Letters of Recommendation: How to Leverage the “Third” Person

If you’re like me, asking your supervisor or your colleague to write a letter detailing your virtues makes you feel incredibly uncomfortable.  “So, tell me again how I’m amazing?  And don’t spare any details!”  But a glowing letter of recommendation for your MBA Admissions application is oh-so critical.  Here’s how you can leverage your personal testimonials.

Sure, you’ve worked hard over the past few years and have earned a good praising, but why must you have to ask for it, and in writing? Well, the answer is easy: as an Admissions Officer, I need perspective on your business acumen, your personality, and your leadership and teamwork skills to confirm your claims of awesome-ness from someone other than yourself. Think about it, you have complete control over every aspect of your MBA Application, except for the letters of recommendation.  You’ve already written essays, submitted a resume, took your tests, submitted your transcripts and you may have also been interviewed. Now it’s time for a third party to weigh in and offer us a new perspective that will hopefully add depth and value to your overall application, but most importantly a good recommendation will provide a CREDIBLE corroboration of your positive attributes.


The best letter of recommendation will come from a Direct Supervisor or equivalent. Nobody knows your capabilities in the business world better than the person supervising you in your current role.  This person should have some sort of oversight or supervisory involvement in the work that you do.  Even better if they write your performance evaluations!  This means they are used to thinking about you and your skill set.  This person should be able to come up with clear examples of these skills, so therefore first-hand knowledge of your measurable success is also crucial. 

There are of course some exceptions when asking your Direct Supervisor isn’t the best bet. Perhaps you’re new to the position or your Supervisor may be new to the organization or role. This could be bad news if you or they haven’t been in the role long enough to speak intelligently about your skill set and abilities.  Sometimes, it’s conflict of interest that prevents you from asking your Direct Supervisor for a recommendation letter.  For example, if your Supervisor is also your mother in the case of a family business. (See next section for advice on who to ask instead.)

Lastly, there may be another situation that complicates you asking your Supervisor; they could be opposed to you leaving your position for an MBA (if you’re applying to our full-time program), or in rare situations, you may not have a healthy relationship with your supervisor or you may feel that asking them for a recommendation to business school would jeopardize your opportunity for promotion or a raise.

All of these are valid circumstances you may want to include in the Optional Essay, to give us context and reasons for why you didn’t ask your Direct Supervisor.


Other good letter of recommendation options would be a former Supervisor at a previous job, a Project Manager, or a professional colleague. You may also consider a business client, lawyer, accountant, industry mentor or other peer professional if you’re in a family business setting or in a consulting or advertising role. Remember that whoever you choose needs to be able to discuss with us in detail your qualities, skills, and virtues. Also, don’t just pick the CEO or President of the company.  Just because they know your name and you have shared an elevator ride with them doesn’t mean they know you well enough to recommend you for b-school.  We’ve read enough letters of recommendation to know when somebody knows of you, and when they know you.


Make sure to let your recommenders know way in advance you are going to request their help. I would even suggest letting them know a good three months ahead of time if possible, so that you are not rushing them if they haven’t completed it a month out, and you start getting concerned they won’t submit the letter on time. It is also a good idea to meet with them, let them know what your short and long-term goals are and why McCombs is the best school for you, and offer them a copy of your updated resume. That way they can talk about their belief in your direction and goals with some background.


Most importantly, make sure to ask someone who actually likes you. Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised how many candidates have letters of recommendation submitted by people who write just a few words (“She’s really great.”), come up with poor examples (“One time we had a problem with a client, and she handled it well.”, or clearly just don’t think that highly of you (“She performs equally well when compared to her peers at a similar level.”  Yikes.  You might as well have asked a perfect stranger to write it and it probably would have come out better.

Good luck in selecting your recommenders! We look forward to reading these glowing professional love letters soon.

1 Comment

  1. Hi Julia,

    I am currently working in Nomura Services India Limited as an Analyst(IT Division) and have a work experience of 2 years.I scored 700 on my GMAT.
    Could you please advice if i should apply for the Full Time MBA program this year or i should wait another year.


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