In the Seven MBA Application Elements section of this site I talked about the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on recommendations. What I said was that most people end up having to write their own rec's or at the very least help their recommenders write them.
The joint-effort approach is fine, but if you end up helping your recommender, be sure to address some of the following key issues and try to avoid some of the common pitfalls.
Most applications will ask your recommender to check grid boxes rating your personality in areas ranging from potential for leadership to sense of humor. Believe it or not, your recommender will have to determine whether your sense of humor is in the "top 50 percent," "top 10 percent," or "top 5 percent" of your peer group. (Stupid, I know.)
If your recommender doesn't have the time to jump through that many hoops for each school (which is usually the case), have him write one very comprehensive letter of recommendation and address separate copies of it to each of your schools. (Change the school name and address at the top of the letter.) I know this means ignoring the instructions, but the schools understand that your recommenders are doing you a favor, and they won't punish you if your boss doesn't follow directions.
One well written letter will be a sufficient substitute for the grid boxes, but what should you write about? Most schools ask for the same information. One of my GMAT students figured that out a couple years ago and compiled a list of common questions that he e-mailed to me. (He's now at Kellogg.)
I've included that list along with some comments in the attached Universal Letter of Recommendation Form. If you're going to write your own recommendation, or work with your recommender on his letter, be sure to use the Universal Recommendation as a guide.
A good starting point is our MBA Essay Tutorial below. It's far from comprehensive, but it sheds some light on the essay development process and it might help you avoid the most common mistakes.
Application essays are the dead verb graveyards of the English language. Most of the essays I see are stiff, passive, and unnecessarily formal because applicants choose to use passive verb constructions. The voicing makes me wonder about the applicant's personality. (Do I really want to sit next to this guy for the next two years? Is this guy going to be able to interact effectively with his classmates? What kind of dork would write like this?)
The schools send thank you notes to your recommenders. (Remember, they have to include an address with their recommendations.) If your boss suddenly gets a note from Kellogg thanking him for taking the time to write you a recommendation, you might be leaving your job earlier than you had planned. I know a few people who have made this mistake.
Don't forge your recommender's signature. Just between you and me, the admissions people know that many of the recommendations are written by the applicants. They expect, however, that the recommender at least had a chance to review the recommendation before signing it.
You need to play along with the game. Sure your boss may ask you to do the dirty work, but let him read the final product before you send it in.
The most common (and most important) MBA essay you'll write is the one that asks about career goals. It's usually combined with a question asking why you need an MBA and another asking why you need an MBA from that particular school. The basic strategy is to write something like the following three headings before attempting to respond to the questions:
1. Don't get one from Lloyd Blankfein. There's nothing wrong with Lloyd (not that I know of, anyway), but he doesn't really know you and it shows in his letter. The most common mistake applicants make with respect to the letter of recommendation is getting one from a hotshot at work or from a brand name like Lloyd Blankfein. The admissions people are not impressed by your boss's boss's title, and they are regularly bombarded by generic recommendations from celebrity business people. So don't send them another. You need a recommendation from someone who knows you well, preferably someone who works with you daily and can provide personal insight into your character. The job title of that person is meaningless to the admissions committee.
2. Have your recommender discuss specific details of the jobs you've done. Detailing specifics will shed more light on your personality than will mouthing vague platitudes such as, "Billy will make a good leader" and "I think he is very conscientious."
3. This one may sound a little obvious, but pick someone who can write! You know Maury, the section manager who thinks you're the greatest thing on earth but who reads at a 3rd grade level? Don't ask him for a recommendation.
4. When the recommendation asks for a flaw or area of personal improvement, don't let your recommender say, "Billy works too hard." No one buys that line.
5. There is no number 5.
6. Give your recommender an outline of the assignments you have handled at work. Include in that outline some suggestions on how he might address specific issues such as leadership potential and motivation for attending business school. In addition to improving the recommendation, providing this information should encourage your recommender to write the letter himself rather than ask you to do the dirty work.
7. Whatever you do, don't let your recommender question your leadership or communication skills! If he completes the grid boxes, make sure he gives you high marks in those categories. The whole point of business school is to develop leaders, and that means you have to communicate well.