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Whether you are applying to an MBA, MFA or medical school program, you are probably wondering what to ask your recommenders to write about you.  Here's the answer.

By Ben Feuer

We've all lived through it -- the intimidating moment when your boss says, "You know I love you, Bob.  Just tell me what you want me to write for your recommendation and I will."  As if applying to school wasn't hard enough without this --

Never fear!  Although it sounds like a lot of work (and it is), there is a proven strategy for success that you can use.  This formula applies to any recommendation for any kind of school, and is easy to follow.

1.  Get the prompts.

The first thing you will have to do is get the prompts that your employers/peers/beach buddies will be answering.  After all, you don't want to write 500 words when they need 500 characters!

2.  Come up with three traits.

Choose three traits that you feel elevate you above your peers -- things that make you among the strongest in your peer group.  For every trait you select, pick one or two stories that exemplify this trait.  These should be stories where you added value to an organization or a relationship, cases where you went beyond your job description, or situations where you were the first or the best at something relative to your peers.  They should be stories your recommender remembers well.

Avoid using traits like hard-working, smart, competent, dependable -- these are extremely common, extremely bad choices that merely highlight how able you are to perform your current job, not how ready you are to take on the next one.  Here are some possible traits --


3.  Think about your weaknesses -- carefully.

Writing the positive side of the recommendation is the easy part.  Writing about your weaknesses is a little trickier, only because there are a few pitfalls to avoid.  First, don't universalize your weaknesses.  Confine them to specific instances and situations, just as you did with your strengths.  If they were corrected, explain, using examples to show how you have evolved since the 'old days'.  Second, avoid weaknesses that are too damning (uncontrollable temper or depression, resistance to authority, violence) or too lame (too hard-working, too eager to please).

One of the main tricks to writing a great 'weakness' recommendation is showing how you handle and internalize any feedback you are given, so be sure and give a lot of detail, more than you think you need, on how you respond to criticism and how you incorporate it into your behavior moving forward.


So there you have it!  Hopefully, this has made recommendations a bit less intimidating for you.  If you still have questions, feel free to contact me and ask!