My Advice for Recommendation Letters: The Story of Charles and Me
Many students have asked me how to secure excellent recommendation letters. It's no secret that great recommendations are built on strong professional relationships. The better a professor knows you, the more specific their endorsement can be. But many of us forget that strong recommendations are developed over time.
Today I will share the story of how I built an enduring friendship with Professor Lipson, my international relations lecturer and mentor at UChicago. I will specifically highlight the important roles of reachingout and following up in securing an increasingly strong recommendation letter from Professor Lipson.
The story begins in the fall of 2008 during my Sophomore year at UChicago. I had just completed an internship with Merrill Lynch and had decided to pursue international relations instead of economics as my academic focus. I registered for Introduction to International Relations (or "Intro to IR, "as students call it), a course taught by the legendary professor, Charles Lipson. Professor Lipson is a large man with a booming southern voice, a quick wit and hilarious impersonations. From the first lecture I was riveted by the subject and found that the man was even sharper and funnier than his sterling reputation suggested.
After the first class ended I made my way to the front of the classroom and introduced myself. Professor Lipson's southern accent reminded me of the way my grandfather spoke so I asked him where he came from. He shared that he grew up in the sparsely populated delta region of northern Mississippi, just miles down the road from where my own father was raised! We shared a laugh and he told me to drop by his office to keep the conversation going.
Professor Lipson's office features overflowing bookshelves, a disheveled desk, two comfy sofas and a beautiful view of UChicago's campus. In our first meeting I asked several questions about the lecture topics and sought his opinion on a variety of current events, including the situation in North Korea and US-China relations. For such an accomplished academic, Charles is a very informal and goofy fellow who is able to discuss serious ideas while keeping a smile. I then shared how I aimed to connect the study of international relations to my growing interest in education reform and entrepreneurship. Charles nodded, smiled, scribbled a few notes and said that we would have to meet again soon.
At one of the next class lectures Professor Lipson announced that he would be decorating his front porch for Halloween and that each of us were invited to join him to hand out trick-or-treat candy. I made a note in my calendar and talked to a few friends if they wanted to accompany me. They had other obligations so I put on a cowboy hat and packed a plastic squirt gun and then walked over to Lipson's beautiful home on the edge of campus. Only a few students took Charles up on his offer to hand out candy but we had a total blast. The professor is a real jokester and we shared a number of laughs. As the evening was winding down Charles and I again began to discuss the intersection between IR, education reform and entrepreneurship. This conversation literally changed the trajectory of my life.
Shortly thereafter Charles forwarded me an email encouraging me to apply for the IMUSE Fellowship, co-hosted by Harvard and Tsinghua University in Beijing. The application looked daunting and I sought his advice before summoning the courage to ask him for a recommendation letter. He happily agreed and his strong endorsement of my genuine interest and qualification for the fellowship is what tipped the scale for my selection.
The 3 weeks I spent in Beijing were life changing. It was my first trip to China and opened my eyes to the dynamism of the nation's development as well as the numerous opportunities for innovation. I made friends during August 2009 that I am still in close touch with and gained real-world perspective on many of the university lectures. The fellowship also demonstrated the real potential to connect IR, education and entrepreneurship.
In many ways, these three weeks planted the seed for what would become ChaseFuture 37 months later when Shao Han and I co-founded the organization to expand university access. But this story deserves its own post!
Upon my return to UChicago in the Fall of 2009, I wrote Professor Lipson a hand-written note expressing my gratitude and delivered a bottle of wine from Bainbridge Island, my hometown in Washington State. He was very happy to hear that the fellowship had been a transformative experience and shared that few of the students that he writes recommendation letters for would follow-up to express thanks and keep him updated on the results. He was also pleased to hear that I had registered for two of his classes that fall, Big wars and 20 th Century World Politics.
I had learned a ton from Intro to IR and really enjoyed time with Professor Lipson. Now I would be taking two of his more advanced courses that would cover more content and build on earlier lessons. I was excited for the challenge and dove right in. I continued asking questions during and after lecture as well as in office hours. Big Wars provided an opportunity to write long essays on leaders of historical importance. The three that I profiled were Pericles, Francis I, and Napoleon. It was encouraging to hear Professor Lipson comment that my writing was improving and that my theoretical knowledge was becoming more refined.
In late 2009 I decided that graduate school might be in my future and I began searching for funding opportunities. I learned of the Harry S Truman Scholarship which funds graduate study for students dedicated to public service. I was intrigued and decided to apply. The scholarship required three recommendation letters and it was a no-brainer to again ask Professor Lipson for his endorsement.
Charles was able to write a much stronger recommendation letter this time. Why? Because I had followed up, taken additional courses, demonstrated improvements in my writing, and we continued discussing current events as well as my increasingly clear vision for my future (combining IR with education and entrepreneurship). Competitive applications always have many factors at play but strong recommendations are vital in any situation. I was granted an interview and eventually became the 2010 Truman Scholar from Washington State. I again wrote a note to Charles sharing my excitement to have graduate school financed by the scholarship.
As senior year rolled around I registered for another class with Professor Lipson and asked him to advise my bachelors thesis on American alliance strategy in East Asia. He agreed and our discussions on my thesis became a real highlight in my otherwise stressful schedule (I was balancing Student Government + NGO leadership, fraternity commitments, marathon + boxing training, travel and a girlfriend).
In the fall of 2010 I shared my desire to attend Cambridge Business School to pursue formal training in entrepreneurship. Charles was familiar with the Gates Scholarship, full funding for 32 Americans each year at Cambridge, and recommended I apply. He again offered to pen a recommendation letter in support of my candidacy. The Gates Scholarship required at least 4 recommendations and I was very happy to have Charles anchoring my application.
In February 2011 I successfully interviewed for the scholarship and was named a Gates Scholar, providing the opportunity to earn a masters degree from Cambridge University without cost to my family. I was taking the next step to reach my vision of connecting IR, education and entrepreneurship .
That spring I was able to spend a lot of time on Charles' porch and in his garden as we reflected on our time together. As always, I promised to keep him up to date on my journey and progress.
Now that I live in Shanghai, I don't get to see Charles much these days. But I keep in touch by sending an email update every couple months and a postcard when I have the chance to travel. As I plan trips back to Chicago I reach out to Charles to coordinate a time for coffee together.
There is no doubt that Charles has played a key role in my success. His encouragement has given me confidence, his watchful eye has flagged amazing opportunities, and his advice has been timely. He remains a mentor and role model for me as I navigate the next steps in my own development.
Many students have asked me how to earn excellent recommendations ... I simply tell them the story of Charles and me. The key is to build a real relationship over time by reaching out and following up. It's a basic strategy but it worked for me. I 'm confident it will work for you too if you make the time.
*Chasefuture is now Dyad.
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