A Reference on References

Question: "Would the President of my University work as a reference?" Answer: "Absolutely!"

The Fisher Specialized Master in Business-Finance program requires you submit at least three references for your complete application application. There is some good advice out there on what is an effective reference as part of a graduate business program application. Here’s our take:

Who should write your reference letters?

1) The admissions committee wants to see references from people who know you well and can comment and provide evidence to support their opinions about you on your potential for success in a rigorous graduate business program.

2) Because most students applying to this program are undergraduate seniors at time of application, references from academic sources (professors, specifically) carry the most weight. References from non academic sources (e.g. internship supervisors, etc.) are good – but we would not classify them as “primary” references. Because the application requires three references, we expect to see at least three academic references.

3) Personal references do not carry much, if any weight, in an admission decision. If you want to be viewed as a serious applicant, references from family friends and/or roommates are not a good idea. (And, yes, we have seen references from family friends and roommates before!)

4) Teaching assistants do not carry much weight in the admissions process. Reason – they have not been in academia for a long time and their frames of reference are relatively small and narrow. Academic instructors who teach as their full time “jobs” (e.g. tenured professors, etc.) who have been doing this for some time will be your most effective academic references.

5) Academic advisers are a mixed bag … sometimes they’re effective, sometimes they’re not effective. Remember that an ineffective reference is one that that simply summarizes information from your resume and/or your essays. Academic advisers are sometime prone to doing this “summary” type of reference. If your academic adviser is also someone you have had as an instructor in one or more of your classes, s/he is more likely to be a relatively more effective reference.

Strong references should be able to discuss:

  • The validity of your claims of academic excellence, professional success and personal values
  • Your specific qualifications, including the depth of your academic and professional experiences
  • Your unique traits that are not covered anywhere else in the application

In summary, a strong letter of reference stands on its own. If it provides new information on you that is not found elsewhere in your application, this is a sign of a good reference. If it simply summarizes information found elsewhere in your application, this is a sign of a weak reference.

How many references should you get?

The SMF program application requires three references to be submitted as part of a complete application. (Only complete applications are reviewed for admission decisions.) Sometimes, an applicant will ask us, “I can get four or five very good references. How do I choose the ‘best’ three to submit?” Our response always is “If you can get four or five very good references, then get all four or five. As long as the four or five fit the criteria of being a *strong* reference, then get all four or five.” You will never be penalized for submitting “too many” strong references!

How should you approach your (potential) references?

How you approach your references sends a clear signal to your potential references as to how serious of a candidate you really are. Additionally, by doing some additional prep work up front, you will be doing a favor to your references by giving them clear direction on how they should approach your recommendations.

  • Never simply give the reference form to your references. You should always make an appointment to meet with each of your potential references. Be prepared to discuss with each of them the following information:
  • Briefly summarize the reasons why you are applying to this program
  • Let him/her know why you believe s/he would be a good reference for your application for admission.
  • Be prepared to discuss any issues or concerns your potential reference may have with respect to your candidacy for this program

If you get the sense that your potential reference may be giving you a lukewarm or perfunctory letter of recommendation, you should politely withdraw your request. It is better to spend time to get strong letters of reference than simply ask the first three people that come to mind. In the long run, your application will be stronger for your extra effort.

Although an applicant’s application will not be accepted or denied based on a single letter of reference, your references taken together are a very critical part of your application. Good references make your application stronger – weak/lukewarm references weaken your application.

I hope this helps give you some additional guidance on who and how you should approach for your references to the program. If you have any questions, please contact us.


0 Responses to “A Reference on References”


  1. No Comments

Leave a Reply