Admissions Tip: Letters of Support
While business schools require candidates to submit anywhere from one to three recommendations as part of the regular admissions process, we’re devoting this admissions tip to a lesser known relative of the formal recommendation: the letter of support. The letter of support is very different from a typical letter of recommendation, in ways that we will detail below. In fact, we’ll use this admissions tip to share the following information:
- What is a letter of support?
- Who can author and submit such letters?
- When should a letter of support be submitted?
- What should a letter of support cover in terms of content?
- Should I seek out a letter of support at my target schools?
- How many letters of support should I seek out?
So without further ado, let’s dive into this lesser known element of the MBA admissions process.
What is a letter of support?
A letter of support is a short document (1-2 pages in length) that is submitted on behalf of an applicant by a third party – often without any involvement from the candidate. The letter is addressed to the director of admissions and seeks to make a case for the applicant’s candidacy at a given school. In many respects, a letter of support is really just an informal letter of recommendation.
Who can author and submit a letter of support?
Letters of support typically come from any one of three sources:
- Students at the school to which you applied
- Alumni of the school to which you applied
- Faculty of the school to which you applied
These are the stakeholders of the institution, and as such, have a voice in the campus community that the admissions team is open to engaging. The logic is that stakeholders in the school community should naturally seek to positively influence the outcome of admissions decisions (e.g. they should want the best and brightest to join the community of which they are a part) and that they will speak up (via a letter of support) if an exceptional candidate they know has applied.
When should a letter of support be submitted?
Most letters of support are submitted after the candidate in question has applied – usually within 2-5 weeks of the application submission date. The reason these letters should not be submitted prior to the candidate’s application is because it creates an extra hurdle for the admissions team – they can’t ‘match’ the letter to a file in their system until they actually have the application. It also makes sense, from a timing perspective, for the letter to come in after the application so that it can provide a bit of color commentary – or even a last word – on the candidate.
What should a letter of support cover in terms of content?
The key narrative should be about your fit with the school. The author of the letter does not need to follow the questions the school asks of the required recommenders. Schools are always interested to learn about how a candidate would integrate into the learning community of the program – and a supplemental recommender should be able to address this, through the lens of her own experiences with the school and with you. The more heartfelt and detailed the recommendation, the more useful it will be to the admissions team. A few sentences won’t make much of an impact, but a page or two that brings the applicant’s background and personality to life will signal that the writer really cares about your candidacy.
Should I seek out a letter of support at my target schools?
This is a question that many candidates ponder. The answer is that it depends on whether or not you know of someone who qualifies to submit such a letter (e.g. a student, alum or professor at the school) AND who knows you well enough to write a supportive and illuminating letter. Of course, you will also want to take into account a given school’s policy on such letters (more on this below).
Beyond whether you should seek out a letter of support, it is also worth considering what you might do if someone offers to write a letter on your behalf. Some schools actively encourage their stakeholders to offer informal recommendations (letters of support) for candidates they know. These schools may even have a process in place to solicit such input. Engaging with alumni, students and faculty in this way can also become an effective marketing tool for the school, allowing the members of their community to actively reach out and shape the next generation of MBA candidates.
Of course, some schools actively discourage any additional materials, post application. So if you are going down this path, then you should take into account the individual school’s policy for additional materials post-application submission. Of course, even in cases where a school tells applicants not to submit anything once their application is ‘in process’ it can still be fair game to a) have a supplemental recommender provide a recommendation prior to submitting your application, or b) if a member of the school community submits a letter unbeknownst to you. Of course, in the case that such a letter comes in prior to your application, you may find that it is harder to ‘match’ that letter to your file (as we indicated earlier).
How many letters of support should I seek out (if any)?
In most, if not all, cases, a single letter of support (per school) is sufficient. The risk of soliciting multiple letters is that it might suggest a ‘letter writing campaign’ (with the applicant overtly attempting to pull strings) and may not be welcomed by the admissions committee.
A Final Thought
For those who are unable to gain a letter of support from a stakeholder of the school, don’t panic. While this type of letter can help a school learn more about fit, the majority of candidates will not have this type of informal recommendation – and schools work hard at being fair to candidates with varying degrees of access to their school during the admissions process. As always, there are many other aspects of a candidacy that the school considers before making an admissions decision.