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A Recommendation Revolution Is Underway in MBA Admissions: What You Need to Know

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I’m busy, you’re busy, your boss is most definitely busy. Indeed, publications ranging from Men’s Health to the Atlantic, the Washington Post to Forbes are all reporting that “busyness“ has become the new status symbol for our times. Which is part of what makes asking someone to write you a letter of recommendation for business school so daunting. Now, try telling that person that you actually need five different letters for five different schools. Oy vey.

As uncomfortable a spot as it puts applicants in—it’s no better for recommenders. Even your most vociferous supporter is going to wonder what in the world she’s gotten herself into when she realizes that helping you in your pursuit of acceptance to business school means taking time away from work or play or family or whatever else to labor over leadership assessment grids, each a little different from the one before, and write 10 slightly different answers to 10 slightly different questions. Here’s hoping that your top-choice school doesn’t happen to be the last one she gets around to…

Good news. The graduate management education industry recognizes the strain that letters of recommendation put on applicants and recommenders alike and has been wrestling with ways to make the process easier for everyone involved. To this end, the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) established a committee made up of admissions representatives from dozens of leading business schools to brainstorm about ways to lessen the burden while still collecting the third-party assessments of candidates that are so critical to the MBA application process.

GMAC Pilots Common MBA Letter of Recommendation
As an outgrowth of that committee’s work, GMAC last year piloted a common MBA letter of recommendation (LOR) that schools can choose to incorporate into their applications to reduce the burden placed on applicants and recommenders alike.

“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.”

Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of ManagementNYU Stern School of Business, and Michigan’s Ross School of Business were among the first schools to pilot the Common LOR last year. In addition to a single set of open-ended essay questions, the pilot Common LOR also included a leadership assessment grid inviting recommenders to rate applicants on 16 “competencies and character traits” grouped into four main categories of achievement, influence, personal qualities and academic ability.

“At Johnson, we saw the Common LoR as a clear opportunity to improve the admissions process for candidates and their recommenders in a way that would also add value to our own assessment of applicants,” Judi Byers, Johnson executive director of admissions & financial aid, told Clear Admit. “A thorough and consistent review is important to us and the grid provides a straightforward base of insights that can be assessed and compared reliably while the accompanying letter adds meaningful detail and context,” she added.

Common MBA letter of recommendation
Soojin Kwon, Ross managing director for full-time MBA admissions and program

Soojin Kwon, managing director of full-time MBA admissions and program at Ross, sees applicants and recommenders as the main beneficiaries of the Common LOR and is pleased that more schools are coming on board. “As more schools adopt it, applicants won’t have to feel like they’re burdening their recommender with completing multiple rec letters with different questions and ratings grids,” she told Clear Admit. “This year, more than a dozen of the top 20 schools are using it.”

Ross was also among the schools to first pilot the Common LOR last year, and Kwon served as part of the GMAC committee that helped craft it.

Common Questions Easy to Agree on, Common Leadership Grid Not
“What we found in using the Common LOR this year past year was that the questions gave us helpful insights into applicants, particularly on the important area of constructive feedback. The questions, however, were fairly similar to what we and other schools were using before, so it was easy for the AdCom to use it,” she notes.

Those questions are as follow:

  • Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (50 words)
  • 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)
  • Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (500 words)
  • Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)

“The rating grid was quite different from what we’d used in the past,” Kwon continued. “It was also the most difficult part for the GMAC advisory group to develop and get agreement upon. The group worked this past year to revise and simplify the grid so that AdComs could get more meaningful insights from it.”

This year, the 16 competencies and character traits from the original grid have been distilled to 12, with specific questions about analytical thinking and information seeking omitted. Johnson and Ross have both incorporated the revised leadership grid into the LOR distributed to applicants as part of their applications, as have most other schools that have this year decided to incorporate both the grid and open-ended essay question portions of the form. UT’s McCombs School of Business and Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, notably, still seem to feature the earlier version of the leadership grid in their application, the one that calls on recommenders to assesses applicants on 16 competencies and traits.  

Stanford GSB Questions, Competencies Adopted as “Best Practice” in Common LOR, School Reports

Kirsten Moss
Kirsten Moss, Stanford GSB assistant dean and director of MBA admissions; Photo Credit: Toni Bird Photography

We also checked in with Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB)—which last year said it would be open to incorporating the Common LOR sometime in the future—on what it is doing this year. “On your question about whether Stanford GSB is using the GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation, the answer is yes and no,” Kirsten Moss, Stanford assistant dean and director of MBA admissions, told Clear Admit.

“Yes, we are using the same open-ended questions as GMAC’s Common Letter,” Moss continued. “It is important to note that we have been using these same open-ended questions for several years. The Common Letter of Recommendation group [the GMAC committee referenced above] essentially adopted the questions we were already using and have tested for years.”

“Yes, we have also adopted the competencies and definitions used on the competency grid which is part of the Common Letter of Recommendation,” she added. Stanford’s LOR incorporates the updated 12-part assessment currently in use by Ross, Cornell, and several other schools. “GMAC’s list of competencies is based on ones that we have used for over a decade,” Moss continued. “They identified our process as ‘best practice’ and from there we have worked with GMAC and other schools to include some other concepts and slightly alter the definitions. We actively participated in many discussions and look forward to seeing how the contributions from GMAC and other schools advance our overall ability to assess candidates effectively.”

Moss went on to note that Stanford GSB has not officially incorporated GMAC’s full Letter of Recommendation form. “We are using some parts of it this year as a pilot, but reserve the right to make changes in future years as our needs evolve.”

Kwon, for her part, also indicated that while Ross is using the full LOR form at present, her team will regularly review its efficacy. “As with many other parts of the application (e.g., essay questions, interview questions), we will continue to evaluate whether the Common LOR is giving us useful insights about an applicant,” she said.

NYU Stern, another of the early adopters of the Common LOR, last year chose to start with just the LOR open-ended questions. “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,” Alison Goggin, then executive director of MBA admissions at Stern, told Clear Admit last year. Goggin also served on the GMAT committee to evaluate how to arrive at a Common LOR. According to Associate Dean of MBA Admissions Isser Gallogly, Stern again this year will use the Common LOR open-ended questions, but not the leadership grid. (Stern does ask recommenders to rate applicants relative to their peers in a range of categories, some which overlap with the Common LOR categories, others which do not.)

Darden Goes All In, MIT Sloan Comes on Board

common MBA letter of recommendation
Hayley Whitlock Gyory, Darden director of admissions

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business last year was listed on GMAC’s website as another school that had elected to pilot the open-ended essay questions portion of the LOR, but not the leadership grid portion. This year, it has decided to incorporate the entire LOR form. “We are always innovating our application process and wanted to streamline it for both candidates and recommenders,” Darden Director of Admissions Hayley Whitlock Gyory told Clear Admit. “Hopefully the common LOR will become an industry standard moving forward.”

Like many other schools, Darden recognizes that candidates often apply to multiple business schools and therefore find themselves needing to ask their recommenders to provide letters for several applications. “By standardizing the way we collect this data, we hope to minimize the ask by candidates while allowing recommenders an efficient vehicle to offer the most detailed, compelling endorsement possible,” Gyory said.

She went on to credit GMAC for being proactive in reaching out to business schools to solicit their feedback on the front end and involving them in the development process. She also added that candidates she met on the road in recent weeks have been very excited about the common LOR form. “I’m eager to see how it plays out this year,” she said.

MIT Sloan School of Management, for its part, incorporated the Common LOR in its entirety for the first time this application season. “It was always our intention to implement the GMAC Common Recommendation Letter form, especially since we were an integral part of its creation,” Dawna Levenson, MIT Sloan director of admissions, told Clear Admit earlier this summer. Sloan Senior Director of Admissions Rod Garcia also served on the GMAC committee that helped create it.

Looking at the LOR forms included as part of other school’s applications reveals a spectrum of varying degrees of implementation of the Common LOR. On one end are schools like Ross, Johnson, Darden, and MIT Sloan, which have adopted the Common LOR in its entirety. Also in this group are UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, CMU’s Tepper School of Business, and UCLA Anderson School of Management—though a careful look at their leadership grids reveals that the introductory paragraph still references 16 categories of assessment, even though only 12 are actually included (in case any of your recommenders were confused by this).

Common Essay Questions, Yes, But Other Differences
Some schools, such as Harvard Business School, seem to have followed Stern’s lead, incorporating the open-ended essay questions from the Common LOR but using their own grid assessment. Schools like Columbia Business School and the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, meanwhile, have adopted the essay questions but foregone a leadership grid assessment of any sort. Still other schools—including UC Berkeley Haas School of Business and Yale School of Management—largely incorporate the entire Common LOR form but also add school-specific essay or grid questions for recommenders to answer. Haas, for example, asks recommenders to also comment on how the applicant reflects the Haas key defining principle of “confidence without attitude.”

“You Can Use Our Form or the Common LOR Form”
There are a couple of schools that still have their own distinct form for recommenders to complete but also indicate that they will accept the Common LOR form. Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, for its part, begins by asking the recommender if he or she has a GMAC Common LOR for this applicant. If no, the recommender is encouraged to instead complete Owen’s own online form. Emory’s Goizueta Business School, likewise, will accept either the Common LOR or the recommendation form included as part of its application, according to Associate Dean of Admissions Julie Barefoot.

Though presumably intended to give applicants greater flexibility to chose the option that best suits them and their recommenders, Ross’s Kwon warns that this approach has some potential downsides. “When schools allow candidates to use either the Common LOR or the school’s own rec letter, it can cause confusion and anxiety for applicants. They’ll wonder, ‘Will it hurt me in the admissions process to use the Common LOR even though it will be easier for my recommender?’” she noted. Furthermore, if the forms are significantly different, having some candidates use one and other candidates use another could make it harder to compare candidates apples to apples, she added.

Some Schools Simply Not on Board
Finally, there is a group of schools that has not yet implemented any portion of the Common LOR. These include several non-U.S. schools, such as London Business School, INSEAD, and the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. But also in this group is the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. In an interview earlier this week, Wharton Vice Dean of MBA Admissions, Financial Aid, and Career Services Maryellen Reilly noted that changes to the school’s letter of recommendation form were the only significant shifts her team made to the overall application this year—but it was not a shift toward adopting the Common LOR, rather the opposite.

“We used to us a fairly standard letter that didn’t tell us all that much,” Reilly told Clear Admit. “Now we are giving recommenders more guidelines—even specific words we’d like them to use—so we can get a better idea of who the candidates are.” Indeed, the new Wharton recommendation form asks recommenders to choose up to—but not more than—three traits from two separate lists that best represent the candidate they are recommending. The first list includes the following options: determined, humble, disciplined, engaged, intellectually curious, analytical, flexible, persistent, conscientious, and results oriented. The second list includes a second set of options, and recommenders are again limited to no more than three: collaborative, persuasive, innovative, confident, self-aware, professional, resilient, energetic, emotionally stable, and agreeable.

In addition to this exercise, Wharton also invites recommenders to answer two open-ended essay questions, but these two are unique to Wharton and share little if anything in common with the Common LOR questions.

Progress Toward a Common LOR, But Work Remains for Applicants
So what’s an applicant to take away from all of this? It does seem like most schools see value in simplifying the recommendation process for applicants and recommenders and have taken steps toward doing so.

Common MBA Letter of Recommendation
Judi Byers, Johnson executive director of admissions and financial aid

Johnson’s Byers says doesn’t feel like she’s sacrificing anything by incorporating the entire Common LOR form. “Greater standardization of the competencies and skills listed in the grid has been valuable. Recommenders can easily provide their evaluation of a candidate’s demonstrated competencies and skills and then use the letter to elaborate and share more contextual highlights,” she told Clear Admit. “This balanced approach of assessment via the grid and commentary via the letter gives us a more thorough perspective of a candidate’s background and experience, which is what we are seeking through the letter of recommendation.”

But other schools still aren’t sold on the common competencies and skills grid—and others aren’t on board at all.

Given the discrepancies between recommendation forms that are now largely more similar than they are dissimilar, it becomes incumbent upon applicants to identify and highlight the differences in each form for their recommenders. So doing will make it as easy as possible for recommenders to quickly understand what can be cut and pasted from one form to the next while also clearly indicating where extra attention and school-specific rule-following is critical.

Don’t miss Clear Admit’s compilation of all 2017-18 MBA recommendation questions in one place.