How To Write Amazing MBA Recommendations

“Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you've given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.”

Angela’s back with more MBA recommendation advice on how to write AMAZING MBA recommendation letters with part 2: constructive feedback for applicants!

Hopefully you’ve already seen part 1, about the MBA applicant’s key strengths and their professional or otherwise outstanding characteristics, but if not, you can watch it here.

Strong letters of recommendation are crucial in helping your friend or colleague get into their dream business school, but it isn’t always obvious how to write one. Angela Guido draws from over a decade of experience of crafting successful MBA applications to get you into the adcom’s head and help you show them just how amazing the applicant is.

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Prefer to read? Here’s the transcript:

Writing a Great MBA Recommendation Letter, Part 2

You have landed on video 2, about how to write an amazing MBA recommendation letter. If you didn't watch video 1, just scroll a little bit over to the left or up or down. I don't know what kind of app you're using. And check out the first video in which I talked about how to favorably compare this candidate to other similarly qualified professionals. But now I'm going to talk about the second primary question in most MBA recommendations. And that question is, “Please describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant's response.”.

So many people get this question wrong. They think it's about a weakness. They think it's about the content of the feedback and where the candidate at one time, hopefully, needed to improve. They think it's about telling the whole truth about this candidate and where they might need to grow still. But it's not actually a question about that. It's a question about quotability resilience and a commitment to personal growth. I'm Angela Guido. This is MBA Monday.

Dig Deep for the Perfect Example

So, to tackle this question, you're going to have to dig back into the past and reminisce. You might even want to go look at performance reviews or notes that you've taken on this candidate in the past and look and see, was there a time when you gave the candidate genuine, constructive feedback on an issue that they needed to improve upon? (Don't forget to subscribe!) If you're working with a total rock star, it may be hard to come up with a time when you gave them constructive feedback, or maybe you're not in a culture where constructive feedback is a big part of the job description. So, it's also OK to look for times when you gave them a really good piece of advice or you guided them in a certain direction on something that they were working on. Because essentially this question is about how does the candidate grow?

How does the candidate seek input from their environment and then act on it to become a better person and a better professional? So, you want to find a specific time in the past when you guided this candidate to improve him or herself. Then you want to describe the circumstances of that feedback. So, you know “It was this specific project and all this stuff was going down and the candidate did X, Y and Z, and my feedback was blah.”. And then you want to be really specific about what your feedback actually was to the applicant.

Be Honest, But Don’t Be Brutal

But that's not the most important part of this question. The most important part of this question is the second part where it says, please detail the applicant's response, because what we're looking for here is to understand how this person grows. So then, what did they do? What did they do with that information? How did they take it? How did they organize themselves around acting upon it? What concrete actions did they take to improve? And then what was the outcome? How did they concretely improve? How did you know that? Did you later observe them in a similar situation, doing a much better job on the dimension that you had previously identified as an area for feedback? And how did they follow up with you about it?  How did they come back to you and let you know that they had taken on board your feedback and used it to get better at their job? That's the part of the question that's really, really important, because the truth is in life, we're all going to fail. We're all going to mess up and we're all going to do really stupid things. It doesn't matter that we do things wrong. What matters is what we do next. What do you do when you're faced with the information that says you could have done that better? Business schools really want to know what candidates do after they recognize there's an area for development, a weakness, a failure or a setback. And you're in a unique position of being able to provide that insight into this candidate in their MBA applications. So be sure to avoid the two potentially damning areas of feedback.

  • The first one is immaturity. So, if the candidate at any point exhibited a kind of professional immaturity that might cause someone to be concerned about their level of professionalism, don't use that one. Pick a different incidence of feedback that you gave the candidate.
  • The second thing to avoid is anything that is unethical or borderline unethical. So, if you observe the candidate doing something that you thought was unethical, that's not going to be a good weakness to choose either. Hopefully, if the candidate chose you, they have not demonstrated either of these damning weaknesses in the course of your relationship. It's quite rare that someone asks a recommender to write a recommendation that has demonstrated such damning weaknesses.

The Key to A Successful MBA Recommendation Letter…

But more importantly than that is to be cautious about how you word the feedback, because it's easy to make something appear damning in writing that wasn't actually such a big deal. So again, put the emphasis not on what the candidate did wrong and what your feedback was, be concrete about that, but then invest the lion's share of your word count in talking about what they did to improve, overcome it and grow and become a better professional after the fact.

Thanks for helping out your colleague or friend get into business school. That means you're one of the good ones. See you next week!

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Angela Guido

Student of Human Nature| Founder and
Chief Education Officer of Career Protocol

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