Letters of Reference

Applying to business school is a major effort. We understand that preparing applications can become quite overwhelming, especially given the demands of existing commitments to 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 take a deep breath … and then keep reading. (Come on … deep breath!)

Either during the application process or after you complete it, I hope you will feel 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.  This is an opportunity; embrace it.

The Benefit to You of Asking for Recommendations

Your essay responses give you a chance to contemplate your life experiences and to consider your reasons for pursuing a Stanford MBA. With hindsight, most candidates tell us that writing the essays was of great value. 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 of you 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 a privilege 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, and whose opinions you value.

This list may not align perfectly with your recommenders, but it may 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. This is a great opportunity.

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, you will have a better experience and your recommender will produce a more powerful letter of reference.

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 draft 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. I 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 also 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. Share those anecdotes with your recommenders. Specific stories will help make you come alive in the process, and your recommender will appreciate the information. Again, however, you will need to exercise your judgment in providing a framework. The content of the letter submitted still must be determined solely by the recommender.

Types of Recommendations

Recommendations are a vital part of the admission process. Letters of reference help us 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.

We request two letters of reference for the Stanford MBA Program application. Both recommendations should provide evidence of your impact on people and organizations and the behaviors that enabled that impact; the recommendations also should demonstrate your ability to learn and grow.

1) First recommendation - You should request this recommendation 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 manager 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 your application. Then secure an alternative recommendation from someone else who has evaluated your performance in the workplace (e.g., a previous supervisor, a client, a board member, or an indirect manager.)

2) Second recommendation - You may choose either a supervisor or a peer to provide this recommendation.

  • A supervisor reference should come from someone in a position to evaluate your performance at work or in an activity outside of work. For example, this could be a previous supervisor, an indirect manager, a client, a customer, an investor, a board member, or someone from an organization for which you volunteer.
  • A peer reference should come from a person who has experience with you as an equal. This is 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 coworker from your organization, or a colleague from a community activity or a sports team. We understand that a peer may not always be a peer in title, but he or she should be a person for whom there is no structural/positional influence in your relationship.
  • Please remember that friends and peers are different; some, but not all, friends will be a good choice for a peer recommendation. Remember that you have more context about your relationship with the peer recommender than we do. The only thing we will know is what the letter says. It’s fine for you to pick a peer from work whose title differs from yours, as long as that person views you as a peer.

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 both recommendations from the same company/organization, or is it better to have them come from different companies/organizations? Should you 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 rarely are faculty members 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.

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.

Your recommenders care about you, and most are honored that you select them for such an important role. But they are busy people. Try to give them as much time as possible. Register your recommenders early.

Tip #2: Sit down with your recommender.

You should not simply register your recommender and expect her/him to complete the letter. Sit down with your recommender over coffee, or just in the office, for a few minutes. Explain how important the letter is in the admission process, and to you. Prepare for that conversation by identifying specific instances that you feel might be helpful for the recommender to highlight. Be prepared to discuss those anecdotes — and to hear the recommender’s feedback. To repeat, you should not write the letter of reference, nor should you determine the final content, but I think it’s appropriate and helpful for you to talk with your recommender.

Tip #3: Manage the recommendations like a project.

The most frequent calls we receive on application deadline days are from panicked applicants fretting, “I am ready to submit my application, but my recommender is on a trans-Pacific flight… in labor… trapped on a conference call… on a ship… and thus unable to access the internet, etc.”

This tip 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, encourage your recommender to submit her/his letter of reference the day before the application deadline. You may request that Stanford send your recommender a reminder approximately a week before the application deadline. 

Derrick Bolton, MBA/MA Education 1998
Former Assistant Dean for MBA Admissions

Last Updated 24 Oct 2016