How to Get a Great MBA Recommendation

Business school admissions can be competitive, and one way applicants can stand out is through strong recommendations. These endorsements can help humanize applicants and provide further context about a candidate.

“Letters of recommendation are an opportunity to add an external perspective to your application and to help bring your story to life from the point of view of someone who knows you well,” Lindsay Loyd, executive director of MBA admissions at New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, wrote in an email. “Put yourself in the best position for success by being thoughtful about who you ask and by approaching them early.”

More than 40 schools, including NYU and other highly ranked programs, use the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Common Letter of Recommendation, which is a form rather than a formal letter like an applicant may send to undergraduate school. The multipage form has various categories of questions about an applicant’s work ethic, cognitive ability and personality.

The common letter also includes a leadership assessment and three open-ended questions that ask recommenders to provide further detail about the applicant, such as the most important piece of constructive feedback they gave the applicant and how the applicant responded. Schools who don’t use this form often use their own internal application but ask similar questions.

Soliciting and securing strong recommendations takes strategy and planning, experts say. Here are five ways MBA hopefuls can get a great recommendation that stands out.

Understand the Goal of a Recommendation

Recommendations are an opportunity to highlight strengths and enhance the application, says Yaa Boakye, an MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business in Illinois. Each part of the application, especially recommendations, should build on other parts.

“I look at the recommendation letters as extra word count,” she says. “It shouldn’t be repeating from the website, your resume or essays, it should be heavily focused on closing any gaps in the person reviewing your application’s mind.”


Most B-schools require at least two recommendations. Some require just one, but it’s best for applicants to line up at least two recommenders in case one falls through, says Susan Cera, MBA admissions director at Stratus Admissions Counseling.

“When you have the opportunity to submit two recommendations, you should pick two people who have seen your work on different projects or different types of work so they can highlight different strengths to the admissions committee,” she says. “You don’t want two people talking about precisely the same projects in the same way. That’s a missed opportunity.”

Choose Someone Who Knows You Well

A good recommendation can significantly boost an MBA applicant’s chances. The best letters tend to come from those who work closest with an applicant, such as a current direct supervisor or manager, experts say.

“It is much less important to worry about getting the most senior person with the most impressive title to write a recommendation,” Loyd says. “It is much more important to get an endorsement from someone who knows your work well and can provide specific examples to illustrate your strengths.”

Because most recommendations are generally strong with a good amount of detail, a vague or generic recommendation with surface-level answers will stand out, says Coni Zingarelli, executive director of recruiting, admissions and student financial services at Rice University’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business in Texas.

“The majority of letters will come in strongly,” she says, “and that’s because students know they should be asking people who think well of them.”

The common letter provides an option for recommenders to select if they don’t have enough information on the applicant to answer the question. Zingarelli has seen letters with such answers, and that makes the recommendation useless, she says.

“If someone knows you well and can give insight into you, your skills and abilities and the things that make you a great MBA candidate, you’re going to have a more robust and positive letter,” she says.

Solicit Recommendations Early

Whether it’s for undergraduate or graduate school admissions, experts routinely recommend completing important application tasks as early as possible. This is particularly true for parts of an application that require the assistance of someone else, such as a recommendation, Zingarelli says.

“It’s the one thing I can tell you on the review side that holds up the review of the application being complete,” she says.

Procrastinating could result in “some unintended consequences” for both the recommender and applicant, Loyd says. A short turnaround time may prevent a recommender from writing a thoughtful and comprehensive letter that demonstrates deep knowledge of the applicant.

“For you as the applicant, the less time you allow your recommender means more self-inflicted anxiety and less time to explore alternatives if your first choice does not work out,” she says.

Between four and six months prior to applying, applicants should have conversations with four to six people and gauge their interest in being a recommender, Cera says. That way if anyone falls through or can’t complete the form, it’s not a total surprise when you have to pivot to another person.

While the formal request might not come until closer to when an applicant plans to apply to business school, cultivating relationships with potential recommenders should start much earlier, Boakye says.

“The idea of starting is tied to a date in which the application is due,” she says. “I actually argue the start date is the moment you work with someone, the moment you start volunteering somewhere, whatever the context or capacity. You need to build that up as soon as possible.”

Don’t Write the Recommendation

While those writing MBA recommendations will know an applicant better than most, experts say MBA hopefuls should still provide them with an achievement log that highlights awards, accomplishments or other noteworthy items that the recommender can speak to. Don’t assume that they will thoroughly recall such things.

“Only you remember things in the level of detail that you do,” Boakye says.

Providing information should be for background only, however, and applicants should tread carefully so as not to write the recommendation for them. It’s typically easy for admissions officers to spot when this has happened, Loyd says.

“My best advice is to share your resume. It’s a great way to refresh your recommender on your highlight reel,” Loyd says. “Then, be sure to have a live conversation with your recommender. This can be in person, over Zoom or the phone. In that conversation, you can provide some context for why you are pursuing an MBA, your post-MBA goals, and why a given program is the best fit for you. This context will help them write a stronger recommendation for you.”