OK - so I'm just going to dive right into this post... here are some of the questions I get a lot from prospective applicants regarding Recs. Usual disclaimers apply! :)
Who should I ask to write my recommendations?
You’ll hear this a lot, but choose recommenders who know you well rather than someone who carries a big title. If they happen to be CEO of your company, all the better, but let’s face it, the majority of us probably do not know our CEO that well. I truly believe having someone who can give specific examples of your strengths and skills can add a valuable perspective to your candidacy. For most schools, you will be asked to submit recommendations from supervisor(s), although some schools (Stanford) ask for peer recommendations and/or leave the relationship up to your discretion. I chose people who managed me in different capacities (administratively, on a project, etc.) I had a few conversations with adcom trying to establish what a “supervisor” really meant b/c I have about 5 or 6 managers. In the end, the definition is a bit open to interpretation, but I took it to mean someone who had official responsibility for me in some capacity.
Of course, asking a supervisor for a recommendation requires telling them that you would like to leave the company in the future. This may put you in an awkward position if you are in an industry where going to b-school is not the norm and your manager may take your desire to leave personally. Thankfully, in consulting, leaving to continue your education is very common, and I found wholehearted support and understanding. Then again, all of my recommenders are pretty awesome in general, so I think they would have reacted that way regardless of whether it was common or not. :) If you absolutely feel that you cannot ask a supervisor, my best advice would be to ask someone else who can still speak to your business, leadership, and teamwork skills (maybe someone from an extra-curricular pursuit?) and explain why you could not use a work supervisor in your optional essay. From conversations on the Wharton student boards, this is not all that uncommon, and you won’t be penalized.
When should I ask them and how should I approach them?
Early! I let this go longer than I intended, but I still got around to finalizing my recommenders by the beginning of September (a little over a month before the first R1 deadlines). Most of your recommenders probably won’t fill out the recommendation forms until closer to the deadline, but giving them a heads up relieves stress for you (you have secured people to write your recommendations) and allows them to take the recs at their own pace.
As for approaching them, I would set aside some time when you can talk to them. I was close enough to my recommenders that I could just sort of pop into their office and chat with them when I asked if they had a few minutes, but for some people, setting up specific time on their calendar may work best. I know some people take their recommenders out to lunch to “pop the question,” which is also a nice gesture. :) However, make sure you are prepared to have the conversation when you do sit down with them… they will likely have some questions for you. Which leads me to…
What do I give them to help them with the recommendation?
I took the approach of preparing an initial recommender packet with the information I felt was pertinent and left the door open for them to ask me for additional materials, as needed. My initial packet included:
- An overview of my strategy (e.g., I was going to apply to 5 R1 schools and would only apply to R2 schools if I needed to)
- An outline of the recommendation process (e.g., I would input their name in the system and they would receive an electronic message guiding them to the recommendation form)
- A list of the schools, their websites, their key criteria for evaluating their candidates, and the deadlines (both my recommended deadline and the actual deadline for the school)
- A bullet list of accomplishments tailored to the recommender (i.e., if I worked on a particular project with them, I outlined some of my key accomplishments on that project)
- A draft of my career vision essay (though I talked them through the whole “what do I want to get from my MBA” idea as well)
- Copies of the rec forms. This was apparently really helpful to my one recommender who was traveling extensively during the rec writing period. He did not have access to the online forms, so he wrote my recommendations from the packet I gave him and then input the content later
- My MBA resume
If you think of something else they would need, throw that in there too! One recommender asked me for my view of my strengths and weaknesses in addition to this initial packet. I know some other people whose recommenders asked them to outline the rec and they would fill in the blanks. I was really glad I didn't have to do that (not b/c of the work involved but b/c it feels weird writing your own rec). Just be prepared for whatever else they may ask for and try to get it to them within a reasonable amount of time.
Do I need to follow up with recommenders as deadlines approach?
That would be a good idea! Your recommenders are likely your managers, which means they are probably even busier than you are. :) I asked my recommenders if it was OK for me to follow up and remind them at certain intervals. They all seemed perfectly fine with that, so I had permission to pester them a reasonable amount, if needed. I sent reminders 2 weeks out, a week out, a few days before, and in some (panicked) cases, the night before. Some recommendations were submitted weeks ahead of time (you will be informed via the system when a recommender has submitted a rec)… others, about 12 hours before. I had a friend at my company whose manager submitted it mere minutes to the deadline! Be aware that some recommenders will need more follow up than others, and you may find yourself biting your fingernails. Friendly but insistent reminders usually work. After all, they do want to help you, but they also have their other priorities to content with.
Should I thank them? How?
YES!!! Given that the recommendation forms do take some time to fill out and your recommenders have work and their lives to balance as well, I think thanking them properly is important (they did you a great favor after all!). I took my recommenders out for a meal (if they so desired), but I think anything that shows your gratitude would be appreciated. I wanted to do something for them right after they wrote the recs, not after I got interviews or got accepted b/c I wanted them to know how much I appreciated their efforts regardless of the outcome! Some other ideas I heard were to get them a piece of apparel from your school once you decide where to go, or buy them something they would like (a round of golf, a bottle of win, cigars, etc.).
So, that concludes my planned FAQ series. I guess if any readers out there have particular questions, you can feel free to leave a comment and I'll try to address them in later posts.
In MBA news, we're supposedly getting our first matriculation packet from Wharton in the coming weeks with news on Pre-Term. I've been on SPIKE, the Wharton online portal, and that has gotten me VERY excited about what I am getting myself into. :) In the meantime, I am also finishing up the planning for my summer vacation, which includes trips to Miami, Peru, and Costa Rica. Not too shabby, eh?! So many things to be excited about!!!