Depending on the program to which you are applying, your graduate business school application requires you to get one or more recommendations. Consider these to be your "expert witnesses," testifying on your behalf. Getting references for your application is not simply an exercise of finding people willing to do this for you and then having them do it - if done well, you will come out looking better.
Who should I ask?
This will differ by program. For example, most MBA programs prefer to see references from current and/or former employers whereas specialized programs (e.g. master of accounting, master of finance, etc.) may prefer to see references from professors who know you well. Why is this the case? Well, MBA programs, by and large, value post undergraduate work experience as part of a successful application. As such, references from employers make the most sense in this context. On the other hand, most specialized programs welcome applicants with little or no work experience - for those programs, professors as references make the most sense.
How well does the person know you?
The best kind of reference is the one who knows you very well. By very well, we mean he or she is not simply going to state an opinion but, rather, your reference will illustrate the opinion with an observation.
Example 1: "John is an outstanding writer."
Improved example 1: "John is an outstanding writer. For example, in my art history class, John submitted a 24 page research paper on Pablo Picasso's work in the early 20th century. His paper was one of the best I've read from a student in the past 15 years. It really stood out from the rest due to its clarity, conciseness, and thoroughly researched footnotes."
Example 2: "John is an effective team leader."
Improved example 2: "John is an effective team leader. Last year, he helped lead a team of five people in my division on improving the internal purchasing processes we use. As a result of his team's work and John's leadership, our unit saved over $20,000 during the first six months of the current fiscal year."
The best references are the ones that can tell the story of you and your accomplishments.
How much time should you give someone to submit a recommendation on your behalf?
This sounds like "common sense" advice (and it is!) but always ensure you give your references enough time to prepare your recommendations. Does your program have an application deadline? If so, we recommend telling your references you need the recommendations to be completed no less than two weeks prior to the deadline. This gives you a little bit of wiggle room in case something goes awry at the last minute.
Does your reference know what you're applying to? And why?
You will do your references an enormous favor if you have a conversation with them on why you are applying to the program(s) you are applying to: Why are you applying to that program at that university? How will that program help you achieve your short term / intermediate / long term goals? Providing your motivation and rationale to the individuals you have asked will help them be better informed when preparing recommendations on your behalf.
The tips listed here provide you with a better template on how to approach getting the best references for your application. Help them help you get into your desired graduate business program!