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Common Letter of Recommendation: All you need to know

As an MBA applicant, life isn’t easy. There is lots to do and time always seems to be running short; unless of course you’ve managed to master the right timeline for MBA applications. The one aspect that tends to come towards the end for many candidates is the letter of recommendation.

We have earlier written about the perils of neglecting the recommendation letter. It is not just about choosing the right recommenders for your MBA application, but a lot goes behind making a good/strong document that will aid your cause. We come to the part about how to write a good recommendation later. First, we look at a new beast on the block.

All about the Common Letter of Recommendation


What is Common LoR?

The idea has been around for a while. At the heart of it, the intention is to have a standardized format across schools instead of doing the process (somewhat similar) again and again; more so, getting your recommender – who is likely to be a busy person – to do it with the right seriousness again and again. In 2016, GMAC came up with the common recommendation format (link). The current link, on GMAC, is (here.

As per the official version, the intention is to help save recommenders’ time and get them to put a lot more focus/depth into the recommendation. Part of this stems from the school’s findings that indicated many candidates were either writing their own recommendations and/or the recommendation letters were filled with lists of adjectives rather than giving a true, unbiased view of the candidate’s skills.

What is the format and structure of the Common LoR?

The link above has the official form used by GMAC. The Common LoR has 3 sections –Information about the recommender; Leadership Assessment Grid and Subjective questions.

  • The first section is purely to understand your recommender and his/her relationship with you.
  • The next section is further sub-divided into 5 categories, each with a bunch of objective type questions and finally, leaves a box for subjective comments.
  • The final section has three 500 word essay types questions and a final optional essay with no word limit.


Is there a fee to use the Common LoR?

As per our research and understanding, the Common LoR is free to use for both the candidate and the school.

Common letter of recommendation participating schools

As per GMAC’s website, there are currently nearly 40 schools that use the Common LoR. However, they also mention that schools are free to customize the Common LoR to accommodate any unique questions required by the program.

As per GMAC though, they do not track which schools are using the Common LoR – the information is on the basis of schools that have told them about it. This number is quite modest but that is understandable since the development is quite recent.

The real benefit of this will depend however on how many schools adopt it. Without that, it is likely to be a drop in the ocean – but then, every drop does count.

For those who haven’t adopted it, the recommendation letters broadly follow a similar structure. Some schools tend to have a lot more subjective questions while others keep them to 2-3; some put word limit restrictions, others don’t; the rating grid terminology varies widely from school to school.

This means that unless your target schools all use the common LoR, you have your task cut out.

We will now try to address some common doubts/questions applicants have. This applies to both the common LoR and the school specific recommendation letters.

Common LoR FAQs

How should I select my recommenders? Will it help if I ask my CEO or a known business leader to write the LoRs, instead of my manager?

The general rule of thumb here is, the recommender should be someone who is invested in your career. This would mean that you’ve worked with him/her extensively – either as a direct report, mentee or some other position where the person has observed you as a senior. Once this rule is passed, then of course you can prefer to go as high up as possible. But having a CEO write a one line sentence that you are a great guy is far less effective than having a senior manager say you are a great guy because on such and such date, he observed you did so and so, which led to this and that. One of the recommender should usually be your direct supervisor – many schools may say that directly/indirectly. For the second one, look for what your overall story is and what skills you want to showcase – basis that, decide from your selection set. It could be a previous supervisor or a senior stakeholder from another team or some such.

I don’t want my boss and company to know that I am applying to business school. What should I do?

This could be true in many companies – it all depends on how progressive the culture is in your organization. It is preferred to have at least one recommendation from your current firm; if not your boss, then someone senior who you are on very good terms with. If however all else fails, make sure you clearly explain the choice of your recommender in the Optional Essay – that’s one of the reason it is there for!

Will a recommendation letter from my college professor help?

The short answer, in most cases, is No. Mind you, we are talking about MBA recommendation here. If you are like most candidates, you would be applying with about 3-5 years of experience. College was quite a while back. Your work may or may not have anything to do with what you studied back then.

Sure, you shared an awesome wavelength with that professor, but does he really know who you are today? When was the last time you spoke with him, let alone meet him? Even if you did, can he really comment on how you are today in a team setting and as an individual worker? Chances are, answer to most of these questions are in the negative.

And if they are, think about what the school Adcoms would learn about you as a person/professional today. They are more interested to know about that than knowing that you were an excellent student in the yesteryears. There could be some rare exceptions to this however.

For instance if you have collaborated with your professor on a cutting edge technology on which your recent startup is based – sure, he’s your man!

When should I approach my recommenders in the application process?

The ideal time to do this is in parallel to your essay writing phase – read this article about the ‘ideal’ MBA timeline; and not after you are done with the essays. If you expect them to devote time to it and bring depth, don’t given them a day to do it.

More so because in usual scenario, they would be busier than you are. Make sure you work with them as a team and get them involved/invested early on. This will also help you decide the choice of recommenders and calm the nerves a bit.

My recommender does not have time and has asked me to write the LoRs. Is that ok?

This is partly the reason GMAC, in collaboration with several schools, has come up with the common LoR. Schools want an unbiased opinion about you from the recommenders and are definitely not ok with your written document. This is why, as per the earlier section, get in touch with your recommenders early in the process and see where they may need help.

Will the business school contact my recommenders to verify the contents?

While in our experience, we’ve never seen any school do that, but remember, nothing stops them from doing it. They have all the information. Background checks are becoming increasingly common. Even if they don’t however, why do it? The incremental gain from bluffing in any part of the application is never justified in the long term; why trade your ethics – no one will ever appreciate it and who knows, when/how your bluff might be called?

As an end note, we cannot ask you enough to put sufficient time and energy into the LoR – common or not. Make sure you choose your recommenders wisely and get the same rigor into the process as you are doing with your essays.

Read these related articles:
Don’t neglect your Letters of recommendation for MBA (LoR)
Avoid these common Mistakes in Letters of Recommendations
How to choose your MBA recommenders

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Manish Gupta
About Manish Gupta
Chief Consulting Officer at MBA Crystal Ball, ex-McKinsey, IIT & ISB topper. MG can help you get into the top B-schools. Read more about this top MBA admissions consultant. Connect with MG on Email. Or follow on Linkedin, Facebook.

14 thoughts on “Common Letter of Recommendation: All you need to know”

  1. Hi,
    I secured 760 in GMAT
    I am BTEch student (2014, 71%), Than I had work experience of 2 years in Software Company and for last 1 year I have my own online business (aprrox 10 people).Now I want to go for MBA in USA in top 10-15 colleges.Is it possible now or need to build strong profile.

  2. Hi MG, kindly suggest would it make sense (ROI) at the age of around 40 with 17+ years of work experience.. I m referring to one year executive program. Regards

  3. Hi Manish,

    I am a 37 year old IT professional.I have 11 years of experience into software testing and am currently working with HCL as a Senior test lead. I am looking for a Higher management position in HCL technologies or other IT service based companies with higher pay package and more job security.Do you think i am still eligible for an executive MBA and should i move towards it?

    • Sure you would be eligible Rahul. Do spend some time thinking about your specific goals after MBA though and do it for the right reasons. Also assess the right fit as you’d be an outlier for many schools from an age/experience perspective.

  4. I have gone through all the requisite for entering HBS but I belong to a lower middle class family and my main problem is money so I just want to if with god grace I get the admission then how can I get the scholarship (full scholarship) and also what all I have to spend after getting the scholarship. Sir please guide. Thanku

  5. Dear MG,

    My Profile as following,

    1> B.Tech(2010) – (82.9%)

    2> HSC(2006) – (83.9%)

    3>SSC(2004) – (82.6%)

    4>6+ years of experience in IT, worked as Team Lead in Business Intelligent tools.

    Could you please suggest me how Executive MBA will give my career a boost, I want to get managerial position in ecommerce fields

    Planning GMAT in 6 months…

  6. Hi Manish,

    Thanks for this summary. Do your recommender’s examples have to align with your career goals essay or your statement of purpose essay? What if you switched functions recently and your writing focuses mainly on a story/theme from a post-switch role? Does your recommender have to include examples from this other role (if you don’t have a recommender from that one) or can they speak to majority of the work you did, which happened under them? Would this be a red flag for adcoms?


    • KS, if your recommender is for a new role, you can maybe not take it from him/her and explain the choice in the optional essay. Alternatively, it is completely alright if the old recommender talks about old stuff.

  7. Hi Manish,
    I have some problem in getting my recommendation, because in my organisation it is against the company policy to recommend so what should I do?


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