, your profile should be 3-4 pages long, including your résumé. Developing your profile will take time, energy and forethought, but it is potentially the most critical step for getting the best reco possible and gives you a head start for the rest of your application. Start early and get the profile into your recommenders' hands ASAP.

Part d (examples of specific work with your recommender) serves to remind your recommender how great you are and of all the amazing things you did for him. More importantly, this section of your profile ensures that YOU remain in control of your application story and that the application you write is consistent throughout. (A key piece of advice I got from a Stanford GSB alumnus at an info session last fall was to make sure that your story "fits" together logically). To provide the best fodder for your recommender:

1. Brainstorm a long list of positive examples of your work with each recommender. Eliminate any recommenders for whom you cannot develop a compelling list.

2. Develop and write a takeaway for each example. E.g., at one point with one of my recommenders I was switched from project to project several times and still managed to do an okay job; the takeaway I wrote was, "PAFAW is adaptable and flexible under quickly changing circumstances."

2. Group the examples/takeaways logically and develop categories that encompass them (e.g, problem solving & analysis, communication, presentation, team-building). You can develop different categories for each recommender. Think carefully about what themes matter to you in your overall story. For example, I wrote my Stanford Essay A ("What matters most to you and why?") about relationships; to get my recommenders to reinforce this theme, I included numerous examples of my relationship-building and team-building experience to help them understand and articulate this important pattern.

3. Write a sentence or two that describes each category. E.g., under my "Interpersonal" category heading, I wrote, "PAFAW surfaces conflict, acts on feedback and brings camaraderie to his/her teams."

4. Then list the takeaways/examples accordingly (hint: they should support the category statement).

I won't pretend to know how much recommendations matter at each school, but I think it is safe to assume that they are a critical component, or the schools wouldn't ask for 2-3 each. I know you are busy with all of your applications and are not eager to take on more work, but from my experience, developing a comprehensive and customized profile for each recommender will dramatically increase the chance that your recommendations reflect your best self and that they reinforce your story. Suck it up.


MilitaryToBusiness said...

This is a great post. Recommendations are so difficult because practically nobody ever gets feedback from the school on how they played in the decision. Your post has great advice to follow.

Deadhedge said...

Unfortunately, I would not assume that recommendations are a critical component and schools really should stop asking for them. From my experience with helping applicants, I've learned it's a part of the application that really needs to be overhauled since they offer low amounts of value and take lots of effort

To quote one student who worked in an MBA admissions program: "Recommendations can never help you. If you do them badly, they will hurt you and if they are too good, nobody believes them."

You've done a good job at putting together a post in a perfect world. However, in our imperfect world, I would summarize the steps as:
1. Identify recommenders based on how well they know you and the deadlines. Disregard their title. If they are not clear thinkers, see #4.
2. Ask if they are would be willing be your recommender
3. If they are willing to write your recommendations, use your approach above.
4. When they ask you to write it for them and they'll sign, do that instead.

About 50% of the folks that I have worked with, had to use option #4. In general, I would treat recommendations as something to just complete and check off the list. Your extracurricular involvement will have a much greater impact on your application.

nisha said...

This is an excellent thought provoking post.

Michelle said...

Impressive post. You have explained very neatly.

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