Recommendation Letters

Home - About » The Serious Side - Business School - The Application
Computer Science
Research, Industry Work,
Community Service
Hillside Group, CHOOSE,
Stanford GSA
The Serious Side
Business School,
Learning Chinese
Humorous Takes
Switzerland, United States,
Software, Fun Photos
Travel Stories
Europe, United States, Asia
Living Places
Berlin (+ Gallery), Zürich
Boston, S.F. + Bay Area

Getting good recommendations is paramount, so I needed to get good recommenders who were willing to go the extra mile. In my case, my current manager was an obvious choice, but beyond this, choosing recommenders seems like an art form.

  • Again, start early.

To get good recommenders, I reckoned, I needed to have a history with them. They needed to know me well and they needed to have seen me perform. This doesn't happen over night, so I only asked people who I had built a relationship with. I considered this relationship the fundament based on which they might want to write a recommendation for me, and it gave me several dimensions along which to judge whether someone would be a good recommender.

  • Choose recommenders that know you well.

Every business school will tell you to choose your manager over your CEO (unless they coincide), because they want to hear from someone who knows you well. So I resisted the temptation of title: I didn't ask our CEO, who had handpicked me in Switzerland but who had not worked much with me after this initial encounter. To get a strong recommendation my recommenders needed to be able to write authoritatively about me, not just in the abstract, but also by giving detailed stories that showed how I was a human being they cared about.

Usually, time adds to knowing you well. I choose recommenders that had known me for some time. In my case, all recommenders had known me for at least two years, and some of them had known me for more than six years. With all of them, I had worked closely at some point in time.

  • Choose recommenders that have seen you perform.

Knowing you well and for a long time doesn't guarantee they have something relevant to say about your capabilities. So I reviewed my history with each potential recommender. If I could dig out relevant stories, so could they.

  • Choose recommenders that will take time for your recommendation letter.

I believe that a short generic recommendation letter is one of the worst things that could have happened to me: Not only does it communicate to the admissions committee that my recommender doesn't care much about me, worse, it communicates I had poor judgement in choosing this recommender. A bland recommendation letter would have questioned my people skills.

  • If given the chance, choose an out-of-the-ordinary recommender.

Since so much of my application was about business, performance, and leadership, I always feared I might bore the admissions committee to death. After all, everyone is riding the same shtick. Vivid essays may make your application easier to remember, but vivid essays and vivid recommendations certainly will make it stand out.

For example, I was lucky in that I had a colleague who fit the Stanford peer recommender bill and who put in the effort of writing an out-of-the-ordinary recommendation letter (of six pages, as he told me)! Afterwards he told me that he was worried that his excursions into humor, courage, and leading change might be off topic, but I believe, without having seen it, that his letter constituted a most excellent recommendation.

  • Avoid inappropriate or unwanted recommenders.

In other words, I avoided asking my father or mother for recommendation letters.

Some schools are also specific about who not to ask. For example, business schools seem to prefer that you do not ask your university advisors. Given my academic background, this ruled out quite some strong recommendations! But I decided to stick with their suggestion rather than to violate it.

  • Manage your recommenders.

Once I had figured out who to ask, I helped them. If they didn't know the procedure, I explained to them what the admissions committee is looking for in a candidate so they could address it. Some I reminded of shared experiences, specific jobs on which I performed well, or anything I believed would help them answer the business school questions and communicate a vivid picture of me.

Copyright (©) 2007 Dirk Riehle. Some rights reserved. (Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA.) Original Web Location: