While each component of the application is important and should be optimized, when the admissions committee member reviews your letters of recommendation, he or she is without exception looking to be pleasantly surprised and impressed. You must do everything in your power to ensure that this is accomplished. Simply emailing your supervisor and asking for a letter of recommendation, and leaving it at that is both naïve and risky. There is a process for optimizing the strength of your letters of recommendation. It begins with selecting your letter writers.
Selecting Your Recommenders
Choosing your letter writers is a skill that can be acquired. The letters must be supportive, detailed, authentic and credible. However, a letter from your mother, even if she where the CEO of the company you work for, would seriously question your judgement in the eyes of business schools because of the implied bias that would be inferred.
Who Will Write the Best Letter?
Your Current Supervisors is generally preferred, someone that knows you well, who you recently worked for, or currently work with.
The status of the writer is less important than how well they know you and can articulate it.
Ideally, your direct supervisor is best.
Make sure that he or she likes you.
Make sure they he or she thinks you are good at what you do, perhaps has even supported you for promotion in the past.
Make sure they write well.
Choose someone that is gladly willing to write it for you.
Select the Previous Supervisor when:
The Current Supervisor will not write a favorable letter.
You’ve worked for your current supervisor less than 6 months.
Telling the current supervisor risks your job.
You stopped working for you previous supervisor recently, and worked for him/her for an extended period of time.
He or she is more relevant and supportive than the current.
He or she is willing to take the time necessary to write a thorough, thoughtful and effective letter.
Try to make sure that a second recommender highlights different salient points than the first, so as to describe the full breadth of your positive qualities.
This should be a supplemental, not the primary letter unless coincidentally they are your direct supervisor as well. Alumni recommenders may be helpful. But don’t over emphasize their importance.
It is best to use non-career recommenders only when you are an entrepreneur and/or work in the family business.
In this case, a client, customer, employee, long-time mentor, peer, someone that serves on a board with you or a long-time friend may serve you well.
Professors generally cannot comment on your leadership, career goals, career performance and workplace personality traits and successes.
Explaining Your Recommendation Selection
When you cannot obtain a letter from your current supervisor, typically it is worthwhile to explain why you can’t, such as you just started a new job, your previous supervisor knows you better, or your current boss will not be supportive or understanding.
How Should You Approach your Recommenders?
Prime the letter writer weeks or months in advance of your consideration of going to b-school.
Ask for their feedback on the value of earning an MBA.
Set up a meeting or “coffee” to discuss your future.
Be frank, ask them if they have the time, know you well enough, and have the confidence in you to write a strong letter on your behalf; tell them that you can provide them with your most recent performance reviews, and details of the most recent projects.
How best Should You Prepare Your Recommenders?
Share the details of your application strategy
Jog their memory of your accomplishments, successes and actions.
Provide a comprehensive packet or a condensed two-page summation to assist the letter writer, depending on their preference.
Provide 4-5 key Points to Emphasize & give synergy to the application. Moreover, provide one concrete example of each point.
Copies of key projects
Copies of application personal statement & essays
Provide Clear instructions
Provide clear Deadlines
Consider going over the packet with the recommender briefly over lunch
Consider also highlighting a weakness that can be turned into a strength
Guidelines for Recommenders
Even seasoned writers can benefit from clear and concise guidelines, especially when they meet the expectations of the letter readers. Providing the recommender with such a reference may be highly appreciated and efficacious.
Follow-up with Recommenders
Letter writers, as you know, are extremely busy individuals. Thus, your priorities may not be their priorities. You’ll need to check with them from time to time, in a polite way, to ask if there is anything they need to facilitate the letters, and to kindly remind them of imminent deadlines.
Show your full appreciation with a modest gift and a hand written thank you card.
As you can plainly see, the letter of recommendation is not just simply asking for a letter. To maximize your yield, there is considerable heavy lifting. In the end, the payoff though may be a very nice acceptance letter.