Yin and yang, two halves of a whole, a bagel and cream cheese—no, these are not philosophical concepts (or breakfast options, for that matter); instead, they are ways of thinking about how to choose your MBA application recommenders. Nearly all business schools require two recommendations, and rather than viewing the people who will write them as two discrete individuals each making a separate point about you, you should think of them as two knowledgeable sources whose letters will complement—and not repeat—each other. If you choose two recommenders who both highlight the same strengths they see in you, you will miss a valuable opportunity to make an impression on the admissions committee.
So, what should your MBA application recommendations say?
When business schools are considering an applicant, they are generally investigating two dimensions of the candidate. The first is the quantitative and analytical, while the second is qualitative. With respect to the quantitative, MBA programs are looking for good, old-fashioned smarts. Do you see numbers as professional tools? Are you able to assess business problems by using and manipulating data? Are you able to handle the quantitative work business schools require?
Sometimes the answer is obvious. A math major from an analytics company, for example, can easily check this box. In such cases, the applicant’s recommenders do not have to spend a lot of time asserting that the candidate is a quantitative phenom.
For others, though, this question might be tougher to answer. Consider an English major with a 700 GMAT score but no math courses on their transcript. Would they be a lost cause? Definitely not, but their math and analytical abilities would need to be validated in some way other than their grades, major, or GMAT/GRE. This is where a recommender comes in. If your recommender can reliably discuss your analytical skills—perhaps your ability to solve problems that no one else can or just how smart you are—then a positive view of your quantitative skills comes into focus. Would such a recommendation resolve all the admissions committee’s concerns about your analytical abilities? Not quite, but it would go a long way.
(If you really want to punch up your quantitative abilities, many online courses are available that can not only help you develop your skills but also impress the admissions committees.)
So what about highlighting your qualitative skills? In short, doing so would help answer any questions the admissions committee might have about your teamwork and leadership potential. Are you a good person to work with and/or to work for? Are you a natural leader? Are you someone people look up to?
Although you can partially answer such questions by sharing your extracurricular or college experiences, effectively conveying your qualitative strengths in your essays or resume is more difficult. Again, this is where your recommenders can help. As someone who knows you very well, they will be able to describe who you are, beyond your smarts. Are you the type of person a business school would want as part of its community? If so, your recommenders should strive to make this point clear.
So, who should your recommenders be?
For many applicants, this decision is obvious, though for others, it might be a little more difficult. So, if you are not immediately sure whom to turn to, start with some basics. A recommender should have worked with you closely, seen your work on a day-to-day basis, and most importantly, be willing to provide a great recommendation. Often, this would be a direct manager in your current job who can speak to your overall abilities. As noted earlier, your second recommender should be able to offer information that complements what your first recommender provides and to discuss different things.
Now for some wrinkles and frequently asked questions:
What if you cannot request a recommendation from your current boss because doing so will adversely affect your relationship with them—or even get you fired?
This is actually not an uncommon problem, and you should simply explain this situation in the optional essay so the admissions committee understands. However, finding someone else who can speak to your day-to-day performance becomes even more important. Frequently, this means turning to a previous manager.
Does your recommender’s title or status matter?
In short, no. Do not struggle to get the CEO of your firm to write you a recommendation if they have never seen your work product or style firsthand. Not only can they not provide the level of detail that makes for a strong recommendation but also, the admissions committees could even discount the letter, believing that you wrote the recommendation yourself and not the person with the impressive title.
How about an academic reference?
This would probably not be your best option. You need a really good reason to have a former professor write you a recommendation. For most candidates, their active relationship with their professor was a long time ago, and the professor viewed them in a far different light than a professional reference would, meaning that their input would be less applicable to an MBA context.
How about getting a reference from a customer or client? A customer or client reference can be intriguing, but it should really be used only in very special cases. If you work for a family business, where your choice is to have either a client or your parent write the recommendation, then the answer is clear. But choose a client or customer as your recommender only if you are sure that they have seen your work day-to-day and can effectively speak to your managerial abilities.
Can you ask a colleague to write a recommendation?
Technically yes, but this option works only in very specific cases. For example, if your current boss is a no-go, but you really want to highlight a recent achievement and no one else can speak to it, then this might be your best choice. Or perhaps the colleague is your partner in your startup or small business and therefore the only person who can give meaningful insight into how you built the business.
If you are having trouble securing a second recommendation, consider requesting one from someone from another organization you are actively involved with, such as a volunteer group. This is an especially good option when your leadership qualities are very much on display in your interactions or work with the organization.
So, in the end, what makes for the best recommendation?
The answer is that the best recommendation is the one that paints you in the best light. If you have a real champion, someone who is going to truly gush about how great you are, that is probably more important than anything else. This is what the top schools want and therefore the type of recommendation you need to focus on getting.
For even more information about MBA letters of recommendation, download our free guide.