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Common Mistakes in Letters of Recommendations

Top 10 MBA Admissions Officer - SudsOne of the more important aspects of the MBA application (I guess second only to the essays) is the letter of recommendations submitted by recommenders on behalf of applicants. I’d like to take the opportunity to emphasize a few things I haven’t really discussed until now, since they are worth reinforcing.

  • Who is a good recommender?
  • Does job title matter?
  • If I get from the CEO, will that mean more?
  • How about if someone I know outside of work recommends me?
  • My recommenders are busy. Can I write the letter on their behalf?
  • Can my recommenders use Gmail and Hotmail instead of official email IDs?
  • Should I waive my right to view my recommendation letters?
  • How about an academic recommendation from a professor?


These and more questions have come my way as I met with candidates around the country. And the questions have continued over email as well. In many cases, candidates end up making assumptions and don’t think of getting them clarified.

Let’s think about the above questions for a bit. Don’t you think a good recommender is someone who knows you well? Is that enough of a criterion to anoint someone in charge of your destiny? Don’t you also think, irrespective of how well the recommender knows you, she should be willing and able to represent you well? Is it enough if someone knows you well but doesn’t take the time to write a detailed recommendation?

Put yourself in the shoes of the Admissions Committee members reading the letters of recommendation that have been submitted on your behalf. If you selected your immediate boss to write a recommendation (which is great because she is your supervisor and is best equipped to give insights into your personality, teamwork, leadership, etc.), and the boss ends up writing a brief recommendation that is devoid of examples, what does that tell the reader?

One is forced to draw a few conclusions that don’t necessarily enhance your candidacy.

1. The boss doesn’t know you well enough so isn’t able to write much about you. Which begs the question why doesn’t your supervisor know you well? What does that say about your interactions with people in your team and those above you?

2. You haven’t briefed your boss well enough that she doesn’t know how to portray you in the recommendation. That smacks of not having enough judgment. Shouldn’t you be taking the time to let your boss know what points could be discussed when writing the recommendation on your behalf?

Remember there’s a fine line between discussing with someone what points they could mention about you and actually writing them to make it easy for your boss. The former is okay, the latter is a no no.

3. The boss isn’t really impressed with you and is trying to send a message that this candidate shouldn’t be considered.
I know these are tough conclusions to come to, but without any other supporting information, don’t you think one of these three is a reasonable conclusion to arrive at, for the otherwise uninformed reader? Usually, if you try to jump hierarchy and get the recommendation from someone higher up, they might agree out of courtesy but the most usual route they take is none too different from one of the above approaches. So it’s in your best interests to get one from someone who knows you well and someone who is approachable enough that the person doesn’t mind if you check in on her from time to time to see how things are going.

The next thing the applicant needs to evaluate is the credibility of the recommender. Normally, we don’t mind if the recommender is someone from outside your work atmosphere because we realize you’re not a one-dimensional entity and that you have other roles to play in the society beyond work, and we appreciate the opportunity to get to know you from beyond the confines of work.

But be sure that this recommendation is not coming from a generic email id such as Gmail or Hotmail or something else that’s freely available. No matter how genuine the recommendation is, there’s a huge discount to the believability of a recommendation if it comes from an email address that anyone can create from anywhere in the world. So be mindful of that.

Is it OK to get a recommendation from a professor, when you’ve graduated a few years ago? When you’re applying to a global MBA, it is conceivable that you’re not a recent graduate (maybe 4+ years out of college), so the professor may not even remember much about you to be able to write a critical evaluation. More importantly, perhaps, this is not an MS degree or a degree that’s going to lead to your being involved in academic research. The MBA being a gateway for leadership roles in the world of business, your recommenders should be from the business world and not academia. As such, academic recommendations tend to not make a very favorable impression especially in the case of a global MBA.

The most common mistake I see Indian applicants make when giving the names of the recommendation is not waiving the right to see the recommendation if they’re admitted. And this is true of a large number of Indian applicants. You may be wondering what the big deal is. You should know there’s a federal law in the US that allows candidates to see the recommendations at a later time if they choose to, once they’re admitted to the school. And the recommender knows at the time of submitting the recommendation whether the candidate has waived the right or not.

Consider this: If the recommender knows you’re going to have access to the recommendation at a later time, you’re indirectly influencing the recommender to write favorably since they don’t want to look bad later. So if you waive it, then it’s seen as an independent recommendation that hasn’t been influenced by the candidate directly or indirectly. In other words, waiving the right to see the recommendation at a later time gives more credibility to the recommendation overall. This may not seem to be a big deal sitting in India, but it’s a considerable deal in the US.

That being the case, why would you want to not waive the right to view your recommendation letters? Admissions Committees care a lot about the integrity of the process and so, you don’t want to unknowingly raise any hackles.

The only bigger mistake candidates do is writing the recommendation themselves and having the recommender blindly submitting it. You must be wondering how would the committee possibly know if it’s done sitting all the way over here?

You see, again, we really care about the integrity of the process. So even the hint of impropriety on part of the candidate is enough to make a negative mark. I’m not saying that’s ground for outright rejection, but by raising these questions, the candidate is not doing herself any favor either. Especially when there’s such high competition for every single seat, we don’t want to run the risk of having someone admitted who hasn’t played by the rules.

So it really behooves the candidate to pay attention to these things and submit an application that’s beyond reproach. Think Caesar’s wife!


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Sudershan Tirumala
About Sudershan Tirumala
Suds' association with the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth (an Ivy League university) as Regional Director has given him rich & unique insights about international & Indian applicants that very few admissions officers have. In an exclusive series for MBA Crystal Ball, he writes on a wide range of topics from MBA admissions to careers.

8 thoughts on “Common Mistakes in Letters of Recommendations”

  1. Good noon sir, I am neetesh sharma from gwalior (m.p) .I am pursuing my bba (hons) in tourism and travel from Indian institute of travel and tourism management after completing my BBA may I plan for gmat,problem is that elders say that you can’t go for abroad after three years programme (bba) .my wish to study in foreign for higher education. So guide me sir.
    Thank you
    Neetesh sharma

    • Neetesh,

      Thanks for your note. After undergrad, if you want to study overseas, you will need a few years of stellar work experience, so focus on doing well in your current studies and future job. I’m not sure about other schools but Tuck accepts three year degrees, so there maybe other schools that do so as well. After a few years of work experience, you can give GMAT and take it from there. Hope that helps.


  2. Hi Sir,

    Thanks for a wonderful insight when it comes to Letter of Recommendation. While I had a fair idea, this really helped. I will be giving GMAT in sometime and will be applying for MBA abroad post that. For letter of recommendation, I had my immidiate supervisor and one of my key clients(I am a Relationship Manager with Citi in India) in my mind. I am not sure if getting a referral from a client is a good idea, as it may also reflect that I could have influenced client basis relationship to write a good review. A second perspective is it could be a great as well, since it will directly reflect how good or bad I am at my work. Please help.

    Hope to see you at Tuck.


    • Manish,

      Thanks for your comment and query. Boss and client are both good recommenders to have, so you’re in good shape. All the best with your applications.


  3. Hi Sudershan,

    Is it okay if the recommender (Client) prefers to send recommendation from his personal e-mal ID ?


    • Divyabh,

      Thanks for your note. I’m not a great fan of recommendations being sent from generic email ids since the credibility of the sender and the contents of the recommendation become questionable. But that’s just me. There’s nothing that says you can’t, but then, why would someone want to raise unnecessary questions in an already ultra-competitive application process?

      All the best with your endeavors.


  4. Hi Sudershan,
    I have almost 6+ years of work experience, 3 yrs in plant operations and rest as purchase manager, but the companies i have worked donot have an registered email id, and in both of these, my immediate supervisor was the owner of the company. So does this mean that I dont stand any chance at any good mba college?

    • Rakesh,

      Thanks for your query. It’s somewhat rare that two different companies that you worked for didn’t have registered email ids. You should consider using the optional essay to let the Admissions Committee know your situation. That way, they’re not wondering why two different recommenders in two different companies have generic email ids. It doesn’t matter who your supervisor was – be it an owner or someone in the mid-level management team. What matters is that they know you well and represent you well. Leverage them to get strong recommendations based on your accomplishments. As for the “chance” of getting into any good MBA college, it’s not so much chance is it? There’s a lot of hard work and planning that goes with the application process. And in the end, you make your own luck by putting in the effort. So make it happen!



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