MBA Application Preparation: Reference

Generally, we get a lot of questions about the reference requirements we have at London Business School for our applications. After all, it is the one part of the application that you may not necessarily have complete control over! In the second blog of our MBA Application Preparation series, I want to shed a little bit of light on why we ask for a professional reference, and what information it gives to the Admissions Committee when they read applications.

What is the reference?

Reference. Letter of reference. Letter of recommendation. It might be named different things by different business schools, but for London Business School, we call it reference. For applications to the MBA programme, we only require one professional reference.

It gives us the Admissions Committee a little more insight into you as a candidate. They will have an idea of who you are from the application form and the essays, but the reference gives more of an external view of who you are. A strong reference will be able to give insights into character and abilities, and show that you’re a professional, unique, and well-regarded individual, ready to adjust to the rigorous nature of a business school programme.

Why do business schools like LBS ask for a professional reference?

Unlike our pre-experience programmes, like our Masters in Management, Masters in Financial Analysis and our Masters in Analytics and Management, who accept an academic reference, we prefer a professional reference as part of the MBA application. The reason for this is that we’re a post experience programme – we require candidates to have at least 2 years of work experience, so it’s very likely it will have been some time since you were at university. As a result, an academic reference would not paint a current picture of you and you want to be sure you’re providing the Admissions Committee with as up-to-date information as you can.

Who should I ask to be my referee?

This question is really a vital one to ask! You’ll want to make sure you’re submitting the highest quality application you can, so of course who to pick as your referee will feed into this. My top piece of advice is to pick someone that knows you well – someone who can attest to your overall character, your day-to-day work, who can assess things like how you work in a team, how you handle pressure and what your leadership potential is like. We sometimes get asked if it’s better to ask someone who is very senior in the company, like a CFO or CEO, to write the reference, but this is not the best idea if they have absolutely no idea who you are and what you do!

In light of this, asking a direct line manager is probably the best port of call as they will have a close working relationship with you. They will know your personality, understand your performance at work and be able to assess your potential for the future.

What if I’m not telling my manager/company that I’m applying for an MBA, or I work for a family business? Who should I ask?

Do not worry if you’re not telling your company you’re looking to go to business school – the Admissions Committee comes across this a lot. If you have clients you work quite closely with, that could be a good option. If there are colleagues you trust that you work with, that could be another avenue. Alternatively, you could ask a former line manager if you’ve recently changed companies (more on this below!)

If you work for a family business, it’s imperative that you do not ask a family member to write a reference for you. This is a conflict of interest, so please look to any clients the company has, or any non-family members present in the business.

What if I’ve moved roles and I want a former line manager to write the reference for me? Can I do that?

This is okay, but with a caveat. It’s generally best that it’s been no more than 2 years since you moved companies. As I mentioned earlier, you’re going to want to craft your application to be an up-to-date picture of you, so asking someone you haven’t worked with in some time, will limit their ability to do this. So, if you have changed roles quite recently and you don’t want to jeopardise anything in your current firm, it’s okay to look to former colleagues or managers to write the reference.

You only ask for one professional reference. Can I submit any other letters of reference or recommendation?

We do not accept any other general letters of reference or recommendation. The only exception we have to this is if you have a connection to LBS students or alumni and they wish to write a recommendation for you. Please ask your LBS connection to email us at for them to get access to the form.

But don’t worry if you don’t know anyone from LBS yet! It’s not a mandatory part of the application to have LBS connections.

Any other pieces of advice?

Although you won’t be able to control what they write on your reference, it’s a great idea to brief your referee. Do let them know why you require the reference, and do share with them your motivations for applying to LBS and for your career goals. Taking them out for a coffee to do this never hurts! Be sure to ask them in plenty of time ahead of application submission!

Finally, if they’re busy and they ask you to write it instead, do not do this under any circumstance. If this happens, it’s best to look to another person to write the reference.

Read the first blog of the series: MBA Application Preparation: GMAT/GRE

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