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Letters of recommendation (LoR): How to choose your MBA recommenders

For many, their MBA pursuit is usually a hush-hush affair: on the personal front, also on the professional front. You would not want inquisitive friends, relatives or neighbours spreading the word around before you have a confirmed place in the MBA college of your choice. Again you don’t want your competing office colleagues to gain an edge over you when it comes to opportunities and promotions. But now you’re in a situation where you need an outsider to write recommendations for you to complete your application. Interesting fix!

In another post you saw why you should not neglect your Letters of recommendation for MBA programs. This time we cover more about who you should approach for your LoRs.

How can you choose your MBA recommenders?

Tough decision, right? So many options (or no obvious ones at all) and 2 recos for each school waiting out there. But if you look around and think (hard), you would be able to figure out the right person. You may have worked together; preferably someone in a slightly senior role within your team (or another team) within your organisation who has seen you huffing and puffing to climb the corporate ladder. They should be able to provide some insights about the traits that set you apart and stand out from the rest. Depending upon the questions asked, they should be able to point out the various occasions when you showed some exceptional ability or done commendable work.

A good recommendation can take your application one level higher. The person should be more of a friend, mentor or guide. He should be willing to spare time and put in the required effort. Your interpersonal relationship (strictly platonic and professional, if you are wondering) with the person really matters. That’s the reason why it’s often mentioned: Do not take recos from the CEO or CFO of the company (unless they really know you like the back of their Blackberries). The designation of the recommender is not that important but the content of the LOR is. A recommendation from someone who’s in the helicopter while you are slogging away your backside on the ground, would tend to be very generalised rather than personalised. Not good.

If you have problems finding someone within your organisation, you can think of any other possible source for getting your LOR – maybe someone from the client side you share a good rapport with.  If you have been involved in any social group or non-profit organisation where you’ve made significant contribution over a period of time, you could find someone there to write LORs for you. Again you can choose multiple people to write the recommendations depending on their schedule and time availability instead of over-burdening any one person. So, good to have backup recommenders noted in your diary.

Choosing a recommender from your previous job may not be ideal for all candidates. Consider a case where your job-change occurred more than 3-4 years back; you would have gone through a learning curve in the new organisation and picked up skills in new areas you were earlier not familiar with. Your role would have evolved in several ways, so would your responsibilities. You may have had a flair for technical work and were blissfully content doing so in the old organisation, but now you have discovered your hidden potential and realised that you are an able administrator, a good project manager and a fantastic team-leader. You may have handled more complex projects and achieved targets worth mentioning. In such a scenario, even if you feel that strong urge to go back to your manager from your previous office, he may perhaps not be able to comment about your recently acquired managerial skills. A person who has seen you grow in this organisation would do a better job and would be able to justify the transition in your career and your passion for the work you’re currently involved in.

Again, even if the recommender writes with good intentions and holds a high opinion about you, if he is not able to reproduce (no, we aren’t talking about his ability to produce offsprings) the same in a presentable and legible manner, this would be a setback for your application. Good language and flow without typos would be required so that the content can be assimilated.

So rack your brains, weigh out the outcomes and decide on who would do the job best. Any doubts on the choice of recommenders that we can clarify?

Related post: How to ask for a letter of recommendation from professors

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Sameer Kamat
About Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Follow me on: Instagram | Linkedin | Youtube

10 thoughts on “Letters of recommendation (LoR): How to choose your MBA recommenders”

  1. Hi Sameer,

    I have confusion between choosing my senior manager and my counselor. My counselor is the one who guides me through the process of the firm, fights for my appraisal ratings and focuses on aspects other than my project. My senior manager is in a diferent location and have met him several times. He might be getting reports from my lead regarding performances.

    But my senior manager is one level up from my counselor in term of designation. So whom to choose? Do titles matter?

  2. The person who knows you and your work better should figure higher on the priority list. In this case, the counsellor seems like a better choice.

    However, as most bschools require 2 recommenders, you could mix and match i.e. select the counsellor as well as a recent supervisor.

  3. Sir, ive been working in a manufacturing organisation for last 3 years. I was transferred within the same unit (inter-departmental transfer but the plant was same) about 2 years ago. My last supervisor (rather HOD) has known me alot as i was quite popular there due to my performance.can i prefer him over my present bosses.

    Also the head of my department has recently been promoted as the Unit head (mine is a nationwide firm with 17 units across country). He has known me personally and supervised me on a couple of projects. Is he a good choice for my LOR.

    Please reply early as i am a month away from my deadline.

  4. Hi Sameer,

    I co-founded a successful website about 3 years ago and have been working on that ever since. The problem is, that I don’t have anything comparable to a supervisor except for the CEO (who I cofounded it with, and am keeping my application a secret from), I’m COO . I have heard that business partners/co-founders are bad for LOR’s, but my last supervisor will have been from three and a half years ago at the time I apply. Do you think it is ok to use a technical mentor that I have not worked in the same organization as in this case?

  5. @Taresh: Since you don’t have too many options to choose from, go with what you can manage. Since most bschools ask for 2 recommenders, you could ask the earlier supervisor and one of your current business partners (or co-founder).

    A word of caution: Try to ensure that they highlight your strengths in a neutral and objective manner without letting their biases completely take over.

    Also, since the recos may not be able to bear the full load, make sure that your essays are top-notch. They might end up carrying the bulk of the responsibility to get you an interview invite.

  6. Hi Sameer

    Thanks a lot for the helpful blog! I have one question though. I switched my job 5 months back and am working for a Consulting firm now, something that I would want to pursue after my MBA as well. I was working as a Project Manager in my previous company, where I worked for around 2 years. The person who would be giving me a recommendation from my present company is a Manager and the one from my previous company is a General Manager with a much high work experience.

    In such a case, which choice of recommender makes more sense?

    I have already given my GMAT and am planning to apply for ISB in the first cycle.

  7. Hi Sameer,

    Thanks for the article! I am looking to pursue an M.Sc in Finance from a top business school in Europe. I am yet to take up my GMAT and IELTS exams.
    I am employed in a big 4 accounting firm as a staff and will have 18 months of experience under my belt at the time of my planned exit (around April ’18).

    In the time remaining, I have chosen my two recommenders – My counsellor (who knows me very well) and my US Senior Manager. I am yet to ask them if they are willing to write an LoR for me.

    My questions is :
    – Is there a specific format with which an LoR has to be written or does it vary from school to school?

    I want to get done with the LoR before I quit the firm. So, I want to know if these 2 LoRs are enough and if I can use the same LoRs to apply to different business schools.

  8. @Mohith: Each program has its specific format that needs to be filled up online by your recommenders using (preferably) their official email IDs. Getting a common one-size-fits-all letter will not be useful.


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