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MBA application letters: Who to ask

Admissions directors offer dos and don'ts for handling letters of recommendation. One tip: Forget the celebrities

by Anne VanderMey
Publication: BusinessWeek

February 23, 2009


What happens when Tom Mendoza, the $35 million donor to the eponymous Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, writes a recommendation letter for a hopeful Notre Dame MBA student?

According to Notre Dame MBA Admissions Director Brian Lohr, the same thing that happens with all the other applications: He reads the rest of it. This goes for letters penned by everyone from the applicant's coworkers to U.S. Presidents. And he's seen most of them.

Letters of recommendation are a somewhat mysterious aspect of the application process. The only piece of the file students don't have control over, it's usually considered the easiest—or at least the quickest—part of the application. Often, prospective students think all they can do is find a big-name recommender and pray.

Getting the Details Right

This, admissions directors say, is a big mistake. The student Mendoza recommended did end up getting into Notre Dame, but not because of his pull, Lohr says. There are a lot of details it's important to get right in the letter writing process, and if you want your letters to stand out, it can take a lot more work than you'd think.

Recommendations are "one of the biggest missed opportunities" in applications, says Sara Neher, director of MBA admissions at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business. "People do not make of it what they could," she says.

In a tough admissions climate such as this year's, letters can make all the difference for an applicant on the fence. Associate Dean of Admissions Rosemaria Martinelli at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business says the letters are a good way to verify or reinforce points from the rest of the application. Even with grades and essays, "we don't have any third-party voice," she says. "For admissions, it's a tremendously important piece of the puzzle."

But if the letter isn't completing the picture, there's a good chance it's taking away from it.

"They can kill you," Neher says

Step One: Selection

Adam King, now a second year student at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, knew who he wanted to write his letter but wasn't sure how to make it happen. A marketing associate for clothing and shoe line Run Athletics, King was working directly with Russell Simmons, the legendary founder of Def Jam Records and numerous other ventures. However, Simmons rarely handed out letters of recommendation, and a small army of personal staff meant it was hard to get a meeting with him that wasn't strictly work-related.

When King heard Simmons was shooting a commercial for Simmons' RushCard, a prepaid Visa, he saw his chance. He put on his best suit and showed up at the set, knowing extras were sometimes pulled from the crowd. It worked, and he was asked to be in the spot. "I thought, 'This is my time to shine,'" he says.

In the commercial, which is still on YouTube, King is shown sitting and talking with the hip-hop mogul in his office while a voiceover expounds the virtues of the RushCard. The actual conversation, King says, mostly consisted of him telling Simmons why he wanted to go to business school. In the end, Simmons agreed, and by that time, he had enough information about King and his B-school ambitions to write a personalized letter.

Of course, not every student is that lucky—even the ones who manage to wrangle letters from celebrities. Big names don't typically hurt an applicant, but if the star isn't actually familiar with your record you could end up seeming more like a name-dropper than a serious candidate.

"To me, if a person doesn't really, really know that individual and their work, it's meaningless," Martinelli says. "And frankly, it's meaningless if it's my daddy's best friend who I played golf with once."

One thing to keep in mind is that admissions officers sift through thousands of letters each year, and they're hard to impress. Neher has received "completely useless" letters from royalty. Many schools field requests from sitting or past Presidents. And several reported having gotten a recommendation from Barack Obama; it wasn't given extra weight says Martinelli, but it was well written.

Liz Riley Hargrove, associate dean for admissions at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, recalls recommendations from Jodie Foster (for a personal assistant), Spike Lee (for a production assistant), and Bill Clinton (for a campaign aide). All these applicants, coincidentally, were accepted, she says. But aside from "personal interest" for committee members, movie stars' testimonials don't mean much. Furthermore, at the University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business, Assistant Dean of MBA Admissions Keith Vaughn says celebrity letters can be a hindrance because they have to be taken out of the pool and referred to the school's dean for review, slowing down the process.

The most important quality in a letter writer is how familiar the person is with your record. Most schools require two letters of recommendation, at least one from a supervisor in a professional setting. On top of this, many also ask recommenders to answer specific questions, instead of sending in a form letter. The recommendations usually take more than an hour to write. Or several, for really good ones.

The more stories a recommender can tell about your accomplishments, the better. It also helps to have someone who's a fairly good writer, and who you're sure has the time to gush about your leadership skills to several different schools without getting their names mixed up, a common occurrence. To lessen the load, some applicants ask different people for different schools. Searching for extra people is labor intensive, but the payoff is worth it.

Step Two: Perfection

Once you've got your recommenders lined up, take them out to lunch or coffee. And do it early. This way, you have a chance to explain what they're getting themselves into. It's also important to ask them if they have the time, Neher says. If they're not fully prepared to sing your praises, this question gives them an "easy out."

Take along a résumé and a list of bullet points outlining your accomplishments, but steer clear of writing full sentences or handing over essays, which can lead to a temptation to lift out phrases, unedited. Recycled prose is easy for admissions officers to spot, says Julie Strong, senior associate director for MBA admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. A word-for-word regurgitation of previous talking points is "really detrimental," she says. "It's like plagiarism of your own work."

Over coffee, also provide your recommender with some information about the schools where you're applying. Neher recommends printing out the mission statement so recommenders know what qualities to highlight to make the applicant seem like a good fit.

Coloring Outside the Lines

If you can't get the perfect letter, don't despair. The majority of recommendations are glowing, but some are negative or flat-out bizarre. One writer to Darden referenced relatives who sailed aboard the Mayflower. Another, a Cambodian, referenced Angelina Jolie's citizenship there.

In many cases, for whatever reason, students simply can't scrupulously follow admission committees' suggestions. Keith Flatley, now a second-year student at Mendoza, was serving as a U.S. Army captain in Tikrit, the birthplace of Saddam Hussein, when he decided to apply to business school. He knew that his recommenders, all of them in Iraq, would have limited time to field additional questions from B-schools. "If you have a choice between writing your family and writing this recommendation, you're going to choose your family every time," he says. In the end, Flatley got his recommendations from his chaplain, company commander, and major.

Steve Misuraca, now a second-year MBA at Fuqua, was also in an awkward position. After working in the family business in a senior position, his only direct supervisor was his father—and schools typically don't trust family members to give an honest appraisal. Other students apply to MBA programs without telling their employer, meaning they can't seek recommendations from current supervisors, and some just don't get along with them. In these cases, most schools offer applicants the chance to write an additional essay explaining any imperfections in the letters. Misuraca ended up with recommendations from colleagues who don't share his DNA.

Chances are if your application is strong, colleges will see that regardless of what your letter writers say. A strong résumé is always more important than platitudes from a supervisor, even if it's the CEO. Still, as MBA programs get increasingly selective, it's nice to have an edge on the competition in the form of a heartfelt, well-written, personalized letter from someone who has first-hand knowledge of your accomplishments. And, admittedly, it doesn't hurt if it's from Obama.

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