Applying to business school entails a great deal of work for prospective students – and almost as much effort for the people writing their letters of recommendation. An effective MBA recommendation provides rich information about the candidate’s strengths, key accomplishments, and leadership abilities. It’s also important that a recommendation fully address every question that is asked by the admissions committee. So, when an applicant is targeting six schools that ask different questions across their recommendation forms, this can translate to a great deal of time and effort for already-busy recommenders.
To alleviate some of this pressure, a growing number of business schools have adopted the GMAC Common Letter of Recommendation (LOR) for their MBA applications. Much like the undergraduate common application, the GMAC Common LOR provides a standardized set of questions and rating metrics to streamline the process for supervisors who are recommending the same applicant to multiple business schools.
Section 1: Recommender Information
This is a fairly straightforward section. Recommenders are asked to provide their contact information, information about their company and role, as well as some background information on their relationship with the applicant. Specifically, recommenders are asked to indicate the nature of their relationship with the applicant, how long they have known the applicant, and the period of time during which they interacted with the applicant most frequently.
Section 2: GMAC Common LOR Leadership Assessment Grid
In this section, recommenders are asked to evaluate the applicant on the following twelve traits, which are grouped under five larger competencies (in parentheses):
- Initiative (Achievement)
- Results Orientation (Achievement)
- Communication, Professional Impression & Poise (Influence)
- Influence and Collaboration (Influence)
- Respect for Others (People)
- Team Leadership (People)
- Developing Others (People)
- Trustworthiness/Integrity (Personal Qualities)
- Adaptability/Resilience (Personal Qualities)
- Self-awareness (Personal Qualities)
- Problem Solving (Cognitive Abilities)
- Strategic Orientation (Cognitive Abilities)
For each item, recommenders are asked to rate the candidate on a five-point scale reflecting varying levels of skill and ability. The wording of each item is tailored to the trait being assessed. Business school recommenders and MBA applicants can find the wording for each item in the GMAC Letter of Recommendation template.
There are a number of strategic points to consider when completing this section. For example, a recommender might want to give the candidate top marks on all twelve areas to offer the strongest reference possible – but this can actually make it look like the recommender didn’t read and consider each item. Responding with some variability in ratings is also more realistic. Business school admissions committees know that no one is perfect, and expect that students will learn and develop during their MBA studies. If a recommender provides flawless ratings on every item, they’re essentially saying that the candidate doesn’t need to go to business school.
At the same time, recommenders should think carefully before rating an applicant poorly (i.e. giving them either of the two lowest ratings) on any of these dimensions. Because most recommendations are overwhelmingly positive, a low rating will stand out to the admissions committee and could be taken as a sign of a serious deficit. Even the middle rating on the five-point scale (which would translate to a 3 on a 1-5 scale) should be reserved to reflect major areas for growth for the applicant.
Finally, recommenders should be mindful of the larger competencies (i.e. Achievement, Influence, People, Personal Qualities, and Cognitive Abilities) that each of the twelve traits falls into. It would be quite damaging for a candidate to receive low marks on more than one of the traits under the five overarching domains, as this would reflect a larger problem with the applicant’s abilities and potential.
Section 3: GMAC Letter of Recommendation Questions
In the final section of the GMAC letter of recommendation, recommenders are asked to respond to 3-4 open-ended questions. Recommenders should note that each MBA program sets its own word limits for these items, so it can be helpful to check each business school’s recommendation questions before drafting your responses.
Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (Recommended word count: 50 words)
This is an opportunity to provide some additional background information and context for the illustrative examples recommenders will share in the following sections. This space offers a great place to elaborate on the frequency and depth of your interactions with the applicant, and to provide an overview of how the applicant’s work activities supported the functioning of the team or group.
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?) (Recommended word count: 500 words)
This question is asking about ways that the applicant stands out from other similarly qualified professionals. At the outset of this response, it can be helpful for recommenders to specify this comparison group for the admissions reader, for example “I am comparing Candidate to the 40+ marketing professionals with 2-4 years of work experience who I have encountered in my 8 years at Company X.”
The most essential consideration for this section is: show, don’t tell. Rather than simply telling the reader that the applicant possesses a certain skill or quality, it’s best to show that this is the case by providing a detailed example. This allows the reader to really see the candidate’s abilities in action. If the applicant has shared his or her essays, it’s helpful for recommenders to select examples that haven’t been covered in detail elsewhere in the application. This ensures that the recommendation is adding as much value to the application as possible.
In terms of structure, we find that it works well to build this section around 2-4 detailed anecdotes of a specific accomplishment or contribution on the applicant’s part. Ideally, each of these will illustrate a different strength. The recommender should identify the standout skill or quality, share the example to illustrate (providing some context for the reader and then walking them through the candidate’s actions), and touch on the impact this had on the larger team or organization. To help the reader appreciate the magnitude of the applicant’s contributions, it’s always helpful to quantify the results in terms like dollar amounts or percentages.
Describe the most important piece of constructive feedback you have given the applicant. Please detail the circumstances and the applicant’s response. (Recommended word count: 500 words)
The admissions committee is asking this question to assess whether the candidate is receptive to feedback, and whether they are able to adjust and improve their performance. There are a few elements that are key to an effective response.
First, it’s best to cover feedback on a skill or behavior (e.g. running a meeting) rather than a personality trait (e.g. impatience). It’s much easier to build a skill than it is to change one’s personality or emotional responses, so the admissions reader will be more confident that the initial shortcoming has been addressed if the feedback is behavior-based.
Second, there’s a difference between advice and feedback. This question is asking about constructive criticism the recommender provided about something that the applicant was not doing optimally – not about friendly pointers that a recommender gave the applicant as they were starting a new role or taking on a new task.
Finally, recommenders will want to comment on two elements of the applicant’s response. One aspect is: how did they react in the moment? The admissions committee is of course hoping to hear that the applicant was receptive or even appreciative of the input rather than defensive or argumentative. The second aspect is: how did their behavior and performance change as a result?
In terms of overall structure, we suggest that recommenders offer some context about the situation that prompted the feedback, explain their reasons for providing feedback, describe the applicant’s reaction, and ideally follow up with a second example of how the applicant implemented the feedback with positive results.
Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)
Those completing the GMAC letter of recommendation should exercise discretion here, as answering an optional question creates additional work for the admissions reader. This would be an appropriate place for some commentary on the applicant’s enthusiasm about a given school or a recommender’s appraisal of their chances of success in their post-MBA career goals – though it would be best to limit responses to just a few sentences.