Business school application: Recommendation letters

Recommendation letters are as important as essays. The role of recommendation letters, when paired with essays, is to give your application some depth. Recommendation letters need to highlight your key messages from viewpoints other than your essays.

Therefore, it is important to discuss your application strategy with your referees before they start writing, in order to attain uniformity in the key messages you want to deliver. Although you shouldn’t “ghost-write” for your referees, it is important to maintain consistency between your essays and recommendation letters. If you “ghost-write” the letters, it will be obvious.

Outstanding Evaluation

Also, there are various opinions as to whom you should choose as your referees. Here is my opinion:

  • Your referee MUST be a person who knows you well
  • You SHOULD try to find a referee who knows the school you are applying to well (e.g. alumni)
  • Your referee MUST NOT be a big name or a person in a high position who doesn’t know you well

Just like your essays, your recommendation letters also need to deliver your qualities with specific examples, facts and logic. Long flowery words cannot help you but rather will cast doubts on the relationship you have with your referee. In my case, my three referees on the HBS application were:

    1. A senior partner at BCG. She is an HBS alumna and has known me for three years
    2. A vice president at Morgan Stanley. He is an HBS alumnus and has known me for six years
    3. A member of the board of directors at my family business. He has known me since I was born (non-MBA)


Anyway, you should remember the MBA application process requires a comprehensive strategy, and that recommendation letters are one of the components you should use to deliver your key messages to the AdCom. They are not a formality – they are important.

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