Letters of recommendation are an important part of your overall application package—they provide the only outside information the admissions committee receives about you. However, one of the most stressful parts of the application process can be choosing your recommenders. The first question you should ask is who can write a valuable letter on my behalf?
Many candidates believe that recommenders must have remarkable credentials and titles to impress the admissions committee. However, selecting individuals who can write a personal and knowledgeable letter that discusses your talents, accomplishments, personality, and potential is far more important. If senior managers at your company can only describe your work in vague and general terms, they will not help your cause. Lower-level managers who directly supervise your work, on the other hand, can often offer powerful examples of the impact you have had on your company. As a result, their letters can be far more effective.
Nonetheless, not everyone who knows you and your capabilities well will make a good recommender. For starters, you should of course feel confident that your potential recommender likes you and will write a positive letter on your behalf. As you contemplate your choices, try to gather some intelligence on your potential recommenders. Have they written letters for anyone else? Are they generous with their time with regard to employee feedback and review sessions? Will they devote the effort and time necessary to write a letter that will really shine?
One step that you can take to ensure you submit the strongest applications possible is doing some research on your recommenders to confirm that your choices are indeed “safe.” After all, if you are playing by the strictest interpretation of the rules of recommendations, you will not get to see what your recommenders ultimately write about you. By doing a little intelligence work in advance, you can better understand whether you are making the right decision before committing to a certain individual.
By doing some “intelligence,” we mean—where possible—contacting past colleagues in a discreet and diplomatic way to find out what their experiences were like with your potential recommender. For example, was your potential recommender a generous advocate or was he/she a disinterested third party who had a tendency to be harsh? Clearly, learning more about your target recommender’s approach in advance can help you understand whether or not you should offer him/her this important responsibility. Past colleagues can also guide you in how best to manage your recommenders, which can be just as important as choosing them. Knowing up front that your recommender is a procrastinator or performed better after being given a list of accomplishments from which to work can help ensure the best letter possible and can prevent you from inadvertently antagonizing your recommender or delaying the process.
If your prospective MBA program asks for two letters of recommendation, you should generally approach two of your recent supervisors, with one ideally being your current supervisor. Your letters will have added credibility if they are written by individuals who are senior to you, because your recommenders are in evaluative positions and will not have anything to lose by critically appraising your candidacy.