Common Letter of Recommendation: The Biggest Headache Relief for Applicants that You Haven’t Heard Of

by Elaine Conces, VP of Graduate Programs
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After you take the GMAT and achieve a solid score, it’s time to begin completing applications for your target business schools – including rounding up the people who will write your recommendation letters.

Admissions Committees want to hear from your current or former boss, and usually someone else who has observed you from a managerial standpoint. It’s never easy to start a conversation with, “Um, Boss, I am going to leave the company, and I would love for you to write the recommendation that allows me to do so.” Even if you have a supportive manager, or you plan to return, or you’re pursuing a part-time or executive-level program, you are still asking a big favor.

In the past, if you were applying to more than one business school, you had to ask an even bigger favor – “Will you write multiple recommendations for me?” Each school asked similar but different questions of recommenders, and often with different word counts and restrictions. One school might allow an entire recommendation letter to be submitted, while another might restrict the recommender to online boxes with strict word counts. ... That was then, but luckily for you, this is now.

GMAC, the maker of the GMAT, has quietly led a business school movement to standardize on a Common Letter of Recommendation, and this year, without much fanfare, 32 U.S. schools and three international schools have adopted it.

What does this mean for you?

You can spend less time coaching your recommenders on the idiosyncrasies of recommendation prompts, and more time explaining what the Admissions Committees is seeking.

Your recommenders can spend less time wordsmithing answers to meet different school requirements before different deadlines, and more time constructing thoughtful answers.

Your recommenders will be less likely to bow out after writing two or three recommendations, and more likely to maintain enthusiasm levels.

You will be less likely to need to seek out additional “backup” recommenders if you are applying to, say, six or seven business schools over an admissions season.

By reducing stress on your recommenders and yourself, you will maintain positive relationships with your manager and your other professional mentors and/or boosters – and avoid a few headaches.

What are the questions?

The Common Letter of Recommendation (CLOR) asks the following open-ended questions:

  1. Please provide a brief description of your interaction with the applicant and, if applicable, the applicant’s role in your organization. (50 words – some schools ask for character count, instead)
  2. How does the performance of the applicant compare to that of other well-qualified individuals in similar roles? Please provide specific examples. (E.g. what are the applicant’s principal strengths? (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. (500 words)

Some schools include an “Optional” section to add more information, if needed.

In addition, the CLOR asks the recommender to assign ratings to 12 competencies and character traits:

  1. Achievement
  2. Results Orientation
  3. Communication and Professional Impression, Poise and Presence
  4. Influence and Collaboration
  5. Respect for Others
  6. Team Leadership
  7. Developing Others
  8. Trustworthiness/Integrity
  9. Adaptability/Resilience
  10. Self Awareness
  11. Problem Solving
  12. Strategic Orientation

Which schools are using the Common Letter of Recommendation?

The CLOR was piloted last year by Cornell Johnson, NYU Stern, and Michigan Ross, and Virginia Darden (with questions adapted from Stanford GSB’s LOR), but many new U.S. schools came on board this year. Below is a summary of how some popular U.S. business schools are choosing to use the CLOR, and which schools are keeping their own set of questions and evaluation criteria.

Common Letter of Recommendation Usage by Top MBA Programs
Why has there been so little noise about the Common Letter of Recommendation?

Articles have appeared in industry media like Poets & Quants and ClearAdmit. The schools themselves, however, have made very little fuss about the change, in part because they have been moving slowly toward similar recommendation prompts for a long time. The adoption of a CLOR seems like a natural progression.

For example, Duke Fuqua has not adopted the CLOR questions word for word, but its LOR questions have very similar content. One question asks, “What do you perceive as the applicant’s areas for growth? Describe the applicant’s awareness of these areas and his/her response to constructive feedback.” Fuqua pointedly seeks self-awareness, while the CLOR question is more open-ended.

That said, the new Common Letter of Recommendation is a big step forward. Admissions officers are aware of applicants’ pain points, and are showing a refreshing willingness to collaborate to bring relief. The schools may be rivals, but they are working together to improve the application process for everyone.

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