U.S. News & World Report published a must-read article on recommendation letters today that included my own thoughts on the subject. Here are the relevant sections:
“For prospective business students, letters of recommendation are the part of the MBA application process over which applicants have the least control. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant steps that business school applicants can take to influence the impact of their references, business school admissions experts say. …
Paul Bodine, who runs Paul Bodine Admissions Consulting in San Diego, has observed four common misconceptions when it comes to MBA recommendations and offers tips to avoid them:
1. Titles won’t dazzle: Applicants sometimes erroneously assume that a reference’s job title or b-school affiliation is more important than his or her connection to the applicant and ability to advocate on the applicant’s behalf, says Bodine, who is author of Great Applications for Business School. “Schools are sincere when they say they want letters from people who have directly supervised the applicant over time,” he says.
2. Praise should be specific: Applicants and recommenders also have a bad habit of considering letters of recommendation to be “pro forma” exercises, wherein b-schools “just want a lot of hot air about people skills, vision, [and] ‘achieving whatever he sets his mind to,’” Bodine says. Instead, schools want “factual, concrete anecdotes that demonstrate that the applicant has the skills that the recommender says [he or she] does,” he says.
3. It’s advocacy, not journalism: Applicants should also be aware that too many recommenders view letters of reference as performance reviews, and they tend to submit letters that are “overly critical, objective, and lacking in advocacy,” Bodine says.
4. Don’t ghostwrite: But that doesn’t mean that the widespread practice of applicants writing their own recommendations for their references to sign is advisable, either.
“The resulting applicant-written letter is usually very bad,” says Bodine, who recognizes that recommenders don’t always have time to write their own letters. “That’s why I sometimes interview the recommenders and turn their comments into letter drafts that they can edit and submit—keeping the applicant out of the process.”