Transforming Your Recommenders Into Brand Champions

by Chioma Isiadinso, author of The Best Business Schools’ Admission Secrets (June 2008)

Part Three: Common Recommendation Mistakes to Avoid

1. Show Don’t Tell
Often recommendations are too general and full of fluff. They tell you that the candidate is brilliant and use a lot of adjectives but have very little substance to back up the assertions.

2. Beware the Contradiction Factor
The recommendation is an authentic yardstick by which an applicant’s story is measured. So consider what happens in the mind of the MBA Board when an applicant positions herself as someone who will start and run a business and the recommender states that the applicant is comfortable only in established organizations. Take the time to make sure your recommenders understand your goals and are supportive of them.

3. Recommendation Bias
Recommendations vary from region and industry. For example, recommenders from certain countries tend to be by-the-book, blunt, and straight to the point. Their evaluation may be more focused on the areas of improvement and therefore may sometimes miss an opportunity to highlight the positives that the candidate brings. Sitting down with your recommender prior to his writing a recommendation for you and discussing any concerns you have as well as what you believe sets you apart will help ensure that your recommendation is balanced. 

4. Beware the Bland Recommendation
Bland recommendations lack spontaneity and seem too molded and coached. A quick way for recommenders to check if the recommendation is bland is to ask themselves if they remove the candidate’s name from the recommendation, could this recommendation apply to any other person? If so, your recommendation could very well lack distinction and will do little to endear you to the MBA Board.

5. Recommendation Ownership

Don’t fall into the trap of writing your own recommendation. I know this is a common request from recommenders who either are too busy or are uncomfortable writing a recommendation. It is unethical to write your own recommendation, and the Admissions Board can tell that you did so because it will be similar to your essays. If your recommender asks you to write the recommendation and they will sign it, as tempting as that may sound, I strongly suggest you decline tactfully. Point out to them that you will make the process as easy and streamlined as possible by providing content to remind them of the detailed projects and impact you had. You can even sit down with them to flesh out your story and the positioning of your recommendations.

6. Negative Recommendations

There are many ways a recommendation can have a negative effect on the candidate. The most popular is the recommendation that is too short, lacks examples, and is poorly written. For whatever reason (be it a lack of writing ability or lackluster commitment to the candidate), these recommendations call the candidate’s judgment into account.

Rushed recommendations also have detrimental consequences because they tend to have spelling and grammatical errors, and in some instances, the wrong school name. And then there is the recommendation that offers back-handed compliments. These also have a negative impact on the admission outcome. Examples such as, “Wesley is very driven and likes to get things done effectively, but this means that he may sometimes step on the toes of individuals who operate at a slower pace” will absolutely mark him as a selfish and impatient person.

Finally, there is the recommendation that intentionally sabotages the candidate’s admission chances. “Jaime is extremely intelligent but has difficulty expressing his thoughts in an articulate and clear manner making it difficult for those who work with him to benefit from his intellect. I have given him feedback to take communication classes and expect he will improve after he does so.” Why is this a huge no-no? For starters, business school in general and leadership in particular demand that individuals communicate in a reasonable way in order to lead or manage a project or people. Saying upfront that the candidate is a lousy communicator raises an alarm in the minds of the Board Member evaluating the application. At the end of the day, MBA programs want to admit individuals who can engage in meaningful discussions with their classmates.

Click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this E-Bulletin topic

Written by Chioma Isiadinso, author of The Best Business Schools’ Admission Secrets (June 2008) and CEO of EXPARTUS (www.expartus.com), an admission consulting company based in New York City.

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