How To Secure Compelling Letters of Reference
A Deep Breath
Applying to business school is a major effort. We understand that preparing applications can become quite overwhelming, especially given the demands of existing commitments such as your job and family. Maintaining a semblance of sanity during this process may seem out of reach. That's understandable. The best advice I can give you is to stop thinking about all of that for a few seconds and to take a deep breath...and then keep reading. (Come on....deep breath!)
This moment of taking a deep breath is very important as it allows you to take a step back, and reassess your entire situation. It is an opportunity to reflect and analogous to how we think about the entire application process.
I hope that you will feel, either during the process or after you complete it, that you have benefitted from this chance for structured reflection. During this deep breath exercise, you get to think about your experiences and values, assess your potential as a leader, determine what brings you meaning, and identify the path to realize your impact in our society. Embrace this opportunity.
The Benefit to You of Asking for Recommendations
Your essay responses give you a chance to contemplate your life experiences, to renew or revise your aspirations, and then to share your story in a thoughtful, personal way. Most candidates tell us that writing the essays was of great value, with hindsight. Securing your letters of reference is an experience that can be just as valuable.
One of the joys of my job is getting to meet so many immensely talented candidates, all around the world, as you consider applying to Stanford. Most of you are at points of inflection or in periods of transition. It is an honor for me to be able to provide a modicum of comfort or counsel as you work through this process. The question that you ask me most frequently at information sessions is some variant of "who should write my recommendations" or "is this person a good choice to provide a reference."
Let me guide you in answering your own queries. Who are the people with whom you discuss your life, work, and dreams? Did someone influence you in identifying this path? These people are likely the ones who know you well, who care about you, and whom you respect. In your professional environment, they probably are people with whom you have worked closely, who can evaluate your impact, from whom you have learned, whom you admire, in whom you place your confidence, who care about you, and whose opinions you value. This list may not align perfectly with your recommenders, but may provide you with a classification that will help you in selecting the most appropriate recommenders.
Asking someone who is committed to your success to write a letter of recommendation allows you to initiate candid conversations about your personal and professional development. Through these discussions, you will acquire valuable feedback that you can use to understand your own strengths and development needs, make a larger impact in your current position, build stronger working relationships, and refine your personal and professional aspirations.
In other words, instead of viewing the recommendation process solely as a means to an end (the letter of reference), I encourage you to view this process as a learning experience in and of itself. If you do so, I believe your recommender will produce a more powerful letter of reference because the process itself will have been so compelling.
Stories about You, Written by Others
Recommendations are stories about you, written by others, and complement the information you provide in your essays. The richness and depth of additional perspectives are essential to our understanding of you.
Other than selecting your recommenders, you have very little control over this part of the application; as such, you might be tempted to write some or all of the content yourself. That would be a mistake.
To be explicit, do not write your own letter of reference. The recommender alone must determine the content of the letter. We would not suggest, however, that you simply register your recommender without providing her/him with some context. You must demonstrate judgment here. It is appropriate for you to give your recommender context on what you are trying to convey through your application, particularly how the Stanford MBA experience can help you reach your goals. You may wish to provide some personal and professional background information.
You might review the recommendation form and jot down relevant anecdotes in which you demonstrated the competencies in question. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information. Again, you will need to exercise your judgment in providing a framework. The content of the letter submitted, however, must be determined solely by the recommender.
Types of Recommendations
Recommendations are a vital part of the admission process. Letters of reference help us to learn more about your character, behaviors, and attitudes, as well as your impact on those around you. These letters demonstrate to us not only how you can contribute at Stanford, but also how the Stanford experience can help you.
There are three letters of reference required for the Stanford MBA Program application. All three recommendations should provide evidence of your impact on people and organizations; they also should demonstrate your ability to learn and grow.
The first of the two Professional/Workplace references must come from your current direct supervisor. We want to hear from someone who has had extensive and recent interaction with you.
There are valid reasons why it may not be possible for you to secure a recommendation from a current, direct supervisor. For example, you have just moved to a new job, or you may not wish your direct supervisor to know that you are applying to business school. If that is the case, then simply include a brief but specific explanation in the Additional Information section of the application.
The second of the two Professional/Workplace references could come from anyone else in a position to provide a perspective on your work, such as a previous supervisor, indirect supervisor, client, customer, investor, or board member.
The third recommendation (Peer/Team) should come from someone who can speak descriptively about what it's like to work side-by-side with you on a project or on a team. This letter of reference may come from within or outside the workplace. For example, you could choose a co-worker from your organization, or you could pick a colleague from a community activity or a sports team. We understand that this person may not always be a peer in title, but it should be a person for whom there is no structural/positional influence in your relationship. We hope that you understand, and adhere to, the spirit of this request.
Please remember that not all friends are peers. And also remember that you have more context about your relationship with the Peer/Team recommender than we do. The only thing we will know is what the letter says. It’s fine for you to pick a peer whose title differs from yours, as long as that person views you as a peer; if that person writes the letter from the perspective of a supervisor, then it typically will not strengthen your application.
What Matters Most in Selecting a Recommender
We often are asked how you should select recommenders. Do titles matter? Will a recommendation from a Stanford MBA alumna/us make more of an impact? Is it better to get all three recommendations from the same company/organization, or is it better to have them come from different companies/organizations? Should I get a recommendation from a professor?
The short answer to these questions is that we focus on the content of the letter. The recommender's title, alumni affiliation, company/organization, or status pales in comparison to the letter’s content.
This means you should choose a recommender who knows you well, and who will make time to write a detailed, thoughtful letter of reference.
Regardless of the recommender's title or position, if the person does not know you well, and does not take the time to provide specific anecdotes and candid examples, the letter will not strengthen your application.
The same considerations apply to faculty member recommendations. We love professors—we are a school, after all—but faculty members typically are not the best choices for MBA recommendations. If you worked with a faculty member outside the classroom, perhaps as a teaching assistant or on an independent research opportunity, then that professor might be in a position to write a helpful recommendation. Still, you need to think carefully about whether that person can address the questions we ask in the recommendation form.
We often say at the Business School that most Stanford MBA students have excelled by doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. If you commit to make this ordinary recommendation process extraordinarily valuable for you, it will yield benefits that extend far beyond your application.
Tip #1: Give your recommenders as much time as possible.
Tip #2: Sit down with your recommender to talk through the letter.
Tip #3: Manage the recommendations like a project.
Tip #3 is intended to help you avoid having to make such a call. You should check in with your recommender throughout the process to ensure that he/she is making progress and still on track. Be respectful but firm: you need to acknowledge that the recommender is doing you a favor, while using your influencing skills to ensure that the work is submitted in a timely manner. To avoid the mad rush on deadline day, and to spare you the anxiety of an overdue recommendation, we encourage recommenders to submit letters of reference the day before the application deadline.
Derrick Bolton, MBA 1998