How to Become a Rhodes Scholar
THE RHODES SCHOLARSHIP draws thousands of applicants each year with its prestigious reputation. Becoming a Rhodes scholar can feel like winning the lottery; it requires not only academic excellence but also a host of character qualities ranging from courage and kindliness to possessing a commitment to others.
But Christian Nattiel, a Rhodes scholar studying for an MBA at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a graduate of the United States Military Academy, says the value of the Rhodes scholarship goes beyond the doors it will open.
“Imagine Rhodes scholars come here in their own snow globe, a snow globe of values. Most of us are pretty well-read, we know there is a world outside of our own. But when you get here, you permeate through the glass,” Nattiel says. “It expanded my mind in terms of how I view my job, how I view the world and how I view America.”
The Rhodes scholarship supports students around the world in attending Oxford. Each year, 32 American Rhodes scholars are selected through an intensive application and interview process.
The scholarship covers tuition, fees, living expenses, flights to and from the U.K., and the fee for health care coverage for at least two years at Oxford, where scholars can earn a second bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree or a doctoral degree in a variety of subjects. The total amount varies, but can reach about $250,000, says Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust.
Scholarships are managed by the Rhodes Trust, a British charity created to honor the wishes of the scholarship’s namesake, Cecil Rhodes, a British businessman and politician who established the scholarship in his will. The first scholars arrived at Oxford
Students should see the scholarship as more than just a springboard, advises Gregory A. Llacer, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and Fellowships at Harvard College, the undergraduate school within Harvard University.
“If you are applying to become a Rhodes scholar because you are interested in the prestige a Rhodes scholarship brings, that’s not a very good place to start,” says Llacer, who is the designated institutional representative for the Rhodes scholarship. “What we’re looking for are students who have concrete ideas about what it is they want to do and why, and they can articulate that well in a narrative that would resonate with a Rhodes scholar selection committee.
The scholarship has continued to promote largely the same values and qualities over the course of its existence, including leadership and public service. But the scholars themselves have changed: In recent years, scholars have increasingly come from varying backgrounds and institutions, Gerson says, and some eligibility criteria have been modified.
The process can be intimidating for the thousands of students beginning their applications, but Gerson says, “We know there are qualified Rhodes applicants and applicants who can win this scholarship from hundreds of American universities, including ones that are not famous. We are very eager to see their applications.”
While no category of applicants is given preference, the majority of current U.S. Rhodes scholars represent minority groups, and there are more female scholars than male, Gerson notes. In recent years the scholarship’s eligibility requirements have been expanded to include legal permanent residents and DACA recipients, which refers to an immigration program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. And internationally, the addition of more countries, jurisdictions and global scholarships have increased access to these awards.
Rhodes Scholarship Application Procedures
To become a Rhodes scholar, students are typically encouraged to apply during their junior year of college, Llacer says. The online application opens in early July each year and closes in early October.
States and U.S. territories are grouped into 16 districts. Shortlisted candidates must attend a district reception and interview in November, after which each district committee selects a maximum of two winners.
Students should seek to receive an endorsement letter from their institution’s president, dean or other official responsible for graduate fellowships. This endorsement should include a confirmation that the student has satisfied or will satisfy the requirements to receive a bachelor’s degree in the year following the submission of the application, if the student is an undergraduate.
Students must be at least 18 years old and not have passed their 24th birthday on Oct. 1 in the year in which they are applying. Applicants must also have completed or will have completed an undergraduate degree from a college or university with a GPA of 3.70 or higher. As part of their application, students must supply an official transcript, a full CV, five to eight letters of reference and a personal statement of no more than 1,000 words.
The personal statement often presents the greatest challenge to students going through the intensive application process, Llacer says. Colleges cannot help students with their personal statements, and some institutions, like Harvard, decline to even read them. The statement is a chance for students to stand out, but the stakes are high.
“This has to be the best writing sample you’ve ever done,” Llacer says. He advises students to consider, “How do you make yourself as three-dimensional as possible? What is going to be memorable about your story?”
He says students should work to link the threads of their life experiences, academic work, research, interests and beyond so that attending Oxford seems like “a logical trajectory.”
“The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts,” Llacer advises.
Nattiel says his letters of reference strengthened his application. He advises prospective Rhodes scholars to collect letters that each speak to a different element of the selection criteria, so that when presented as a series, the letters create a cohesive application that demonstrates a range of academic and character strengths.
“To anybody else wanting to apply to the scholarship, I think they should really look at the criteria. And that sounds obvious. But what I’m really focusing on is, it’s not mechanical. It’s not who’s got the highest GPA and who’s done the coolest research project,” Nattiel says.
These things are valuable, he says, but the heart of the Rhodes scholarship is about finding individuals with patience and courage, and qualities like “their self-awareness, their conscientiousness and their ability to listen to other people.”
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