#AskJeremy – Applicant Question: Asking for an MBA Recommendation Letter?

Taking the time to write a detailed recommendation is easier said than done.  Writing a good one will take at least a couple of hours, though it’s more likely that it will take longer if the writer invests time to make it good.  The person has to get to know you and your resume in more detail, think about your accomplishments both professionally and personally, reflect on your career trajectory as an employee and eventually as an employee with an MBA, and then put all of that together to come up with something insightful and hopefully compelling.  Like I said, easier said than done.  So if that’s true, how should you approach someone who you really want to write it for you, especially if they do not have much time?

It’s finally that time again. Summer is in full swing; we’re already in the last week of July; and people are finally starting to get serious about business school applications, especially those who intend to submit round one applications in October.   I remember this time for me two years ago – I had just began studying for the GMAT, had drafts for a few of my essays,  and was thinking about how I could help my recommenders write good letters without taking too much of their time. It felt like a lot of things were going on at the same time.

Well, it sounds like many MBA applicants are feeling the same thing now.  And  I recently received a question from one of my readers about this very topic – how to get an MBA recommendation in the midst of everything else going on too.  The reader’s question was short and simple, asking for ways to approach a busy recommender.  I’ll note that there’s a lot of information about the topic online already.  So instead of writing a laundry list of items you could get online anyway, I thought I’d provide a few specific tips that you may not have thought about. Hopefully it is helpful.

See below for the question, and below that for my response.



Dear Jeremy

I was wondering if you could provide a bit of information on MBA recommendations.  Specifically what is the best way to approach my writer to ensure I get the best recommendation possible. My recommender is busy, but I really want to be sure that he writes it for me if possible. But I’m finding that process hard to manage giving everything else I’m worry about as well.

Thank you in advance.



Dear (name),

Thanks for reading my site and for sending your question. Your question comes at a good time, as I’ve recently received a couple of emails on this topic and because now is a great time to start thinking about your recommendation strategy.

Conventional wisdom suggests that your letters of recommendation are one of the least important parts of your applications, taking a back seat to essays, resume, GMAT, the data form, and the interview.  While it’s true that the other parts are important, in my view, the recommendation is still an important piece, not only of the application but also your story as an applicant.. It provides a different and unbiased perspective on the application. It can provide color on things you didn’t have time to expand on due to limited space. It can confirm or negate assumptions that the admissions committee may be making about your application. And it can tell if someone really thinks highly of you, by how much time and thought they put into your letter.

But asking someone to take the time and energy to do that is no easy task.  In fact, for most people, asking often feels like an inconvenience if you’re asking for multiple schools, and  even worse if you’re applying to schools that require a lot of work.

As such, here are a few ways that for some people tend to ease the process, which hopefully will ensure that your boss is more likely write your recommendation and also write a good one.

1. Ask someone who knows you well. This is the tip you hear from every source out there, but it’s still definitely true. These people tend to be more willing to take the time to write thorough, detailed letters. And they also know more about you so will help round out your application. This is especially for important for dual degree programs, such as a JD-MBA, where the committee may be looking for more nuanced responses that address multiple skill sets. People who know you well are better equipped to provide this perspective.

2. Ask in person. It usually makes sense to ask someone in person if you can. That way you can tell them a compelling story about why you’re deciding to apply, you can get a response right away rather than wait, and you can gage their reaction and level of organization, which might help you understand how much you’ll have to steer them along. Further, you’ll have the chance to communicate how important it is to you, which will ensure they understand the importance of the letter.

3. Highlight why you picked them. When you ask a person to write a letter, it makes sense to tell them why you are asking them specifically.  It will likely  make them feel flattered, and more importantly, it will also give them information on what you had in mind when you wanted them to write. That should give them some initial direction and provide some food for thought before they actually begin writing your letter.

4. Provide an outline. You should make it easy on your writer by providing an outline. Doing this will ensure they don’t have to spend too much time thinking about the basics and that they don’t have to go through old files and performance reviews to get caught up. On the other hand, be sure you don’t make the outline too long, or unorganized, since most writers will want to go through multiple pages to get started.

5. Do small things to make it easier for them. In addition to giving your writer an outline, you should also consider writing some background info on the specific school, provide them with all the links and passwords, alert them periodically to the upcoming deadlines, and maybe offer to walk them through the question beforehand. You should also put everything in one document and one email. Helped them get organized and by doing all the small things for them.

6. Give the writer a chance to say no. It’s always good to give your potential recommender a chance to easily say “no.”  Not only are you not likely to get a good letter from someone who doesn’t want to write it anyways but also sometimes things do come up. But in most cases, if you ask someone who knows you well, they probably won’t decline, so you shouldn’t have much to worry about.  But it is always smart to consider having a few other possible recommenders in mind just in case you need to find a substitute later on.

Good luck!

For responses to more recent questions, see the #AskJeremy segment

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010 Admissions, Business School

5 Comments to #AskJeremy – Applicant Question: Asking for an MBA Recommendation Letter?

[…] but that through bonding with her b-school peers that anxiety went away. Kellogg ’12 Jeremy responded to a reader’s question about how to approach someone to ask for a reference or recom…. Darden ’11 Julie initially had her doubts about Detroit, but she began to see some of its […]

July 24, 2010

That’s a very informative post..and a very timely one too..Thanks, Jeremy!

Jeremy C Wilson
July 24, 2010

@raj No problem Raj, thanks very much for your comment.

[…] those where I answered questions from my readers.  You can see examples of that HERE, HERE and HERE, among other […]

[…] who is on the Northwestern Kellogg admissions committee and currently a JD-MBA student there. He offers some answers on how to ask someone to write a recommendation who is very, very busy. Good question! His response is thoughtful, and action-oriented. I especially like his #3, […]

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Jeremy C Wilson is a JD-MBA alumni using his site to share information on education, the social enterprise revolution, entrepreneurship, and doing things differently. Feel free to send along questions or comments as you read.


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The contents of this blog are mine personally and do not reflect the views or position of Kellogg, Northwestern Law, the JD-MBA program, or any firm that I work for. I only offer my own perspective on all issues.
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