Recommendations are not the afterthought of your application. Let’s put it this way: they aren’t the movie’s protagonists, but they are the best friends who turn the protagonist into a hero. Here’s another metaphor because we’re feeling generous: who would you bring as your wingman at a bar? The person who brings out your attractive traits that might otherwise go unnoticed. That’s what your MBA recommendation letters should do for you.

Once you have built your overall application strategy, the recommendations should do two things. First of all, they should support your career trajectory, past, present, and future and bridge any gaps should they present themselves. That is to say, they should align with what you say you’ve done and what you say you want to do. Secondly, your MBA recommendations should emphasize the qualities that might otherwise seem weak in your application. For example, should you have a low quantitative GMAT score, your recommendations should provide specific examples of analytic problems you’ve solved in your professional position. A candidate who is much older than the average applicant should have a recommendation that demonstrates a dynamic and energetic character.

Whether the recommender is bridging a gap or strengthening some weak points, there is no question that the recommendation letter should be working for you. Because the MBA recommendation letter brings different qualities of the candidate to light, it is in one’s best interest to have as much variety as possible between recommendations. Instead of having two recommenders from one team at the same office, it would be wise to have recommenders from different workplaces with varied experiences and stories to tell. Not only will this give a more three-dimensional picture of the applicant – it makes you look good. Instead of looking like a one-act play, it will be made evident that you are an applicant of many talents and accomplishments.

With that in mind, here are a few musts for you to keep in mind when deciding who to ask to write your MBA recommendation letters. First and foremost: it is crucial that one of your recommendations is written by your current employer. This is usually the recommendation that receives the most weight on behalf of the admissions committee because it is most up to date and probably aligns most accurately with who you are at present. A current recommender is not writing from memory, but from day to day interactions. Even if you are uncomfortable admitting to your current employer that you are hoping to pursue an MBA that will take you away from the office, there is no way to sweep this under the rug. Know that the pursuit of a top-tier MBA is admirable and very rarely frowned upon. Employers usually encourage their employee’s promotion and growth, and are proud that their employees have big aspirations. If you believe that your boss will react differently, contact us and we will help you brainstorm other ways to approach him or her.

Another general rule is that your second recommendation should be from your penultimate employer. Since going for professional experience is a solid move, this is usually people’s go-to. But, it’s not necessarily the right thing to do – more on that in a bit. If you go with your second most recent work experience, like your most recent employer, it is best to have someone who was in a managerial position so that they have the perspective and ability to gauge your volume, quality, and velocity of work output. By the way, if your recent or next-recent employer (or your even your current one) was a family owned business, make sure you pick someone who is not related to you to write your recommendation. Pick a C-level executive (CFO, COO, etc), an external consultant, or a business partner who knows you but does not share DNA – the recommendations need to be as unbiased as possible, or at least give that impression.

If you do not have a solid second-place employer, there are other options you can go with. Have you ever participated in competitive sports? Ask your coach to write a recommendation. Have you volunteered actively at an organization? Ask your manager to write a recommendation. Did you serve in the military? Ask your officer. Basically, if you have an authority figure in your life who has overseen your work and team qualities in some capacity, they could be a good option. For these alternatives, you have to be honest with yourself: have the recommenders seen you in a position with substantial responsibility? If you volunteered for two weekends handing out food at a soup kitchen, that’s very nice of you, but not substantial enough for a recommendation.

At the end of the day, when you are deciding between recommenders, choose someone who has seen you in a real-life or actionable capacity. This removes academia or internship-related experiences. Your recommender has to have seen you engage in real life projects. While academia revolves around grades, admissions committees want to see how the applicant affected projects in actuality. Also, in order for your recommendation to hold its salt, your recommender needs to have known you for a substantial amount of time. Usually, anything under 9 months seems pretty cursory.

If you’re reading this post and none of these options seem available to you, then it’s time to start digging. Start thinking of different projects you have done at work. Who “ran” the team? How did you contribute? What was the result of your work together? You can also think of people at work who have passed work off to you, what they needed, and how you accomplished the tasks given to you. Again, anyone who isn’t a boss or a manager has a limited perspective, and thus, is less effective. But there is definitely someone out there who has seen you in action – and those are the people to start thinking about as recommenders. We are always available to help you find someone if you find yourself stuck.
Remember, at the end of the day, the goal is variety. So it is in your best interest to find recommenders who can add information to your application, not simply repeat things you’ve already said. Applications are restricted by word count. Think of each word as a gift – you don’t want to waste that gift on the same word twice. Let your recommendations support and bring out your best character traits, and let them show those things that were not addressed in your essays.