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Letters Of Recommendation: From Whom?

Solicit letters from people who know you well, who can speak specifically about you.

"Know you well" means that the person can write, at length and with specifics, about your character, strengths, and potential after observing or working with you over time.

Applicants often yearn for some "big name" recommender: a CEO, government figure, judge, or college Dean. But any "celebrity" who doesn’t really know you well will actually damage your chances.

  • Better a letter from an Adjunct Professor or Graduate T.A. who knows you well, than a full Professor who barely remembers you. Better a letter from an Asst. VP with whom you’ve worked closely, than from the company’s President whose hand you once shook.

(Of course a "celebrity" recommender who really and truly does know you well can be of value. But the important element is the relationship and not the celebrity status.)

Solicit letters from those who will be enthusiastic about you.

If a potential recommender’s reaction to your idea of business school is "Really?" or "Are you sure?" or "You’re joking" – we suggest that you keep looking. You want a recommender whose explicit and implicit messages will be, "Applicant [your name] is an impressive person who has succeeded and will continue to do so; you should snap this applicant up."

Working within whatever guidelines the business schools suggest, try to get a range of recommenders, each of whom will add a different "piece of the puzzle."

To have three letters all discuss your organizational ability is overkill. You want each letter, usually 2 or 3 total, to focus on a different aspect of your personality or career, so that the net effect is a multifaceted portrait.

Here’s a good mix, assuming that the school will accept 3 letters (always follow a school’s guidelines):

  • A former professor with whom you have studied and/or worked closely more than once, who can attest to your research, writing, and analytical skills.
  • A supervisor at a full-time job who can attest to your work strengths and habits, and describe your successes in detail.
  • One other work-related supervisor
  • A supervisor from a community-service or other volunteer organization who can attest to your heart and character and interpersonal relationships.
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