Schools with standardized Letter of Recommendation questions

Oh, adcoms, adcoms. They try hard, but sometimes their best efforts just miss the mark.

Case in point: This year’s new development with Letters of Recommendation.

Here’s the deal: Now that the schools have reduced the number of essays that they require, it’s made it easier for Brave Supplicants to apply to more schools. Fewer essays, less effort, paper the country with your apps. There’s this hard-to-shake idea that it’s a numbers game and many people can’t resist the desperate pull to apply to more and more schools.

The wrinkle in that plan? The recommendations.

Nothing in the MBA application process is standardized (besides the fact that more and more schools are chasing each other’s tails in copycat strategies around numbers of, and types of, essay questions). There’s no Common App for MBA programs, unlike what the U.S. colleges have adopted for undergrad admissions – which we do not think is a good idea for bschools.

The main place where that lack of standardization causes hiccups for the applicants is the letters of recommendation. It’s a pretty onerous process to complete just one of those puppies; when a BSer is trying for lots of schools, well, multiply that out and what you end up with is a Massive Pain in the Butt for your recommenders.

This year, those nobly-minded adcoms at several leading bschools of America have apparently tried to address this. What have they done to make it easier? They reduced the amount of questions that they require recommenders to answer. Not only that, they somehow conspired collaborated and agreed upon the questions that they’ll ask the recommenders to talk about. (Or they just looked to Harvard and copied theirs.)

“Wow!” said EssaySnark when we heard about this. “Great! Now that’s forward-thinking!”

(Or at least, not 1998-thinking.)

When the essay questions started coming out this year, several schools also began updating their FAQs and application instructions and we soon discovered a pattern emerging:

Not only have many of them agreed upon a small set of recommenders’ questions – just two – but they decided on two totally challenging and very limited and even somewhat sucky ones.

Gee thanks, adcoms.

We poked around on this and it turns out, a bunch of admissions consultants are the ones who got this unfortunate ball rolling.

Yeah, you heard that right. ADMISSIONS CONSULTANTS.

There’s this professional organization of Admissions Consultants out there – who’dathunkit? They probably won’t let the ‘Snark join them but they exist. And apparently they met with admissions people sometime in 2013 and expressed their dissatisfaction with this burden of recommendations.

Well cool. The admissions people listened.

Whose bright idea it was to limit the recommendations to just two questions – and specifically just these two questions – we do not know.

But let us just say this for the record:


This move is totally not in your favor as an applicant.

Standardization? Sure. Reducing the burden on recommenders? Dandy. Sounds like a great idea!

Uhhhh…. no. Can you say “unintended consequences”???

If you’re applying to business school this year, there are at this time six seven schools [update 8/7/14: We missed Booth] that are asking your recommenders to answer just two questions about you – one on how they know you and how you rate compared to your peers (300 words), and one on a time they had to give you constructive feedback and how you reacted (250 words).

Two questions. Two totally constrained questions. Two questions asking for extremely limited information. Two questions that ask for just about one page of writing, max, to answer them (roughly two paragraphs each).

Yes, Brave Supplicant, perhaps we can agree that submitting answers to the same two questions will result in less of a burden for your recommenders… but is it going to allow your recommenders to share the most important information possible about you as a candidate?


Most of these schools used to allow that in their recommendations – an “anything goes” question where recommenders were invited to share whatever they liked. Nope, nothing like that now, at least not for these schools.

OK Brave Supplicant, here’s the deal:

If you are Harvard Business School, and you have a completely open-ended essay question where your applicants can talk about anything in the whole wide world that they want to then great. Two recommendations, with two simple questions for them to answer, no problem. Harvard’s applicants have free rein to cover anything they need to in their essay. Carving out this discrete space for recommenders to focus in on two specific areas actually makes a lot of sense. With these two questions, the HBS Admissions Board is actually going to get one area of their written app that’s standardized from candidate to candidate – unlike the essay where it’s a free-for-all and everyone does their own thing. We call that an advantage to the admissions team – AND to the applicant.

If you are Stanford Graduate School of Business, and you have one classic essay question inviting candidates to share something personal in 750 words (“What matters most?”), and one school-targeted question where they can pitch you on why you want to go there (“Why Stanford?”), we can also go along with this. Mostly. It’s Stanford, they can do what they want.

If you are Columbia Business School, where you have very well-structured and easy-to-understand essays – three of them!! – inviting candidates to share their plans for future career path and something unique about themselves, and why they want to go to your school… yes, we can buy into these two recommender questions, too – particularly since one of them (on “constructive feedback”) has been a core question that Columbia has asked its recommenders to talk about for years.

If you are Wharton where you have just one essay for applicants to write, essentially asking “Why Wharton?”, and it’s only 500 words, and most people are already struggling with it and don’t know what to say and it’s tough to cover important professional achievements and leadership and all that and also say why you want to go to Wharton, and then there’s these two-and-only-two recommender questions — WTF WHARTON WHAT ARE YOU THINKING!????

And then we see that Ross has done the same thing…

Wait — ROSS?!?? One of our favorites schools and favoritist adcoms ever?

Oh geez.

And here’s the kicker: Ross now wants just ONE recommendation.

At least they’re asking two good essay questions of their candidates. One rec though? Wow.

The two recommenders’ questions that all six seven of these schools require this year are actually the same two questions that Harvard and Stanford have used for years. They were standardized, those two together, for a long time already.

So basically what’s happened is that these four five other not-Harvard/not-Stanford schools have decided that they’re going to play in the same ballpark – but all they did was heave their Budweiser butts off the couch and go sit in the stands. Did they really get on the diamond and field a ball? Did they think through what this would do to their applicants in trying to submit a full spectrum of stories in support of their candidacy?

We agree, recommendations is a sore spot. Getting your recommenders to deal with the complexity of multiple applications is difficult. (It’s why we developed a special service called the Recommenders’ Instruction Sets, to help them navigate that complexity.) We applaud the noble intentions of these schools in trying to simplify the process – even though they’re the ones who created it, by reducing the essay questions and thus tacitly encouraging more apps to more places. So it’s nice to see them try to be responsive to concerns.

But yet again, it’s schools playing copycat with each other, and we are simply left wondering if there is strategy behind this? Or just a me-too impulse? It all seems so misguided. How is this going to allow your applicants to share enough of themselves with you, that you can make informed decisions on their candidacy?

Michigan Ross – and Columbia and Kellogg and yes – maybe especially – Wharton too: We hate to say it, but you’re no Harvard Business School.

We continued on this topic by addressing some strategies of dealing with standardized letters of recommendation here.


  1. FPHAWK says

    Does Essaysnark think that there is more collaboration going on at these schools? Do they collaborate on admit/deny decisions to protect their yield?

    • essaysnark says

      Yes the adcoms talk with each other but not about admit decisions, as far as we know (might even be illegal to do that). We do know that certain applicants have been discussed after the fact, over cocktails at happy hour! But yield protection is not the reason why.

  2. vasilescu says

    What if a reccomender writes a bit more than the 300 words limit?

    I mean, for us as applicants, word limits are pretty damn important, but what if a reccomender wants to cover a bit more (maybe because he/she too thinks that 300 words might be pretty darn few to cover what he wants to say and he/she doesn’t have time to do multiple revisions, compressions etc, as we do?)

    How would a school see an answer of .. 500 words to a 300 words question?…

    • essaysnark says

      Shouldn’t be a problem except that some schools’ recommender systems prevent too much text from being entered so we can’t say that it will always be fine due to those technical limits that may crop up. The adcoms are fine with recommenders going overlimit though, they should just be reasonable.

      • vasilescu says

        Yeah, I forgat that the systems might have an automated limit to word input.. makes sense..

        Thank you!

        • FPHAWK says

          Pretty sure HBS allowed for a .docx or .pdf to be uploaded this year. No problem if recommender goes over.

          • essaysnark says

            Yes, most schools allow uploads like that, but there’s always the outlier that causes problems.

  3. kaplanmj says

    I have seen it mentioned on another admissions consultants website that Darden and Yale also went to these standardized questions, but I can’t confirm that looking through Yale’s application or on their website.

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