Knowledge Center

June 9, 2016
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You may know that most MBA programs require 2 references to be submitted along with your application. These letters of recommendation give the admissions committee a chance to get a fresh perspective on your candidacy from people you’ve worked with, and adcoms look at them very closely.


Well, outside of the expected positive feedback on your intelligence, teamwork ability and career progress; more than anything I believe that the adcoms are looking at your references for signs of congruency.

Congruency in this context means that the way you’ve presented yourself throughout your application is consistent with how your referrers present you. While a bit of contradictory information can serve to add color and texture to your profile, too much of it leaves the adcom feeling like they don’t have a clear picture of who you are. That can make them understandably hesitant to offer you a place in their upcoming class.

With this in mind, I think the best way to think of MBA application references is to think of them as evidence for the claims you’ve made explicitly through your essays, and implicitly through your resume. A great reference, then, will support the same basic themes you’re presenting elsewhere in your application. This shows that you’ve been honest in your application and have the maturity and self awareness to present yourself as you really are.


This is an area a lot of people miss out on an opportunity to shine. Let’s start by talking about a few absolute no-no’s:

1. The Super VIP: It doesn’t matter if it’s Bill Gates or Richard Branson, if you haven’t worked with them, do not use them as a reference just because you can. This is a losing strategy because the reference requirement is not a test of your ability to get some VIP to fill out a form for you. This is probably the number 1 mistake made with references unfortunately.

2. College professor: Your college professor can probably say a lot about your intellect and learning ability, and if they’ve supervised you managing a project than they may be able to talk about some of your teamwork qualities as well. That said, I feel that even for the youngest applicants, references from professors are a mistake. Your college professor never saw you as an “employee” in the traditional sense and the perspective he/she will be coming from is not highly relevant to how B schools are looking to analyze you.

3. Friends/family: Schools aren’t looking for a personal reference, so leave your personal relationships out of it.


1. Clients/customers: This is a step in the right direction, but clients and customers view your work from a very different perspective than those from within your organization. More often than not, a client’s views on you will be greatly affected by their relationship with your company. Moreover, they can’t comment much on the kind of complex internal team dynamics that you want your referrers talking about.

2. Peer level co-workers or subordinates: Again, this is not as bad as asking your mom for a reference, but it is still not giving B schools exactly what they want. Keep in mind that adcoms are a fairly cynical bunch (you would be too if you had to read as much BS as they do) and they’re going to be skeptical of anything written by someone on your level or below.

3. The medium VIP: If you can get a letter from the CEO of your company, that can work well but only if they can make accurate and nuanced statements about you as an individual. Do not write your own recommendation and have them sign it, adcoms can see this coming a mile away. There is, however, a VIP strategy that works and I will go on to discuss it below.


I believe that the best reference strategy is having one reference coming from a current (or recent) DIRECT supervisor, and a second coming from your “big boss”. I realize this strategy may be difficult to execute for some of you, but I believe it to be effective so hear me out.

Just as important as WHO you ask to refer you, you must be clear on WHAT you need them to say. The person serving as your direct supervisor is in the best position to comment on your work ethic, your teamwork ability, your intelligence, your perseverance, your sense of humor, your creativity and other qualities relevant to someone managing one layer down. Their comments put the minds of adcom at rest when they match up with how you’ve described yourself in your essays and resume.

But rather than have two direct supervisors (past and present, for example) write for you, I believe a better strategy is to take a step up in the corporate hierarchy for your second reference and get a letter from your “big boss”. For many of you that will be a Director or Managing Director in your company. You may only have quarterly reviews with this individual, but they absolutely must be familiar with you and your work or they cannot be used. The most senior person in your organization who can effectively comment on your work is going to be a great reference, because unlike your direct supervisor, this individual sees you as a part of a larger organizational matrix and can comment effectively on your leadership potential.

This is an absolutely critical piece, especially if you are applying to the ultra-elite schools that are completely obsessed with leadership.


1. One reference from a direct supervisor – prompt them to comment on your professional habits
2. One reference from the most highly ranked person in your organization that is familiar with your work – prompt them to comment on your leadership potential

Speaking of prompting, there are effective and ineffective ways of doing this, and it’s something we have experience in! If you’re interested in hearing more about how you can effectively prompt your references to write what you need them to write, why not schedule a free consultation with one of our qualified consultants, or just drop us a note and tell us what’s on your mind.

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