Who Should Write Your MBA Recommendation Letters

Padya Paramita

Who Should Write Your MBA Recommendation Letters

You’ve decided to take the next step and apply to business school. As you look over the required components, you notice that almost every school asks for a reference, ideally, from someone who has seen you in the workplace and is familiar with your leadership and collaboration efforts. It’s time to get started on deciding who you’ll pick to write your MBA recommendation letters. Since most MBA applicants bring years of work experience to the table, your direct supervisors from your jobs are the people you should primarily choose to write this component.

Unlike most other programs, MBA recommendation letters require your writers to answer a set of questions that helps schools determine whether you’re a strong applicant who can bring the necessary skills to succeed on campus and in the field long-term. Alongside understanding your goals and skills from your essays and resumé, institutions want other perspectives so that they can evaluate where you stand as an applicant. To guide you through picking your references, I’ve outlined what different programs expect from this component, along with what the letters should include and when you should ask your supervisors to write your letters of recommendation. 

Choosing Your Recommenders

Since you’re thinking about who should write your MBA recommendation letters, it can help to look at specific requirements asked by the different business schools. This component acts as a confirmation that you’ll engage actively in your MBA class, and bring valuable skills that would enable you to thrive in the business world. So, it comes as no surprise that most programs want references from your current direct supervisor. 

The table below includes the protocol for MBA recommendation letters as set by the top 20 business schools. Read the instructions carefully before deciding who you should contact to write the letters on your behalf.

School Name Who Should Write Your Letter of Recommendation
Stanford University Stanford requires two letters of reference. One reference should come from your current direct supervisor (or next best alternative) at work. The other should be from someone else who has supervised your work.
University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) Wharton requires two letters of recommendations from individuals who are well acquainted with your performance in a work setting, preferably from a current or former supervisor.
Northwestern University (Kellogg) Kellogg requires two letters of recommendation. Ideally, one letter should come from a current supervisor or manager. The second should come from someone who can evaluate your professional performance and your managerial/leadership potential (e.g., former supervisor, previous employer, client).
University of Chicago (Booth) Booth requires two letters of recommendation. The first letter of recommendation should come from a supervisor, while the second should be either professional in nature or come from an individual who has worked with you in an organization, club, or on a volunteer project.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) Sloan requires one letter of recommendation. A professional recommendation is preferred, from an individual who is able to speak with certainty about your professional achievements and potential.
Harvard University Harvard requires two letters of recommendation. This can include a former supervisor, a colleague, or someone you collaborate on an activity outside of work.
University of California - Berkeley (Haas) Haas requires two letters of recommendation and prefers that at least one come from a current employer.
Columbia University Columbia requires two letters of recommendation. If you have been working full-time for at least six months, one recommendation should be from your current supervisor. The second recommendation should be from either a former direct supervisor or from another professional associate, senior to you, who can share their insights on your candidacy.
Yale University Yale requires two letters of recommendation. Ideally, at least one of the recommenders should be in a position to assess your performance in your most recent role.
New York University (Stern) Stern requires one recommendation ideally from your current direct supervisor.
University of Virginia (Darden) Darden requires two letters of recommendation. They suggest someone who knows you well and has supervised you in a professional setting. The school asks that you identify people who will be strong advocates for you in the process and will help them learn more about your accomplishments and leadership potential.
Dartmouth College (Tuck) Tuck requires two letters of recommendation. If possible, your current direct supervisor should write one of your letters.
Duke University (Fuqua) Fuqua requires two letters of recommendation. At least one recommendation should reflect your performance in your most recent professional setting.
University of Michigan (Ross) Ross requires one letter of recommendation. They ask that you select a recommender who can discuss your professional performance and work style; a current or former supervisor is ideal. Suggested alternatives include a client, project manager, or professional mentor.
Cornell University (Johnson) Cornell requires one letter of recommendation but accepts two. Ideally, your recommendations should be from current direct supervisors or managers who are best equipped to answer questions about your leadership, communication, teamwork, initiative and other skills.
University of California - Los Angeles (Anderson) Anderson requires two letters of recommendation. They should be written by individuals who are well acquainted with your performance in a work setting, preferably from a direct supervisor or manager.
University of Southern California (Marshall) USC neither requires nor accepts letters of recommendation as part of their admissions process.
University of Texas - Austin (McCombs) McCombs requires one recommendation from a person who has supervised your work and/or assessed your performance. The school limits each application to one letter of recommendation and cannot accept additional recommendations.
Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper) Tepper requires one recommendation and prefers that you select someone from your professional life. Ideally, they suggest that you pick a supervisor (current or previous), but whomever you choose has to be someone who can speak to your strengths at work would be best.
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill (Kenan-Flagler) Kenan-Flagler requires two letters of recommendation, preferably from your supervisors.
University of Washington (Foster) Foster requires two letters of recommendation. Preferably, recommendations should be provided by professional contacts rather than academic or personal contacts.

Most schools ask for two, although a handful of programs are okay if you submit one reference. You’ve probably noticed from the table that business schools highly prioritize professional contacts in terms of expectations from MBA recommendation letters. Since most students take a few years off between undergrad and applying to these programs, your employers and supervisors (and not professors) are the best people to speak to your leadership, teamwork, and communication skills.

Carefully pay attention to the wording of the requirements. Stanford says that one letter “should” come from your current direct supervisor - the language here places more emphasis than the description set by Duke, which states that “at least one recommendation should reflect your performance in your most recent professional setting.” This could indicate the possibility of a colleague or teammate rather than a supervisor writing on your behalf. Many schools have a separate section for you to explain why you can’t ask a supervisor if that is the case. Ideally, you should be asking someone who has closely observed your working style and ability and can concretely provide the details of what you’re like to have as a coworker and employee.

In summary, for most schools, you need two letters. One really must be from a current or former supervisor, the other is a bit more flexible (and some schools like Booth even open up different possibilities), but most programs still want the second letter to be professional.

What the Letter Should Include

Now we come to the content of these letters. Unlike most graduate programs, business schools have a standardized protocol set by the GMAC that most institutions follow. This setup is divided into the following three sections.

Section 1: Personal information about the letter writer

Section 2: Leadership assessment grid of candidate

Your letter writer will be asked to assess you on 16 character traits and competencies that contribute to successful leadership. The competencies and character traits are grouped into five categories:

  • Achievement
  • Influence
  • People
  • Personal qualities
  • Cognitive abilities

Section 3 - Recommendation Questions: Some schools only require your letter writer to complete section three for your letter of recommendation, which consists of the following questions:

Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (Recommended word count: 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?) (Recommended word count: 500 words)
  • Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Recommended word count: 500 words)
  • Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)

Once you add your recommenders’ names to your application, they will receive these questions from the schools. Many institutions include Section 2 as part of their MBA recommendation letters, or, the assessment grid along with the standard questions asked by Section 3. The grid consists of rating your skills in different areas such as “awareness of others,” “humility,” “maturity,” “self-confidence,” and more on a scale of competency. 

As you can tell from the questions asked by the GMAC recommendation form, business schools want to know how you stack up in comparison to your peers and how you respond to feedback in order to evaluate whether or not your personality would fit with the rest of your classmates. 

Before speaking with your recommenders, look over the prompts carefully. MBA programs expect the takeaway from these recommendations to include the characteristics that make you a strong b-school candidate. Even though the questions are standard across the board, your recommenders need to add concrete and nuanced examples throughout their answers. They should mention specific instances where you led a team, succeeded in executing a project, or took constructive feedback and turned your performance around.

When and How to Ask Them

B-school students are often stressed about this, because they often need a current advisor and then have to reveal that they are planning on leaving. When you ask your supervisors or colleagues for help with your MBA recommendation letters depends on whether you’re applying during Round 1, 2, or 3. I definitely recommend taking the plunge early and sending your materials by the Round 1 deadline (late September for most programs) so that the classes aren’t already filled up. No matter when you’re submitting your file, make sure you give your recommenders at least a month’s notice if not more. Obviously, they have to write long responses, so they need as much time as possible.

Don’t ask them over email — ideally you want to ask for recommendations in person. Email your recommenders and set up a time to meet with each of them. Don’t just hand them your resumé and ask them to base their letters on the skills you have. The MBA recommendation letters ask questions that expect specific and elaborate answers. Discuss with your manager any anecdotes you wish to highlight and remind them about instances where your performance may have impressed them. These specifics can help them narrow down the best parts about working with you.

When reading MBA letters of recommendation, admissions committees want to get a clear picture of how you’ve made a difference in the workplace and learn about specific times where you demonstrated your best skills. Keep each school’s preferences in mind and prioritize professional references over other options. Talk through what you hope this component will convey with your recommenders, and hopefully you’ll be on your way to receiving some stellar letters. Good luck!


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