Harvard MBA Business School

Schools using the MBA Common Recommendation last year (2016 - 2017).

What is the MBA Common Recommendation?

This is probably a good time to admit that I've forged dozens of letters of recommendation. Some of them have come from famous people — actors, celebrity chefs, business leaders. It seems the more famous the recommender, the more likely it is that I've written his recommendation. That's because famous people are busy and don't have time to write letters for their employees. It's also because MBA recommendations have always been nightmarishly complex.

Now, in full disclosure, I've never written a recommendation without the recommender's consent. In fact, on every occasion, the recommender approved and signed the final draft of the recommendation. He just didn't want to go through the trouble of writing it. So he asked the MBA applicant to write his own and the applicant asked me to help out.

The Problem

The problem is that MBA schools don't use "letters" for their recommendations. If they did, it would be easy to write a single letter and address copies of it to each of the six or seven schools an applicant applies to. Instead, schools have their own unique forms, each of which asks different questions and has different word limits, making the recommendation process nearly as time consuming as the application itself. As a consequence, about half of recommenders punt and ask the applicants to write their own, agreeing to sign and submit the final product.

A Change for the Better

Some years ago, the good people at the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), tacitly acknowledging that too many recommendations were being forged, announced that schools would begin to standardize their recommendations so that recommenders could respond to a single set of questions and use their responses for multiple schools. It was a long-overdue solution and it finally started to be adopted by schools in 2016. Now more programs are signing on.

The Common Letter of Recommendation Has Three Sections:

1. Background Information about the Recommender

This section asks the recommender for information about his or her professional experience and relationship to the applicant.

2. An Assessment Grid about the Applicant

This section asks the recommender to evaluate the applicant across 12 leadership categories, rating him or her on a five-level scale (from "amazing" to "not so great").

3. Four Questions about the Applicant

This section asks the recommender to respond to four questions. The suggested limit for each response ranges from 50 to 500 words.

1. 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)

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?) (Recommended Word Count: 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. (Recommended Word Count: 500 words)

4. Is there anything else we should know? (Optional)

Download the Actual MBA Common Letter of Recommendation

GMAC has made the actual Common Letter of Recommendation available to applicants. Below you can find it in both PDF and Word format. You should download it and prepare an outline for your recommenders. (For more on that subject, see our "How to Write an MBA Recommendation Guide."

  1. The threat of new entrants
  2. The threat of substitutes
  3. The bargaining power of customers
  4. The bargaining power of suppliers
  5. Industry rivalry

If you're going to read just one thing by Michael Porter, I'd recommend his What is Strategy? It's about 20 pages long and you can buy it for a few bucks as a PDF download.