Letters of Recommendation with details from INSEAD and HEC.
In the admissions process to highly competitive programs - if test scores keep you out and essays get you in - the Letter of Recommendation (LoR) could be a little bit of both.
Though it is unlikely the applicant-selected recommender or referee would trash a candidate in a recommendation letter, it is possible the referee highlights grave weaknesses (“below average ability to work in a team”) or downplays or fails to mention key achievements written in applicant essays.
This kind of “recommendation” letter replete with a referee’s misgivings on a candidate would surely make an admission committee reconsider admitting a candidate.
Even with a 780 GMAT, if a referee’s letter details a candidate as lacking personal integrity and/or leadership potential and the admissions interview further solidifies this concern, not even a 20-point increase to a perfect GMAT score would guarantee admission.
On the other hand, a referee can also smooth the path towards a seat in the program with a letter reassuring the admissions committee they are reviewing a rare, high-potential candidate who will reward the classroom and eventually the alumni network.
One of the first questions applicants ask is “Who should write my recommendation letter?” Most every admissions department, like INSEAD, suggest a current Supervisor or Manager.
That may work for most candidates coming from hierarchical organizations but what about entrepreneurs or more atypical candidates like a professional athlete or politician?
In these cases, as in a hierarchical organization, someone in a position to closely and objectively evaluate performance is a good choice. Thus, it could be a satisfied client, coach or community leader.
While admission committees may recognize the validity of these types of referees, what is fundamentally important to the candidate is the level of trust and understanding with the referee.
This means having a good relationship and direct, open and frank discussions regarding the recommendation.
These discussions should be among the first steps you take in an application process, because it’s highly likely the essays you write reflect the material you are discussing.
Here are some of the important, direct questions you need to ask in your conversations:
1. What level of support (time, energy, effort) would you be willing to give me in terms of writing a recommendation letter positively arguing my candidacy?
2. What do you see as my Strengths/Weaknesses?
3. How do you consider my ability to work in a team?
4. What do you consider to be my leadership potential?
If there is positive feedback to these questions and you have taken notes in the conversation, you can take an extra step to build an outline or notes the referee can remember and read when they receive the recommendation form. These notes would then certainly serve as fuel for answers to your essay questions, increasing the probability of high quality responses from your recommender.
Lastly, as it’s well-known that recommendation letters are often one of the last parts of an application to arrive; make sure the referee is well prepared and has the time (and perhaps a gentle reminder or two) to complete the recommendation.
But just what will the referee complete?
Like essay questions in an application, the content requested can vary from institution or program. For example, in a comparing INSEAD MBA and EMBA program recommendation letter forms – the EMBA program asks for referees to rate 14 different qualities, such as “charisma”, “cultural sensitivity” and “achievement drive & results orientation”. Referees must rate candidates on a 5-degree scale of Outstanding (top 5%) to below average (bottom 50%).
While the INSEAD MBA asks referees to rate 12 different qualities, such as “focus on the task at hand,” “professionalism,” and “readiness to opportunities for achievement” on a 5-degree scale ranging from Outstanding (top 2%) to below average (bottom 50%).
Both programs ask referees to answer the same 4 questions in written form:
1. Comment on the candidate's career progress to date and his/her career focus
2. What do you consider to be the candidate's major strengths? Comment on the factors that distinguish the candidate from other individuals at his/her level.
3. What do you consider to be the candidate’s major weaknesses?
4. Comment on the candidate’s potential for senior management. Do you see him/her as a future leader?
The fifth and final question differs but, essentially, it asks for the same personality-centric evaluation:
INSEAD EMBA Question: Describe the personality of the candidate, including reference to the characteristics listed in the table of criteria you completed above.
INSEAD MBA: Describe the candidate as a person. Comment on his/her ability to establish and maintain relationships, sensitivity to others, self-confidence, attitude, etc. Specifically comment on the candidate's behaviour or skills in a group setting/team environment.
HEC’s MBA program on the other hand asks referees to evaluate 9 different qualities including “Intellectual or academic ability,” “creativity / innovative” and “oral communication skills” on a 6-degree scale ranging from Outstanding (top 5%) to Below average.
The HEC EMBA program asks exactly the same questions as the MBA in the same recommendation form, including the same two written essay questions:
1. What do you consider to be the candidate's principal strengths / talents?
2. What do you consider to be the candidate's weaknesses or areas that need improvement?
Quite clearly, both the INSEAD MBA and EMBA ask for more information from a candidate’s referees than HEC does.
Regardless of the difference between MBA program criteria, its important to note just how much a referee is asked to produce on behalf of a candidate.
If an applicant applies to both INSEAD and HEC, whether MBA or EMBA program, the same referee would be responsible for answering 21-23 multiple choice questions and 7 written essay answers for one person.
That is not a small amount of work to ask of a referee. Of course, there is overlap in terms of the questions but when the applicant adds 2 or 3 different additional applications to other programs, some of which may ask slightly different questions, the work is more considerable.
Based on this aspect alone, it is essential develop a clear focus on defining your strengths, weaknesses and qualities with your referees. Then, working closely with them, they will be better equipped with an agreed upon outline complete with examples and points to consider.