The MBA application game is a tough one. On an average, people apply to at least three schools and with each school having three to six essays, apart from the data sheets one has to fill - it become a long tiresome effort to get an application ready. One has to have a good plan and then the discipline to execute the plan to complete the applications in time, so that they can go through cycles of review before being finally submitted.
But even the most meticulous of applicants will be vary of one particular part of the application - the Recommendations! Why? Because it is the only part of our application which we lay in the hands of others!
Recommendations are important. They help the AdComm learn about the applicant from a different perspective, from the view points of seniors or subordinates or peers - the people who have seen the applicant work with them on an everyday basis. So it helps them get a better understanding of the applicant, apart from what they get to see in the essays. So it is important to submit the best recommendations.
Before going on to see how we can submit strong recommendations, let us see how to pick the people who will give us strong recommendations. Big names don't sell. Schools say they get recommendations from Presidents and Prime Ministers of countries, and the applicants they recommend are not necessarily admitted. The big names might probably create a WOW factor, but what is important is the content in the Recommendations. If you directly report to the CEO of your firm, chances are he knows you better. You probably dine with him every Wednesday night and his recommendation will sell. But if the CEO happens to be a few steps higher in the corporate ladder and you have to wait in a queue to go meet him, getting a recommendation from him doesn't help you application, in fact it might work to the opposite. Your judgment will be questioned. Forget shooting so high. Skipping one or two levels in the hierarchy might also prove inefficient, simply because the Recommendation will not have enough content. So just as the schools suggest, the best thing to do will be to obtain recommendations from your immediate superiors.
But what if you don't want your superior to know your Bschool plans? Search for other prospective recommenders. Other senior members, clients, previous employers, superiors from previous projects - there could be many options. Schools understand this. So don't sweat. Please make sure you explain the reasons behind the choice of recommender, while you submit the application.
Also make sure you chose the person who will, in your opinion, give you a good recommendation. You are trying to put your best foot forward. So if you have had a heated exchange with one of your bosses, he is not going to be in a mood to "recommend" you to a Bschool. There are situations which prevent us from asking someone to recommend us. This is only fair. Bschool admissions are a marketing exercise - first the school markets them to catch our attention and then we market ourselves to get admitted. Making the right choice is very important. Only downright lying is bad - which i will discuss later.
Now that the recommenders have been chosen, it is important to help them to give you good recommendations. Do not assume anything. The biggest issue one would face here is that the recommenders, at least most of them in countries other than the US, are not so familiar with the US Bschool admission process. It is hence our responsibility to explain them the whole process and also the role they play in our applications, so that they know what is expected out of them. Also let them know that this would take a lot of time from their end. Writing the recommendations is not an easy deal. Talk to the recommenders about your Bschool plans, explain the Bschool admissions process, explain them how much time it would take and how many recommendations they will have to write - before you send the recommendation request. Just ensure that they know what they are doing before they agree to do it. Prevent surprises or shocks. You definitely don't want a half cooked recommendation! do u???
Once the recommenders agree and you send them the request, keep talking to them on regular basis. Keep them informed about the deadlines. Notice that the Bschools have different deadlines for applications and recommendations, and the recommendation deadlines are earlier than the application deadlines. So verify this and make sure the recommenders know how long they have. They are, in almost all cases, very busy people and need to know their time. If necessary, keep reminding them on timely basis - but don't end up irritating them. You know your recommenders, you should know how to handle them :)
Do not assume that they can bring back two year old incidents and quote them in the recommendations. Once you send them the recommendation request, follow it up with a meeting where you explain about the school, what the school stands for, the characteristics of the school and anything else which will help him provide a suitable recommendation. Also give the recommender a summary of the time you have been under him, or a summary of your professional career - in which you should provide brief explanations of key incidents and your
achievements in that time span. Ask him if anything is missing and add them to the list. This list is not to say "Question no:1 will talk about incidents a, c and e", but to help them make their recommendations more personal and interesting by quoting incidents of their choice. After the meeting, make sure you give them this list in a printed format and follow it up with an email of the same doc file, so that he need not type it all again. Make their life easy. They will appreciate it :)
At any cause, do not write your own recommendations. There could be many genuine reasons for the recommender to be not able to write his own recommendation. He could suddenly get busy, he could have language issues, he could end up traveling - many reasons. If you have no alternative (cannot find another recommender), get a friend to deal with the recommender and help him in writing it.
Some of the recommenders might want to see other parts of your application - like "why xyz school?" or "short term and long term career goals". You can either explain them these in a meeting or send them excerpts from your essays. Another way to help them get more clarity about what is happening and what is it that they are doing.
I have noticed that with enough information and timely remainders, this job becomes really easy and simple for both of us. If you find the right kind of people, they will be equally enthusiastic about helping you getting into your target Bschool and hence will submit really solid recommendations within the deadlines. If you provide the right kind of information to them, you are only helping your cause further by strengthening the recommendations.
Some say they are very important, some say they are least important - i say "who cares?" It is your application and the best thing you can do to strengthen your chances of getting into your target Bschool is to ensure that each part of your application is as strong as possible. So forget how strong it should be and only remember that it should be as strong as possible. Good recommendations say a lot about a candidate - you have someone to vouch for you, you have done good things in the eyes of your superiors and you have enough skills to manage the people and make them submit recommendations for you!!!