Many business school applicants make two costly mistakes concerning the recommendations they must secure to apply to MBA programs. The first mistake is assuming that since someone else is writing your recs, you have no control of what they say (psst: you do!). The second mistake is in choosing a recommender—if you choose the wrong people to write your recommendations, it doesn’t matter how fabulously glowing their reviews of you are.

So what makes a bad recommender? Well, that’s for another blog (a really long one that, frankly, I don’t have the time to write). Instead, I will answer a question we get asked a lot by MBA applicants: Does my recommender have to be a professional recommender? Some schools say extracurricular is OK, so…well, is it?

I like questions with easy answers, and this one is pretty basic: Extracurricular resources are almost NEVER a good choice—unless a program specifically asks for it, as does Chicago Booth for the 2013–2014 application season.

Now I know what you’re thinking: It’s just not fair! After all, you put in 10 hours a week at that non-profit for homeless people, working your butt off on that auction, which raised more money than any previous year in history! Or you held a board position on that committee for immigrant children, and that’s actual leadership that MBA programs are supposed to care about! And the co-chair of Protect the Sea Otters has worked with you for six years, so they know you better than any of your stupid Managing Directors!

I get it. I feel your pain. And as a fan of Sea Otters, I thank you for your service. And while you have plenty of valid arguments, the simple fact is that MBA programs want to see recommendations from professional sources. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. It levels the playing field. If everyone has the same type of recommender, it makes it easier for adcoms to evaluate and compare different applicants. 
  2. Employers tend to have higher standards. If someone pays you for your service, they expect a certain level of drive, commitment, and effort. They also have a very clear idea of your ability to meet expectations. If you volunteer somewhere, this is not always the case. 
  3.  It is a business degree you’re applying for. Finally, the obvious—you’re applying to b-school, not v-school. So the schools ultimately want to see how you do in a business setting, not a volunteer one.

So, yes—it’s always best to choose a professional recommender (for more info on how to select the best professional recommender, see Chapter 6 of The MBA Reality Check). And this is the case even when schools say it’s OK to have an extracurricular recommender! Schools love to say one thing but evaluate you for another. Seriously.

However, I know you have one final worst-case-scenario question: What if you can only secure one strong professional recommendation? Is it better to have a BAD professional recommendation for rec #2, or a really good extracurricular one?

If it comes down to the above scenario, then go ahead and break the rules and get the extracurricular rec. I’d always prefer to see a good rec than a bad one, regardless of category**. Just know that you’re at a slight disadvantage, so the recs better both be GREAT, and you better have amazing essays to boot!

**This does not apply to academic recommendations or the recommendation of a family member, both of which I refer to as “suicide letters.” The only time you should ever get a recommendation from a family member is if you work in a family business, and a family member is the only person with authority over you—and even then, you’re usually better off going with a client, a vendor, legal counsel, or someone else.

If you can’t get recommendations from either a professional or extracurricular source, then don’t bother applying. Go get a job instead—and do it well.

--Justin Marshall