How to Earn a Great Recommendation Letter

In this video you will learn the 5 key steps to getting a great recommendation letter. Haven’t developed a connection? No problem – this video will guide you on how to ask a professor even if you have only worked with them for a short period.

How to Tackle Personal Statement

This video will explain common mistakes students make in their admissions essays. After watching this video, you will know understand the 3 "Hows" of writing a Personal Statement:

  1. How to Avoid Common Mistakes
  2. How to Apply Personal Statement Best Practices
  3. How to Get Started

How to Master the CV

In this video we will cover resume and CV best practices. At the conclusion of this video, you will have learned:

  • What to include in your CV / resume
  • How to highlight achievements and work experience
  • How to structure your CV / resume to catch an Admissions Officer’s attention

How to Ace Your Admissions Interview

In this video you will learn how to best prepare for a successful interview. At the end of this video, you will understand how to make a memorable impression on your interviewer! This video will help you with the following topics:

  1. How to Prepare (what to consider why applying, research before the interview, and appropriate dress)
  2. How to Ace Common Questions (organization and preparation for common questions)
  3. How to Follow-up (ensure you communicate your continued interest)

Scholarships and Financial Aid: How to Apply

In this video you will learn why universities offer scholarships, how to make yourself competitive when applying, and scholarships application best practices. After watching, you will have insights into how you can tailor your application to increase your chances of receiving financial aid.

How to make your PS stand out?

In this video, the former Regional Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago will use a few examples to teach you how to impress admissions officers with your personal statement.

Competitive Scholarships: The Gates Cambridge Scholarship

The following is part of a series of posts by different mentors looking to introduce you to the world of competitive scholarships that can give American and international students opportunities to see the world, explore interesting research within their field, and afford an elite education! Below is a piece on the Gates Cambridge scholarship!

Many outstanding individuals apply for the Gates Cambridge scholarship every year. It is a terrific scholarship program, largely, in my experience, because of the awesome community that you become apart of while at Cambridge and beyond. What will help to set your application apart? To compliment a terrific piece that was written by my friend and Gates alum Greg Nance (How to win a full scholarship to Cambridge, also found in the ChaseFuture content library), I reflected on my experience applying for the Gates and the aspects of my application that I think played a role in my earning the scholarship. These were: (1) a thoughtful personal statement (2) learning experiences outside the classroom, and (3) strong references. While Greg and I seem to agree on the three main factors that earned us each the scholarship, like the diversity of scholars on the program, our approach to those factors are also diverse.

I. Thoughtful Personal Statement

Gates looks in particular for leadership potential and a commitment to improving the lives of others. You don’t need to speak to everything on your CV in order to illustrate that you possess these characteristics. In high school and throughout my undergraduate degree I spent my summers working at a summer camp. It was a job that I was extremely passionate about and one that enabled me to impact the lives of others in a positive way on a regular basis. I also had been recognized for my work at the camp through a leadership award. I felt that the work I had done at the camp was a great illustration of my passion, leadership and commitment to improving the lives of others. While I had other work that illustrated these qualities, I used my work at camp as the basis of my personal statement because it mattered a lot to me and I knew I would be able to convincingly and passionately write about my work there. I used the story of my work at camp to illustrate rather than tell Gates about the kind of person that I am, my fit with the Gates criteria, and to depict the passion that I would bring to the research I had proposed to do at Cambridge.

II. Learning Experiences Outside the Classroom

Like Greg, many of my greatest learning experiences throughout my undergraduate degree were those that I had outside of the classroom. I worked with an enriched support program that enabled students, who had not initially been admitted to a university degree program, the opportunity to gain admission. I volunteered with the center on campus for students with disabilities, and with a number of non-profit organizations. I also raced with one of the swim clubs on campus. My involvement in these various communities allowed me to build my CV and displayed my leadership skills, and my desire and ability to juggle a number of things at once. The nature of the activities, and roles that I took on with these activities also displayed my passion, and desire to improve the lives of others.

III. Strong Reference Letters

When you apply to the University of Cambridge you are required to have two academic references. For the Gates Cambridge scholarship, you also need one personal reference. My academic references were professors with whom I had taken a number of classes with throughout my university career and so were able to speak to my academic development throughout my time in the program. For the Gates scholarship, the personal reference is particularly important. 

While working for the Enriched Support program, I worked closely with the program director at the time, Hal. Hal had observed me facilitate workshops for my students. When I moved into a leadership position in the program, where I oversaw the work of other facilitators, I worked with Hal closely to help train and provide feedback for the facilitators I oversaw. I spent many meetings with Hal discussing my facilitator team. We also discussed, at great length, my academic work, my interests, my big goals, and how I hoped to achieve them. Myself and the other three team leaders even took a road trip out to visit Hal, one snowy weekend, at his house in the country. I was really lucky to have a referee who really knew me and was able to speak about me holistically in terms of my leadership potential, teamwork skills, and work ethic, and also my academic goals, and achievements, and how I fit the criteria of the scholarship. I am very lucky to still have Hal as a friend and mentor!

I think that it was the combination of my personal statement, learning experiences outside the classroom, and strong recommendation that played a role in my being fortunate enough to earn the Gates scholarship. Every Gates scholar approaches their application a differently, and personal statement, learning experiences and recommendations vary substantially between each scholar. There is no secret formula to earning the Gates (or at least that I'm aware of)! What is important is that these factors illustrate your passion, and your fit with the Gates community!

*ChaseFuture is now Dyad.

CV Best Practices

What is the purpose of the CV / resume?

It’s a 1-page summary of your experience, skills, and qualifications. A human resources official or admissions officer is likely to spend only 30 seconds reading your CV so it’s essential to tailor your profile to demonstrate competence for the desired opportunity.

What are the essentials of a strong CV?

  • Use bullet point summaries with actionable descriptions of your work: “Launched program to…” “Researched economic implications of…” “Developed initiative to…”
  • Quantify your personal contribution and impact whenever possible. How much money did you raise? How many volunteers recruited? What percentile (%) achievement?
  • Highlight relevant skills for your target opportunity. A finance company is looking for quantitative skills while a law firm is likely seeking analytical and communication skills.

What are stylistic considerations to take my CV to the next level?

  • Separate into distinct categories: Education, Experience (employment, research, leadership), Awards, Skills
  • Use bolding and italics to draw attention to organizations + titles on your CV
  • Include location + dates to contextualize your experiences
  • Include your name and contact information (email + phone number) at the top
  • White space is powerful because it draws attention to your key information instead of obscuring behind less relevant material.

Follow these steps to polish your CV and stand out to prospective employers and human resource officers.


Greg Nance

ChaseFuture CEO

*ChaseFuture is now Dyad.

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 reaching out 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.


Greg Nance

ChaseFuture CEO

*ChaseFuture is now Dyad.

How Do You Guide Your Recommendation Writers?

So, you figured out who to ask for a letter of recommendation, built the relationship, made the request, and they've agreed to write for you. Great work! Now, how do you make sure you're getting the best recommendations possible?

Your recommenders may be juggling dozens of reference requests every year. That's why it's important to ask early, and to give your recommenders what they need in order to write the strongest letters possible. Prepare an easy less-than-one-page document for each of your recommenders that communicates these key pieces of information:

The logistics: Where are you applying? What is the due date? How is the recommendation to be submitted?

Your application: What is the personal narrative for your application? What are you highlighting and how are you presenting yourself? Give your recommender a sense of the broader context of your application so that they can write the most relevant and complimentary letter possible.

Highlights of your relationship: You know your recommenders like you - now give them ammunition they need in advocating for you. For teachers, remind them of your grades in their classes, along with any particularly important projects you may have done. For coaches or other community leaders, reiterate your contributions and accomplishments with in your shared organization.

The specific value of the letter: If you want your recommender to highlight a specific story or character trait, be sure to let them know!

Remember, your recommender is doing you a favor, and you want to make that favor easier, not add more work! Keep your one-pager short and tight, use bullet points and white space, and always express gratitude.

Writing a Personal Essay

The hardest essay I have ever had to write was the personal statement for my graduate school applications. It was so hard to know where to begin. You need to make it unique, memorable, persuasive, and professional.  Highlighting your accomplishments without sounding arrogant, and this is not an easy task.

In your first paragraph, you need to grab the reader’s attention.  It often helps if you tell a brief story, or include a favourite quote.  The goal is to make it interesting and personable. It is your chance to show your personality. You should conclude your first paragraph with the specific program you want to apply to and a few words about why. The body of your essay should describe any experiences that seem relevant. It is important to emphasize your unique role or contribution to a project, what you learned, and how it motivated you to submit this application.

You should end your essay with what you hope to do if accepted to the program. Describe your specific research interests and name a few researchers who you are hoping to work with. Be careful to name people who are all working on similar research topics. You don’t want to seem unfocused by wanting to work with researchers who are tackling completely different questions.

My advice is to start drafting your ideas early. I didn't write my essay in one sitting. I knew I had to write it and kept a pen and note pad with me for weeks. Whenever I felt inspired by something I would write down my thoughts, which was a huge help when I finally sat down to write.

Writing about yourself and your motivations should be easy, but my personal essay was one of the hardest and most important essays I have ever had to write.

How to Prepare for a College Admissions Interview

Applying for college can be a daunting and stressful experience. There are just so many components: SATs, other standardized test scores, essays, recommendation letters, and even resumes. For some, the interview component is particularly nerve-racking. And, since the undergraduate admissions interview is not yet a common component of all college application processes, it can be hard to find information and prepare. As an alumni interviewer at the University of Chicago, I hope to provide a few suggestions that help prospective applicants, undergraduates in particular, prepare for this part of college admissions.

1. Be on time. First impressions last. Interviewers are more likely to write glowing recommendations on behalf of applicants if they are punctual. And most interviewers I know have no sympathy for tardiness.

2. Understand the nature of interview. The nature of undergraduate interviews varies among top universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. So, what are the differences?

On the one hand, British interviews tend to be mandatory, evaluative, and academic in nature. Extracurricular activities are rarely, if ever, discussed at such interviews. Expect academic questions that you most likely have not encountered before. The goal of these interviews is to comprehend your thought process. It is fine if you arrive at the wrong answer, as long as you explicit acknowledge your answer is false and offer explanations as to what might have gone wrong with your reasoning process.

On the other hand, American undergraduate interviews tend to be more casual and conversational. In most cases, interviews are optional in the US. Interviewers are getting to know you on a personal level. This means that American interviewers are interested in learning about your penchants and endeavors outside of class. Remember, many American institutions are not only evaluating applicants but also assembling a class with diverse interests, skills, and personalities.

3. Know your school and be prepared to highlight your fit. Most tippy-top universities in the US have unique campus vibes, and they are interested in learning whether given applicants would feel right at home upon matriculation and whether said students would benefit from their curricula and culture. Some schools are more pre-professional and technical than others, and some focus on liberal arts. The former tends to look for expertise or achievements in specific disciplines. The latter tends to seek students who are well-rounded. The undergraduate college at the University of Chicago has a liberal arts curriculum. I naturally look for students who harbour a genuine passion for learning and wide interests in various subjects. Since many courses at the University of Chicago are discussion-based, I also look for students who are analytical and not afraid to voice their opinions in class.

4. Be prepared to answer common questions. Many applicants underestimate the likelihood of having to answer questions commonly asked at interviews. These questions include but are not limited to:

  • ‘What do you see yourself doing ten or twenty years from now?’ It is perfectly acceptable if you have not committed to a particular profession, but make sure you highlight a couple of subjects that interest you and use this opportunity to convey your plan to explore these disciplines in-depth at the beginning of your college career.
  • ‘Describe an obstacle you’ve overcome?’
  • ‘What do you read outside of class? What TV shows do you watch? What sports do you play?’
  • ‘Describe your strengths and weaknesses.’
  • ‘Why should (insert school name) accept you?’
5. Prepare questions for your interviewer. Most interviewers for American institutions are alumni of the colleges under your consideration. Coming prepared with questions for interviewers is not just a formality; it is a chance to get to understand a given school and continuously whether that school remains the right fit for you.

6. Thank your interviewer afterward. A succinct note, card, or email would suffice. It’s a polite thing to do and something that isn't just reserved for college interviews, but any others you have later on, from informational interviews to job interviews.


You have learned about the following:

  • How to write a PS and CV that will emphasize your unique experiences and skills
  • How to apply for scholarships and financial aid
  • How to develop a timeline to ensure you complete all your application materials on-time
  • Strong applications are not made overnight – they take planning, dedication, and skill
  • Research is key – get context and all the facts about the programs you apply to
  • Establish a connection between your dream school and your strengths as a candidate

Use your Personal Statement to Stand Out!

What to avoid when writing your Personal Statement:

  • Generic or boring introduction
  • Unspecific, generic reasons for applying
  • Arrogant or begging tone

Best practices for a great Personal Statement include:

  • Attention-grabbing introduction
  • Specific reasons explaining why you are a good fit
  • Show what you will do with a great education

We also invite you to read our application guides:

For more guidance on application components and materials, schedule an appointment with a Dyad Mentor todayContactcontact