I'm starting a new feature on my blog where I answer reader's questions. I try to reply to everybody's email directly, and if the question can benefit others, then I will post it on my blog as well. So let us begin:
Q: What is your take on letters of recommendation for applicants (particularly military)?
-- Captain Dan in Iraq
A: As always, I will begin with the caveat that I don't have secret admission knowledge and that all my answers are purely my own speculation. I'll answer this question generically first, and then add some specifics for military applicants.
Unlike most schools, HBS requires three letters of rec, not two. There is no such thing as an ideal lineup, and every applicant is different. However, generically speaking, if I could have my dream recs, it would be the following:
- Direct supervisor
- Academic reference
- Leader from a non-profit organization or any organization outside of your profession
1. Direct supervisor
If your resume is already packed with great professional accomplishments, one letter of recommendation from your professional circle might suffice. It should bring to life some of your accomplishments and reinforce your claims with a human touch. It should also breath some life into an otherwise unemotional resume list of accomplishments.... such as how your personality enabled those successes. As with all letters of rec, it should reinforce the strengths and weaknesses that you are presenting throughout the application.
As far as direct supervisor versus peer recommendations; take the best recommendation you can get, but direct supervisor probably trumps a peer all else being equal. Anybody can get a recommendation from a peer saying he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. A direct supervisor is more difficult, and he also sees you from a more professional point of view, so if you can swing it, I think it's better. What about direct supervisor versus non-direct supervisor from higher within the organization? I would say that all else being equal, the higher ranking (and experienced) the recommender the better... however... the more separated somebody is from you the less detailed and genuine the recommendation tends to be. The latter (detailed and genuine) is too important to compromise, so don't sacrifice those just to get a more impressive title at the bottom of the letter.
2. Academic reference
This may seem most relevant to those just coming out of undergraduate, but I believe it applies to all. An example can be a professor or a supervisor of your research. I believe it's actually most beneficial to older applicants who need to show how much they value their academic record and that they have not outgrowned their scholastic interests in life. If anything, younger applicants could use more of the other two types of letters of recs (assuming a strong academic record).
3. Non-profit or non-professional organization
The trickiest part for most people will be the third letter (outside of school and outside of work - as I have artificially defined it). People heavily immersed in creating a strong professional track record often don't have the time to also establish a strong reputation with a non-profit or non-professional association worthy of a serious recommendation. However, such a letter of recommendation could really add to one's application. The difficulty of achieving this speaks to its advantage in differentiating the applicant from others who only have business related letters of recommendation.
Think of the letters of recommendations as three shots across the bow of business school. They are not to be taken lightly and I believe their importance may be underemphasized by some applicants. Each one should have its own message and should reinforce a dimension you are trying to send to the ADCOM. If you have a weak academic record but strong professional accomplishments, consider getting two academic letters of recommendation. If you have a really strong professional record but weak extra-curricular activities, you would probably benefit from having a letter from an outside organziation. If you are a non-profit guru with strong social work background, perhaps letters of rec from supervisors highlighting your direct business skills and potential would serve you best.
The above list of letters are just a generic solution to the world's most perfectly balanced applicant - who probably does not exist. You have to carefully pick and choose your letters of rec to support your own strategy and the message(s) you want to send. Don't forget to also consider how good of a job your recommender may or may not do for you. There are people who may love your contributions and speak highly of you, but are not the most persuasive authors.
For schools that only require two letters of rec, your combination of letters is simpler, but the strategy should still be the same.
Military applicants have probably been deployed at least once or twice in the past few years... and are probably lucky enough to have sustained a relationship with a spouse or significant other, let alone with a worthy non-military organization from which to solicit a letter of rec. This is why it is such a great supplement to your application. Many military applicants may only have letters of rec from supervisors, and I am proof that it may be ok. My three letters were all from previous and current supervisors (two O-5s and an O-4). I didn't have the scholastic reach to warrant an academic letter of rec, and I certainly haven't been home enough to be seriously involved with an outside organization. My purpose and sole focus in life was to train my soldiers, lead them in combat, and bring everybody home alive. I made no apologies for not having much free time outside the military. However, if you can somehow swing a balance, I think you will be that much better off.