Charles Lipson
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E-mail: [email protected]


Charles Lipson

Peter B. Ritzma Professor

Political Science Department

University of Chicago

5828 S. University Ave.

Chicago, IL 60637


Advice on Getting a Good Recommendation
For B.A. and M.A. Students


Charles Lipson
University of Chicago


To write a useful recommendation, professors need to review your overall academic performance. You need to provide the essential information. Include it all in a single packet and give it to the faculty member. Don't wait til the last minute to do this!

Naturally, the best recommendations come from faculty in courses where you have performed well. They also come from teachers who have worked closely with you--supervising a paper, exchanging ideas in a seminar, or holding discussions during office hours.

It is much better to get 2 very good recommendations than to get 2 very good ones and 1 mediocre one. You definitely want to ask professors for whom you made an A or B+, not those for whom you made a B- or C+. In any case, it is worthwhile to ask potential recommendation writers if they could please review your materials and let you know if they will be able to write a recommendation that will help you. You might add, "If you cannot write a strong recommendation, I will understand and appreciate your telling me." After all, a faculty member may not know you well enough or may be unsure if you should undertake graduate work right now. It is much better to learn that firsthand (even if it is unpleasant news) than to get a lukewarm recommendation from that person. Also, if you worked closely with a teaching assistant, please let the faculty member know which one to contact. That could also help your recommendation.

Checklist of key items to include in a packet for the professor: Put everything in the packet. Please put your name, email, and purpose of the recommendation on the outside.

• Packet with your name, email address, and purpose of the recommendation, such as law school, an MA program, or a particular type of job
• Cover Sheet with your name, address, phone, e-mail, picture, and purpose of the recommendation
  Recommendations requested from Prof. Lipson must include his special cover sheet:
       + Current undergraduates can download it here (as Word document) or here (as PDF)
       + Current MA students can download it here (as a Word document) or here (as PDF)
       + Former students can download it here (as a Word document) or here (as PDF)
• List of grades and courses by academic year; include course title and professor
• Grade Point Average, both overall and major
• Candid explanation of strong and weak points in your record
• Research papers and exams; include in packet if helpful
• Personal statement and other statements, if any
• Extracurricular activities and work history
• Special skills such as languages, math, study abroad, etc.
• Scores on GREs or LSATs with percentile ranking
• Date when recommendations are due
• Confidential file established at a central location such as
• Initial recommendation should be sought while you are still in school and updated later
• Photograph of yourself; a photocopy is fine

Write a thank you letter after the recommendation has been completed.:

Here are the items in more detail:


Include a cover sheet with your name, phone number, address, and e-mail address.

Here is the cover sheet for
      Current undergraduates (as Word document) or (as PDF)
      Current MA students (as a World document) or (as PDF)
      Former students (as a Word document) or (as PDF)
You will notice that my cover sheet asks for a few pieces of essential information, all designed to help your professor write a more effective recommendation. You may be surprised that I ask you to include a small photograph. There is a good reason. Professors may be embarrassed that they don't always associate your name with your face. Make it easy for them!
Please feel free to use my forms for your other professors and recommendation writers. They have told me it helps them . . . and that can only help you.


On this cover sheet, prominently state what the recommendation is for. Is there an important deadline? .

Is it for a job, law school, business school, MA program, PhD in political science? If there is a time deadline, please highlight that. If you need a recommendation for two possibilities, say an MA program and a Public Policy MPP, please say so since that will require two distinct letters.

It is crucial for your recommendation writer to know exactly what the letter is for. While all jobs and graduate programs want smart, hard-working students, they look for different attributes to meet their different requirements. A PhD program in political science, for example, trains researchers. That means they are especially interested in your scholarly abilities and your capacity to do original work. A Master's program in public policy, on the other hand, trains public officials, policy analysts, and senior managers for city, state, and local governments. It's irrelevant to them if you might become an "innovative, original scholar." But they care deeply about your political and organizational experience and your leadership skills.

A good recommendation writer highlights the qualities that are most valued in the field where you are applying. That's why you need to say exactly what the recommendation is for, and that's why you need to supply the relevant information to the recommendation writer..


List all your courses--by their names, numbers, and teachers--along with your grades.
Include your overall GPA and your GPA for your concentration.

Organize your courses by the year you took them. This does not need to be an official transcript (unless your recommendation writer asks for it). Be sure to list the full name of the courses since the recommendation writer might not know that P.S. 290 is Charles Lipson's course, "Introduction to International Relations." The list would look something like this:

Year Title of Course Faculty
  Special notes  
3rd Year        
S.S. 109 Power (Core) Herrigel
PS 214 World Politics in the 19th Century Lipson
Major paper on Franco-Prussian War received an "A."

Include your Grade Point Average, both for your overall performance and for your major.


Please explain any weak points in your record. Highlight any special strengths.

If you wish to add some explanatory information, please do. For example, "my 2nd year grades were a bit low because my mother was very sick and I visited her several times. My grades picked up again in the 3rd year and are a better reflection of my academic abilities." Or you may wish to explain that you worked long hours at a work-study job. A good recommendation letter can help explain weak points in your record, but only if the recommender knows about them.

Good information can also help on the positive side. For example, you might tell the recommendation writer that "I received an "A" in this course mainly because of my research paper on nuclear deterrence. I am now developing this work in my senior thesis." Concrete information like this can lead to a stronger recommendation, filled with telling details.

If your grades got better over time, or if you did especially well on longer papers, please highlight that.

The more you explain to your recommendation writer, the better the resulting letter of recommendation.

If you are an alum, please explain what you have been doing since graduation. If I have written you a previous recommendation, make sure you explain the key items since the previous recommendation that I need to include.


Enclose old exams and papers taken for the recommending professor and major papers written for any class.

They will assist the professor in saying something meaningful about your academic abilities.  If you want them back, please say so (or make copies in advance).

If you are writing a major paper for one of my classes, then my recommentation will be based heavily on the quality of that paper.

That means I cannot write the recommendation until you have turned in the paper and I have evaluated it. Most professors take this approach. This is less important, obviously, if you have already taken several courses with me and have a track record I can refer to. The same is largely true for courses with exams. I can write a better recommendation if I can refer to all your work in my course, including mid-terms, finals, and papers.

Bottom lines:
a. it's fine to ask me toward the end of the quarter if I can write a recommendation, but
b. it's unlikely I can actually respond to your request until I see your final performance in my
If you did well in the course, then I'd certainly want to include that. If you did not do well, then you'd be much better off getting a recommendation from another professor with whom you did your best work.

If you have already written a personal statement, please enclose it.

It is usually helpful in drafting a strong recommendation letter. (Also, the recommendation writer will sometimes notice ways you can improve your personal statement and therefore improve your chances for graduate school or a job.)


Be sure to include a list of your main activities outside class:

Were you involved in athletics, charity work, student government, Model U.N., or other activities?. These help the recommender give a fuller picture of your abilities and interests. Also, mention your job and the number of hours you work. If you have made excellent grades while working, say, ten hours a week and doing extensive extracurricular activities, that makes your record even more impressive. Likewise, if your summer jobs or travel are relevant to your recommendation, mention them in the information packet. Finally, please mention any honors you won or offices you held in college.


List any special skills or experience such as fluency in foreign languages, strong mathematics or statistics, etc.

It really strengthens a recommendation to say that a student is fluent in both English and Mandarin Chinese, or that she has taken advanced courses in anthropology or spent a summer working in Costa Rica. Please mention if you have lived abroad for extended periods, undertaken schoolwork in a foreign language, taken advanced courses in courses outside political science, or had work experience that is relevant to the recommendation you are requesting.  (If you are not a native English speaker, it may also be helpful for the recommendation to note that you are a fluent speaker, reader, and writer in English, as well as proficient in other languages. Please make that clear in the information you give to the recommendation writer.)


If you already know your GRE or LSAT scores, include them (and their percentiles) on the information sheets.


Gather all your materials in a manilla envelope and give them to the faculty member.

Put all these materials together in a manilla envelope with your name, email, and the purpose of the recommendation on the outside, so the professor can keep it all together.  If you want this material returned, say so and say where. (Professor Lipson normally returns items to Pick 401 or his office, Pick 418.)

Obviously, this is a lot of material--for you and the professor--but it is also quite helpful in producing a well-rounded letter of support. After all, we want to describe you and your strengths and say why you will do well in the future.

If you are mailing them to me, use my office address: 5828 So. University Ave., Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637

Let me add a few other pieces of advice:


It is a very good idea to keep the recommendation on file at a single, central location, such as You can also check with your university's career placement office to see if they keep student job recommendations on file or if have an arrangement with Interfolio.

Professors cannot easily send out multiple copies of recommendations. Most do not have secretaries, and it's a time-consuming task to send out multiple recommendations. Moreover, you will sometimes need them sent on short notice when faculty members are not available. The solution is simple: put all your confidential recommendations in one central location such as

Interfolio can easily send out copies to various schools and jobs--and you can reach them even if the professor is on leave next year! Moreover, it is much easier for faculty to file one or two recommendations at Interfolio than to send out 7 or 8 individual recommendations. In dealing with these recommendation services, be sure to include the proper signed forms if you want a recommendation on file. If you need more than one type of recommendation (say, one recommendation for law school and one for Ph.D. programs), then set up the appropriate files at interfolio. For any recommendations to be mailed, give the professor a stamped, addressed envelope.

My personal rule: For B.A. and M.A. students, I can only send out 2 recommendations directly to schools, and then only if you give me the proper forms and stamped, addressed envelopes. If you are applying to multiple schools and need several recommendations sent out, you must set up a central file.


If you need the recommendation by a specific date, please make that clear to the writer and ask well in advance, if possible.


If you are applying for graduate work in the professor's own field, be sure to ask for advice and counsel.

It is especially important to review the list of schools you are considering. Ask more than one faculty member, if possible. School X may be a fine place for undergraduate education, but not so fine for graduate study in your field. In fact, it may be excellent in economics but not in political science (or vice versa). The only way to find out is to ask professors in that field here at Chicago.


If you are applying to law school, consider where you want to live and practice.

If your grades are good, you will probably want to apply to the top "national" law schools such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Chicago, and several others. From them, you can apply for jobs around the country. Beyond these national schools, you will also want to consider state and local law schools. The key point here is that, if you want to practice in Dallas, you are a lot better off going to the University of Texas Law School than to the University of Illinois. It's just the opposite if you want to practice in Chicago. So think hard about whether you want to live in Philadelphia, Denver, or Seattle before choosing a law school, and then apply to the better ones in that region.


Get your recommendations while you are still in school and working closely with faculty. It is much easier for a writer to revise a recommendation later than to write a brand new one for a student who graduated two years ago.

If you anticipate applying to law, business, or doctoral programs but expect to wait a year or two after graduating before applying, you should nevertheless get your key professors to write recommendations now, while they still have your work and abilities fresh in their minds. Recommenders can easily modify their letters in a year or two to include new information. It is much harder to write a brand-new letter from scratch after a student has been out of school for several years.


Include a photograph.

It often helps to include a simple photo of yourself, especially if you don't know the professor well. A photocopy of a picture will do fine. Professors who write recommendations sometimes know you only from larger classes. They may recognize you well but not remember your name. They are also being asked to write recommendations for lots of other students. A photo helps because it will ensure that the professor correctly connects you with all your material.


Be thoughtful: write "thank you" notes to your recommenders.

Writing good recommendations takes time. Acknowledge your appreciation by writing a brief thank-you note to each professor after the recommendation is turned in.  An e-mail is fine. You might also wish to write a follow-up letter after you have selected the graduate program you will attend. Your professor will be interested in finding out and will appreciate your kindness.

**Good luck!**

For advice on writing a thesis, click here.

Pages on this Web site
Lipson Courses
Lipson talks
Home List of my courses
International Politics
Talks on Education & Honesty
Books by Charles Lipson
Talks by Charles Lipson Hard Questions in IR Theory
Courses offered
PIPES Workshop
International Relations Resources
World History& Politics
Reading, Writing, Plagiarism 15th-18th c. World Politics
How to Write a Thesis 19th c World Politics
Politics and Culture 20th c World Politics to 1945
Fun 20th c World Politics 1945-91
Talks on Global Issues
News Pages
Big Wars: Ancient, Medieval, & Early Modern What's New about the New Economy?
World News
Values, Politics, and Culture
The World America Made
Middle East News Core Western Values Political Threats to Global Prosperity
Headline News
Social Science Core
Turning Points of the 20th Century
World News-Web Audio Power, Identity, Resistance Democracies in World Politics
Advice for students
  Israel's Challenges
How to Write a Thesis   China in World Politics
Getting a Recommendation   The Cold War
Cover Sheets: Recs for undergrads; Recs for MA students; All Thesis writers   Why We Fought WW2
Law School: Advice on Applying  
(c) Charles Lipson, 2011