Writing Compelling, Impactful Letters of Recommendation (LoRs): A Guide for Recommenders

Letters of recommendation (LoRs) play a vital part in an applicant’s pursuit of admission to business school. With thousands of candidates vying for a limited number of spots, compelling, impactful LoRs can significantly tip the scales in favor of acceptance. The admissions team depends on LoRs for several reasons:

  • LoRs can help the team gauge an applicant’s potential, past performance, and strengths relative to those of the applicant’s peers.  
  • LoRs can give the admissions team a sense of the applicant’s readiness for business school based on the candidate’s experiences, accomplishments, and contributions.  
  • Through the rest of the application, the candidate is tasked with presenting who they are, but the LoRs provide an outsider’s perspective on the applicant. Therefore, LoRs can be used to assess a candidate’s self-awareness and their willingness and ability to be authentic. Relatedly, LoRs can also reveal new dimensions of  an applicant, beyond those that the applicant is focusing on.

Guidance and Considerations

1. Business schools seek applicants who have strong leadership and team skills, demonstrable analytical and critical thinking skills, and personal values and traits that can be put towards creating positive change. As you write your LoR, focus on providing examples that demonstrate the best of the applicant’s ability to lead, work with others, and ultimately drive results.

2. While there is overlap between the qualities employees seek and those that business schools seek, there are also differences. Imagine yourself in a community beyond your firm/company, and think about the applicant’s potential for success in general and in the MBA classroom. To do this, consider the broader admissions evaluation criteria. Reflect on what is exceptional about the applicant, and incorporate it into your letter.

3. An LoR is a letter of endorsement, not a review. The schools expect genuine advocacy. Focus on when and why you have counted on the candidate and how they have delivered on or, better yet, exceeded expectations. Clearly demonstrate that you know the applicant well; be emotive and use descriptive words that are personal and insightful.

4. Include evidence that the applicant’s actions and/or traits have mattered. When commenting on the candidate’s strengths, provide clear proof that those strengths drove or influenced outcomes, and identify what those outcomes were.

  • For example, consider the following sentence: Jon was always willing to help  coworkers get up to speed; his can-do attitude was a game changer. This sentence fails to help the admissions team see immediately how Jon’s actions and traits were consequential.
  • A revised sentence might read instead: Jon was always willing to help coworkers get up to speed. Our team is expected to respond to ad hoc client issues, and given the complexity of the industry (healthcare providers, reimbursement policies, the interaction between the FDA and lobbyists, and so on), the learning curve is steep. Jon’s actions enabled teammates to more quickly  man problems on their own, directly contributing to our department’s overall efficiency. In one case, he even made flashcards on “health tech” terms and launched a competition akin to Jeopardy. Colleagues still use his flashcards today, and they’ve been codified into our onboarding material so everyone can benefit.  

5. Compare the applicant to expectations or to others if the comparisons are favorable.

  • For example, if an applicant was especially patient while working with a counterparty, compare the candidate’s actions to the standard: Rather than giving up after the first meeting and coming to me to resolve the situation—something other Associates at his tenure do frequently—Gabe was committed to finding a resolution. He worked diligently to schedule additional meetings with the  counterparty and developed materials (on his own) to ensure that those subsequent conversations were value-add for the counterparty.
  • Ranking the applicant (e.g., in the top 5% of all associates I have managed) can be effective if you feel comfortable doing so but avoid such categorization if the applicant’s ranking is not outstanding.

6. Specificity is critical. Words such as “case,” “workstream,” “deal,” “analytics,” and  “technical skills” are unremarkable and challenging for the reader to visualize. Such words will fade from memory as soon as the reader from the admissions team has finished reading them. To ensure that your commentary is memorable for the reader, avoid jargon and include relevant details.

  • For example, consider the following sentence: Anne managed the workstream entirely on her own, ensuring that we completed our deliverables on time. This could be said of any applicant; there is nothing “sticky” about Anne in the sentence.
  • A more specific, detailed version of the sentence might read: Anne juggled conducting interviews with 15 different experts on the farming industry, navigating conversations with farmers in Iowa and downstream retailers in  California and New York, even shipping magnates overseas in Europe, and using  her on-her-feet thinking to dig into hypotheses for expansion. In her work, she  uncovered an opportunity for vertical integration that our client hadn’t considered. While the client ultimately opted not to pursue the integration because of competing pressures, the trust we earned with the client thanks to Anne’s analysis gave us an edge when negotiating a 6-month supply chain deep dive project. Her resourcefulness, time-management skills, and prioritization had  a direct impact on the success of our overall client relationship—quite a feat for a second-year analyst! 

7. If the school asks for an example of constructive feedback, give one—everyone has something they can work on! That is human and to be expected. What is important is the applicant’s ability to show self-awareness and a commitment to improving.

  • When thinking about what content to include, make sure to distinguish between a character or personality issue (e.g., the applicant has an affect that  can make them seem bored or disengaged initially) and an expected development area, given tenure (e.g., the applicant is working to voice their points of view with management). The latter is more appropriate for an LoR; such development areas will not raise concerns on the part of the admissions team, and it is usually easier to identify evidence that someone  has made strides in closing such a development area upon receiving feedback.
  • Along the same lines, avoid discussing anything that would give the admissions committee a reason to reject the applicant, such as an undesirable trait (e.g., ego, entitlement, extreme competitiveness).

8. Take advantage of the “optional” question to share more information about the applicant. This can be something personal or informal, such as a vignette that captures the candidate’s personality or simply a reiteration of your belief in the applicant’s potential.  

9. When completing the section that asks for specific ratings, recognize that there is generally “grade inflation.” To avoid penalizing your applicant, consider giving the candidate anything lower than the highest or second highest ranking in more than two areas. If you feel the candidate warrants a lower rating, address this  in writing via the “constructive feedback” question or the short answer text box response in this section.

  • Another way to use the short answer text box is to include a superlative (e.g., the best or one of the best in x area). Consider this section as an opportunity for you to convey an applicant’s personal and/or professional spikes in a quantifiable way.

10. Most schools use a version of the Common Letter of Recommendation, published by GMAC. Therefore, once you have written a letter for one school, you have largely written a letter for all schools. Schools suggest different word counts for the questions, but do now worry too much about adhering strictly to their word count guidance (if your letter is compelling, the admissions committee will read it, even if it is a little over the word count!).

  • The Common LoR includes 4 core questions:
    • [Short-form response]: Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, their role in your organization.
    • [Long-form response]: How do the candidate’s performance, potential, background, or personal qualities compare to those of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific  examples.
    • [Long-form response]: Please describe the most important piece of  constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response.
    • [Optional response]: Is there anything else we should know?
  • 3 schools that do not use the Common LoR are UPenn Wharton, London  Business School, and INSEAD. These programs use their own LoR questions. That said, these schools effectively ask for input similar to that asked for by other schools who use the Common LoR, so even if you are writing LoRs for  these schools, you will be able to leverage your work from the Common LoR.

11. Lastly, and most importantly, assume that you will write the LoR, not the applicant. Some recommenders prefer that the applicant draft their own LoR. If this is you, please reconsider. While it might feel like you are doing the applicant a favor (“you can write your own  letter!”), such a strategy risks backfiring—badly. A school can immediately reject an applicant if they suspect a letter of recommendation was authored by the applicant. Avoid putting the applicant in this tough situation by drafting the letter yourself.