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Leading Business Schools Pilot GMAC’s Common Letter of Recommendation

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Asking your supervisor or former supervisor to take time out of his or her busy schedule to write a letter of recommendation on your behalf is one of the most challenging aspects of the MBA admissions process for many applicants. Now try asking that person to write five different letters, answering five different sets of questions, for the five different schools you’re applying to. Sounds insane, right? And yet it’s precisely the position many prospective MBA applicants find themselves in.

Recognizing the burden that letters of recommendation place on applicants and recommenders alike, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) this year is piloting a common letter of recommendation (LOR).

“The Common Letter of Recommendation (LOR) effort is intended to save you and recommenders valuable time by providing a single set of recommendation questions for each participating school,” reads the GMAC website. “This allows your recommenders to use the same answers for multiple letter submissions, alleviating the workload of having to answer different questions for each school multiple times. You benefit because it makes the ask for several different letters to be written on your behalf much easier.”

Schools participating in this pilot effort include Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, NYU Stern School of Business and Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Additionally, Emory’s Goizueta Business School will accept either the Common LOR or the recommendation form included as part of its application, according to Associate Dean of Admissions Julie Barefoo. And Stanford Graduate School of Business, which currently asks two of the open-ended questions included in the Common LOR as part of its own recommendation form, would be open to accepting the Common LOR in the future, a spokesperson there said.

“NYU Stern has been a strong supporter of making the letter of recommendation (LOR) less burdensome for both applicants as well as those writing the recommendations,” says Alison Goggin, executive director of MBA admissions. About a year ago, GMAC tapped Stern’s associate dean to serve on a committee to evaluate ideas for how that might be done. This committee elected to develop a common letter of recommendation comprised of two parts, a check box grid in which recommenders rate applicants across a range of categories and four essay-style questions.

“For this admissions season, at Stern we are starting with the LOR open-ended questions,” Goggin says. “We feel this is the part of the recommendation that takes the most time to prepare and by using common questions, we can dramatically lessen the burden on those writing recommendations for one applicant at multiple schools.”

Soojin Kwon, who leads admissions at Ross, was part of a group of admissions directors approached by GMAC to explore a path to a common LOR. “It’s an applicant- and recommender-friendly thing to do,” she says. “For the applicant, it’s hard to ask someone to write and answer different recommendation letters for multiple schools. It’s one thing to only have to ask for one, but few applicants apply to only one school.”

And for the recommender, it’s a lot of work, she continues. “I’ve had to write recommendation letters from time to time and to do it well takes time,” she says. “Having to do several at once would require a lot of time.”

The group involved in the development of the common LOR had to work hard to coalesce around the questions it should include, Kwon says, but she’s happy with the end result. “I feel like it will give us the information and insights we need from a recommender to help us make a decision on a candidate.”

The form portion of the Common LOR invites recommenders to rate applicants on 16 “competencies and character traits” that have been grouped into four main categories: achievement, influence, personal qualities and academic ability. In addition, the Common LOR asks recommenders to answer three essay questions, with an optional fourth question.

  1. Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (50 words)
  2. How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? (E.g. what are the applicant’s principal strengths?) (500 words)
  3. Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (500 words)
  4. Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)

Kwon, for her part, thinks the word counts on the second and third questions are a bit long and hopes recommenders will view them as a maximum rather than an expectation or requirement. “Lots of words don’t translate into a stronger rec,” she cautions. “On the other hand, an extremely short response could indicate that a recommender doesn’t think enough of the applicant to invest some time and effort into the rec. We don’t see it happen often, but it does happen.”

Stern’s Goggin notes that while the LOR is just one component in the school’s holistic admissions process, it is a very valuable component because it provides insight into an applicant from an outside source. “We hope that by providing recommenders with the same set of questions, they can spend their time and effort on providing thoughtful feedback as opposed to navigating different questionnaires,” she says.

Kwon notes that for the full benefits of a common LOR to be realized, many schools will need to choose to use it. Other schools are expected to join this year’s early adopters in the coming year, she wrote on her blog.

Applicants who are applying to any of the participating schools can download and share a template of the Common LOR with their recommenders in either PDF or Word format. GMAC has also made the Common LOR available in Chinese, German and Korean and hopes to add additional languages in the future. The intent behind providing the form in multiple languages is to help reduce misunderstandings by recommenders who are not native English speakers, but recommenders should provide all answers in English.

Learn more about the new Common Letter of Recommendation.