What is a Rhodes Scholar
Section 1: What is a Rhodes scholar?
A Rhodes scholar is someone who has received the Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most prestigious, most selective scholarships in the world, which allows you to complete a postgraduate degree at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
When you think of the Rhodes Scholarship, you might think of the program’s extreme selectivity, or perhaps some of its illustrious alumni, including many heads of state.
In this post, we’ll help you understand key details of the Rhodes Scholarship, including requirements to be a Rhodes Scholar, the organization’s mission, benefits, and structure, plus we’ll review the application process to help you understand what qualities successful Rhodes Scholars have and how to put together the strongest application possible. This will include a discussion of the personal statement, complete with a sample Rhodes Scholarship application essay from an American applicant.
What’s the Rhodes Scholarship’s mission?
The Rhodes Scholarship was created in 1902 through the will of Cecil John Rhodes, a 19th century British businessman and politician in southern Africa. It’s worth noting that there have been some debates over the program’s name, as Rhodes was an imperialist with a controversial history worldwide. For now, it’s still the Rhodes Scholarship. One thing the scholarship still draws from its roots is Rhodes’ stated goal to encourage international understanding and unity in the English-speaking world through the development of future leaders.
While originally restricted to young men from specific countries, today the Rhodes Scholarship is open to applicants of all genders from across the world. It aims to select promising young people to promote mutual understanding between countries and to foster future leadership that will change the world for the better. Understanding this focus on bettering the world is the key to a successful Rhodes application—we’ll discuss this more later on.
Why pursue a Rhodes Scholarship?
The impact of a Rhodes Scholarship is immense and carries with it many advantages. First is the opportunity to earn a degree from Oxford, one of the most renowned universities in the world.
Many Rhodes Scholars report that they also deeply value the other educational and world-expanding experiences the scholarship makes room for. These include the opportunity to broaden perspectives through relationships developed with fellow scholars from around the world, plus the experiences of living in another country and studying under a different educational system.
But of course, no discussion of the Rhodes would be complete without mentioning that it’s arguably the most prestigious international scholarship there is, and its name comes with a great deal of clout. We emphatically don’t recommend applying for the Rhodes simply to capitalize on its prestige (and this motive won’t come across favorably in your application either).
Nevertheless, if you do become a Rhodes Scholar, you’ll find many educational and career doors open to you as you join the ranks of the Rhodes’ many famous and influential alumni in spheres that include politics, academia, science, literature, and more.
What’s it like to study at Oxford?
If you’re an American student, the education that you’ll receive at Oxford has some key differences from what you’ve likely experienced for your undergraduate education.
One difference lies in the structure of the university, which is made up of 38 different colleges, each of which has its own separate admissions process. On that note, even if you’re awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, you’ll still need to apply to one of Oxford’s colleges—and it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be accepted. Oxford’s colleges are small, typically hosting 200–500 students each.
Another notable divergence from American higher education is that some degrees at Oxford are taught primarily through what’s called the tutorial system. Rather than participating in classroom discussions and lectures, you’ll work one-on-one or in small groups (typically no more than three students total) with a tutor who will assign readings and essays. You’ll meet with your tutor weekly to discuss your assignments, and you’ll sit for exams at the end of the term (Oxford’s academic calendar consists of three eight-week terms per year). As such, the tutorial system requires a higher level of independence and self-discipline than some students from the U.S. are accustomed to.
Degrees that are earned through the tutorial system included bachelor’s degrees and certain graduate degrees, including many DPhils (doctorates). On the other hand, many master’s degrees, particularly in the sciences, are “taught degrees” with high levels of collaboration and group work.
What degrees can you earn as a Rhodes Scholar?
A Rhodes Scholarship allows you to earn any full-time postgraduate degree available at Oxford, with a few exceptions, typically over two years’ time. This allows you to complete one or two master’s degrees, a second bachelor’s degree, or a doctoral degree. It’s worth noting that the Rhodes Scholarship cannot be taken for less than two years, so if you are interested in a one-year master’s degree, you’ll typically follow it with a second one-year master’s.
Here is a full listing of all graduate degrees offered at Oxford, organized by subject.
In recent years, most Rhodes Scholars from the United States have elected to earn master’s degrees, either in the shape of a single two-year degree or two one-year degrees.
However, some Rhodes Scholars do choose to earn a second bachelor’s degree. Though a second bachelor’s may seem redundant, it can be the right choice for certain candidates, given the fact that the Oxford BA is far more specialized than the BA that you’d typically earn in an American university. On top of this, you can also apply to convert it to an MA seven years after you matriculate without undertaking any further coursework.
DPhils (the British term for PhDs) are also popular—these days, nearly half of all American Rhodes Scholars begin DPhils. DPhil candidates begin in a master’s program and then apply to progress to the DPhil during their first or second year. Progressing to a DPhil also enables you to a third year of funding through the Rhodes Scholarship.
However, if you elect to move on to a DPhil, you should expect to spend at least four years studying at Oxford. The Rhodes Scholarship only guarantees full funding for DPhil candidates through the third year, so costs beyond that can get complicated. Depending on your discipline, you may be able to get costs covered for your fourth-year tuition and fees, though it isn’t guaranteed. Either way, the Rhodes Scholarship does not pay a stipend past the third year of study, so you’ll need to have another source of funding for your living expenses.
What benefits does the Rhodes Scholarship come with?
In most cases, the Rhodes Scholarship covers the costs of two years of study at Oxford. If awarded a Rhodes, you can expect to receive the following:
- All Oxford University and College fees covered, including the University application fee
- A living stipend (during the 2019–2020 academic year, the stipend was £15,900, which converts to approximately $20,000 USD)
- Roundtrip economy airfare to and from the United Kingdom
- Fees covered for visas and healthcare
You may also receive research grants that pay for you to attend conferences or conduct extra fieldwork. And, as discussed earlier, if you end up earning a DPhil while a Rhodes Scholar, you’ll be eligible for a third year of funding, with certain costs potentially covered during your fourth year as well.
While the exact monetary value of the scholarship varies, it typically averages around $70,000 per year, and can climb as high as $250,000 total (over four years) for candidates who pursue a DPhil.
Section 2: How hard is it to get a Rhodes Scholarship?
Before we get into the competitiveness of the Rhodes Scholarship, it’s important to first understand how the scholarships are administered.
As a Rhodes applicant, you’ll be up against other applicants from your country or global region. And, if you’re an applicant in the United States, you’ll find yourself competing directly with potential Rhodes Scholars from your part of the country.
Let’s take a closer look at how the Rhodes Scholarship application is structured from a geographic perspective.
What are Rhodes constituencies?
Rhodes Scholars are selected by Rhodes constituencies. A Rhodes constituency is the organization that administers the scholarship in a particular country or region. Each constituency has a specific number of scholarships that they are responsible for awarding.
Here is a list of current Rhodes constituencies and the number of scholarships available in each:
- Australia (9)
- Bermuda (1)
- Canada (11)
- China (4)
- East Africa, covering Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Sudan and Burundi (1)
- Germany (2)
- Hong Kong (1)
- India (5)
- Israel (2)
- Jamaica & the Commonwealth Caribbean, covering Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Trinidad & Tobago, Jamaica, Dominica, Grenada, Guyana, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, St. Kitts-Nevis, Montserrat, Anguilla, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands (2)
- Kenya (2)
- Malaysia (1)
- New Zealand (3)
- Pakistan (1)
- Saudi Arabia (up to 2)
- Singapore (1)
- Southern Africa, covering South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia and Eswatini (10)
- Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine (2)
- United Arab Emirates (2)
- United States (32)
- West Africa, covering Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Nigeria, the island of Saint Helena, Senegal, Sierra Leone, São Tomé and Principe, and Togo (1)
- Zambia (2)
- Zimbabwe (2)
Each constituency has its own eligibility criteria in regards to age, academic accomplishments, residency, citizenship, and so forth, so you’ll need to check the requirements for your country or region.
All Rhodes applicants fall into one of four categories when deciding how to apply for a scholarship:
- Jurisdictional: you meet the eligibility requirements for only one constituency—you should apply to that constituency.
- Multi-jurisdictional: you meet the eligibility requirements for more than one constituency—you should apply to the constituency that you feel the strongest connection to.
- Inter-jurisdictional: you don’t meet the eligibility requirements for any constituency, but you have a “sustained and verifiable” connection to two or more constituencies. In this case, you’ll apply to the constituency that you have the strongest connection to, despite not meeting all of its eligibility requirements (however, certain criteria such as age and academic requirements cannot be waived).
- Global: you don’t meet the eligibility requirements for any constituency, nor do you have a connection to two or more constituencies. In this scenario, you can apply for a Global Scholarship, of which there are two available each year.
Note: you can only submit one Rhodes scholarship per year, even if you meet the requirements for multiple jurisdictions.
United States Rhodes Scholarship eligibility requirements
The vast majority of advice given in this post will be relevant no matter which constituency you apply from. Nevertheless, in this post, we’ll largely focus on how to win a Rhodes Scholarship as an applicant from the United States.
That said, let’s go over the U.S. eligibility requirements to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship:
- You must be a citizen or lawful permanent resident of the United States. DACA recipients are eligible.
- By October 1st of the year in which you apply, you must meet one of the following criteria:
- Be at least 18 but not yet 24 years old (in other words, you can apply up until your 24th birthday).
- Be not yet 27 years old and have completed your first degree, or be slated to meet the requirements for it, on or after October 1st of the previous year (meaning you’ll have graduated within the past year of the application deadline).
- You must have completed, or be slated to complete by the following summer, a bachelor’s degree with a GPA of at least 3.7/4.0.
- Note: exceptions to the GPA requirement are sometimes granted by the Rhodes Scholarship’s American Secretary and must be requested directly by your university’s president or another high-ranking administrator.
- Note: certain courses of study at Oxford may have GPA requirements that are higher than a 3.7/4.0, so make sure to choose accordingly.
- You must be applying for the Rhodes Scholarship for either the first or second time (in other words, you may re-apply only once).
How are U.S. Rhodes Scholars chosen?
The 32 U.S. Rhodes Scholars chosen each year come from 16 different districts, with each district selecting two candidates. This means you’ll be competing directly against other applicants from your geographic region. A district may be comprised of a single metropolitan area or multiple states grouped together.
Just as you can apply for a Rhodes Scholarship through only one constituency, you can also apply through only one United States district. The district you’ll apply through will be one of the following:
- The district in which you completed at least two years of your college education and received your bachelor’s degree prior to October 1st in the year that you apply
- The district in which you were a legal resident on April 15th in the year that you apply
There may be cases in which you meet both of the above criteria in different districts. For example, say you graduated from college at the end of your winter term in Texas (District 8), then moved back to your hometown in Arizona (District 15). While you may technically apply from either district, keep the following in mind when choosing:
- Rhodes selection committees are required to verify your legal place of residence, so you’ll want to make sure that your residence in whichever district you apply through is documented.
- If you’re shortlisted for the Rhodes, you’ll be invited to attend a mandatory in-person reception and interview, so consider how easily you’ll be able to travel to these events.
What are the Rhodes Scholarship application statistics in the United States?
The Rhodes Scholarship is extremely selective. Before we take a look at some numbers, we should note that, in the U.S., applicants must receive an endorsement from their college or university before they can submit their application for district consideration (we’ll discuss what this means in a bit).
In 2019, 963 out of more than 2,900 applicants who began the Rhodes application process received their college’s endorsement. Of these 963, 236 were named finalists, and 32 were ultimately selected.
This means that, when considering the original pool of over 2,900 applicants, the Rhodes Scholarship has a selection rate of around 1 percent for applicants from the United States. And even when considering only candidates who were endorsed by their college, just 3.3 percent ultimately received a scholarship.
Globally, the selection rate is even more competitive, and has been reported as low as around 0.7 percent. This makes the Rhodes one of the most selective scholarships in existence.
What is the Rhodes Scholarship looking for?
Given the extreme selectivity we’ve just noted, you’re probably wondering what qualities make someone a winning Rhodes candidate.
The Rhodes Scholarship outlines four criteria to be used in selecting scholars:
- Academic excellence
- Energy to use your talents to the full (this means evidence of mastery in non-academic areas, such as sports, the arts, debate, activism, or other extracurriculars, and also includes demonstrations of your capacity for teamwork)
- Truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship
- Moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings
Let’s dig a little deeper into what these criteria mean.
First, a successful Rhodes applicant will need to demonstrate outstanding intellect and a top-notch academic record. However, while strong academics are important, Rhodes Scholars are more than just amazing students. As such, you should think of academic success as a prerequisite and not as a sufficient qualification in and of itself.
What do strong academics look like? As we’ve noted, for applicants in the U.S., a GPA of 3.7 out of 4.0 is the minimum needed to apply. However, anecdotally, universities like Cornell, USC, and Emory report that the average GPA for a successful applicant is around a 3.9; others, like Harvard and the University of Michigan report 3.8. If you’re on the fence as to whether or not your transcript is strong enough to apply, we like Georgetown’s guideline, which is a GPA “above or approaching 3.9” as a deciding cutoff point. Nonetheless, you should not feel discouraged from applying with a 3.7 or 3.8, especially if you believe you can otherwise put together a highly compelling application. For more specific questions, check in with your university’s fellowship advising office.
Strong academics also means taking challenging courses, engaging in your chosen academic field at the highest level that your college offers, being one of the top students in your major and in your class, and being intellectually curious and widely read. For example, maybe you’re a philosophy major who founded and edits a campus journal focused on philosophical writing and critique. Or perhaps you won an award for outstanding undergraduate scientific research.
Selection committees want to see that you are genuinely invested in the opportunity to study at Oxford, rather than simply wanting to live abroad or to collect the prestige of the Rhodes name.
In addition to academic excellence, to be a viable applicant, you should demonstrate deep engagement in extracurricular activities, especially as they pertain to your capacity for teamwork and the determination and effort you put towards actualizing your goals. As always, we recommend being a specialist in one or two areas rather than dabbling in a wide range of activities, as this better exemplifies the idea of using your talents “to the full.” So rather than dividing your energies between being the varsity soccer captain, volunteer tutoring once a week, a capella, and reading slush for the campus literary magazine, you’d be better off, say, sticking with soccer and either tutoring three days a week or becoming the magazine’s editor.
The Rhodes also places an emphasis on moral character, but what does “moral character” really mean? There are a couple different ways we can understand this somewhat vague term.
Broadly speaking, the Rhodes understanding of moral character has to do with being a leader and advocating for others in some kind of public way. One aspect of this has to do with demonstrating the personal traits necessary to serve and lead others, such as kindness, patience, courage, and conscientiousness.
What does showing these qualities look like? Perhaps you founded an after-school program that exposes at-risk youth to careers in STEM and a faculty advisor can attest to your strong track record of mentorship. Or maybe you’re the president of your college’s student government and you successfully advocated for free campus meals for food-insecure students.
Moral character also means demonstrating an engagement in a world beyond yourself and having a strong sense of your own personal values. In other words, you should be aware of and concerned with issues of injustice and inequality, as well as be able to articulate and show a commitment to bettering your community or the larger world.
For example, maybe you’ve used your journalism skills to bring issues of racial profiling in your local community to the public’s attention. Or you might be an engineering student who’s published research focusing on improving environmentally friendly technologies. Wherever your interests may lie, you’re someone who’s identified a problem in the world and worked towards addressing it.
If you browse through profiles of past Rhodes Scholars, you’ll notice that while many fit the image of “future world leader” and are active in politics, international relations, economics, law, and STEM, there are also plenty of winners whose academic interests lie in literature, art history, and various other disciplines in the humanities. So long as you’re an impressive student, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you may not be the “Rhodes type.”
Selection committees will be looking not only at what you’ve already accomplished, but what they think you have the potential to accomplish later in life. You should be able to speak fluently about your career and educational goals and, importantly, how a Rhodes Scholarship will help you accomplish them. They’re making an investment in your future, and they want to believe you’ll bring your many talents to your field to better the world.
Does my undergrad school matter for the Rhodes Scholarship?
Applicants often wonder if the college you attend makes a difference in getting chosen for a Rhodes. After all, it’s well-documented that Harvard takes the lead in producing the highest number of Rhodes Scholars among American colleges, both historically and in the present day (five Harvard students were named Rhodes Scholars in the most recent U.S. application cycle).
Though graduates of Ivy League and other elite schools undeniably tend to make up a large share of Rhodes Scholars, the approximately 3,500 American Rhodes Scholars selected since 1903 have come from 324 different colleges and universities, so it’s possible to be selected no matter where you went to school. The Rhodes Scholarship’s official stance is that the strongest applicants are chosen regardless of which college or university they attended.
Case in point: in 2019, the 236 finalists represented 90 different colleges and universities, 14 of which had never before produced a Rhodes Scholar. However, of the 32 candidates ultimately chosen, one was a graduate of a previously Rhodes-less institution.
In fact, it’s a little-known secret that you might fare better as an applicant from a non-Ivy League school. If you can be a big fish in your smaller pond, you might have more resources to marshal in your favor, getting faculty recommendations, and more. Let’s say you’re highly academically oriented and also a talented debater who took her talents to the University of Georgia instead of attending Princeton. Applying from Georgia instead of New Jersey and applying in the pool of UGA applicants instead of the Princeton pool might give you more space to shine.
Should you apply for a Rhodes Scholarship?
If you’re still unsure as to whether or not you’d make a viable Rhodes candidate, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Do I meet the academic requirements? Is my GPA well above a 3.7 and am I performing well above average academically in my field/at my university?
- Does my extracurricular record show commitment, depth, and determination?
- Am I prepared to invest a great amount of time and energy in the application process?
- Do enough of my professors and advisors know me well enough that I can ask for the required number of references?
- Can I defend and speak fluently on my personal views?
- Do I have a clear sense of my own goals, interests, and trajectory, and can I articulate how they relate to a world outside of myself?
- Do I have compelling and specific reasons for wanting to study at Oxford and in the United Kingdom?
If the answer to all of these questions is yes, you should consider applying for the Rhodes Scholarship. We’ll discuss how to do just that in the next section.
Section 3: Rhodes Scholarship Application Components and Timeline
In this section, we’ll go over the components and timeline of your Rhodes Scholarship application.
Rhodes Scholarship application components
To apply for the Rhodes Scholarship, you’ll submit an online application, which will include digital copies of the documents listed below. If invited to interview, you may need to also bring the originals with you. A complete application from the United States will include the following components:
- Proof of age and nationality: for U.S. citizens, this can take the form of your passport, birth certificate, or other government-issued ID
- For lawful permanent residents who are not yet citizens, you must upload your current and unexpired Form I-551 and Permanent Resident Card
- If you’re a DACA recipient, you should provide the following to prove your active DACA status: a current I-797 letter confirming your DACA status and a valid Employment Authorization Card
- Official transcripts from the colleges or universities at which you’ve studied
- An endorsement of your application from your college or university: this is a letter from your institution’s President, Dean, or other administrator responsible for graduate fellowships, to be submitted online, endorsing your candidacy for the Rhodes
- 5–8 letters of recommendation: at least 4 must be written by an academic instructor from your undergraduate or graduate education, and at least 1 must speak to your personal character and/or involvement in extracurriculars or leadership activities
- Tip: each of your letters of recommendation should ideally speak to a different aspect of the selection criteria, so that as a group they paint a cohesive but wide-ranging portrait of your scholarly and personal strengths
- A CV that details your academic qualifications, prizes, scholarships, positions of leadership, employment positions, involvement in student, voluntary, community or political activities and any cultural, musical or sporting accomplishments (two pages maximum using a font no smaller than 10-pt)
- A head-and-shoulders color photo in jpeg format
- Your personal statement (we’ll go into more detail on this in the following section)
Rhodes Scholarship application timeline
It’s never too early to begin preparing to apply for the Rhodes Scholarship. In fact, the earlier in your college career that you start planning—as soon as sophomore year isn’t too early—the easier it will be for you to make yourself into a strong candidate through dedication to your studies, challenging course selection, and extracurricular involvement. Planning ahead also gives you more time to develop meaningful relationships with your professors and other potential recommenders.
As for the actual application process, if you’re applying for the Rhodes as an undergraduate student, you’ll want to begin during your junior year.
Many colleges and universities have their own internal application timelines, and most will have at least some precedent in place for when you’ll need to apply for a campus endorsement—usually during the spring of your junior year or the following summer.
If your campus has a dedicated fellowship office, check in with them at the beginning of your junior year so you’re aware of what is expected of you when. Typically, schools with such offices will have strict internal deadlines in place to help you write your personal statement, secure letters of recommendation, and prepare for your interview.
Each year, the application is available online in early July and closes on the first Wednesday in October. In 2020, the application will be available between July 1st and October 7th.
If you’re at a college or university with an internal application timeline, you’ll want to adhere to that schedule. Otherwise, below is a timeline to help you through preparing your Rhodes application:
January of your application year (junior year winter if you’re applying as an undergrad):
- Figure out how your school’s campus endorsement process works and make sure you know when the deadline is to apply.
- Reach out to any professors or academic mentors who can advise you on your future plans, graduate school, and whether the Rhodes may be right for you.
March–April of your application year:
- Research appropriate degree courses that interest you at Oxford.
- Identify potential recommenders who can write you strong letters of reference.
- Brainstorm topics for your personal statement.
May–June of your application year:
- Choose a degree course you want to apply for and make sure that you meet its prerequisites and that it’s Rhodes-eligible.
- Begin drafting your personal statement.
- Reach out to potential recommenders to request your letters of reference.
- Create a draft of your CV.
July–August of your application year:
- Finalize your list of recommenders and send them a draft of your personal statement.
- Begin the process of collecting your official transcripts.
- Share your personal statement with any professors, mentors, or friends (or Rhodes alums, if you know any) who you trust to give you feedback.
Late August–early September of your application year:
- Finalize your personal statement and CV.
- Follow up with your recommenders with a friendly reminder to submit their reference letters on time.
- Make sure you have all your official transcripts.
- Obtain a head-and-shoulders color photo of yourself.
October of your application year:
- Submit your application.
- Send thank you notes to your recommenders and make sure to let them know the results of your application.
After this, if you make it to the finalist round, district receptions and interviews will be held on the Friday and Saturday before Thanksgiving. Each district has its own timeline regarding when candidates are notified as to whether or not they’ve made it to the finalist round. You can expect to hear back, at the very latest, two weeks before interviews begin.
The recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship are then announced at the end of the Saturday interviews.
Finally, if you’re selected to be a Rhodes Scholar, you’ll need to subsequently apply to Oxford as well. Typically, this application must be submitted sometime during the end of November (November 27th in 2020), which means that there’s a very tight window between the announcement of Rhodes Scholarship winners and the Oxford application deadline. As such, you should be prepared to submit your application quickly after selection or possibly before interviews even occur.
Section 4: How to write an amazing Rhodes personal statement
The personal statement is one of the most important elements of your Rhodes application. The personal statement is an essay of up to 1,000 words that tells the selection committee your story: who you are, what’s important to you, and what your aspirations are.
Here are the main points you’ll want to hit in writing your Rhodes personal statement:
- What your interests and activities are: what inspires you, what your passions are, and how these interests have developed
- What your goals and priorities are, and what contributions you’ve made and hope to make to your community and/or the world
- Why you want to study at Oxford and which specific course of study you’d like to undertake and why. How do this degree, Oxford, and the Rhodes Scholarship give you the tools you need to succeed in your future plans?
- You should make sure that whatever course of study you choose is possible for Rhodes Scholars
- You should also make sure that you meet the entry and application requirements for your proposed course of study and that your essay demonstrates this
- If you’re interested in a DPhil, briefly detail the research you’d like to undertake, how it will contribute to your career goals, and identify one or more researchers at Oxford with whom you’d like to study
In writing your personal statement, attempt to connect all of the above points into a cohesive narrative that shows growth and has a central focus or motivation. A successful essay should leave your reader with the conclusion that attending Oxford is a logical next step in your path towards success.
Because your other application materials, such as your transcript, CV, and letters of reference, will provide the selection committee with details of your accomplishments, it’s not necessary to go into extensive detail regarding them in your personal statement. Rather, the statement is a space to frame these accomplishments into a clear personal narrative and to flesh out your achievements into a memorable, three-dimensional self-portrait.
A great Rhodes personal statement is one that only you can write. This is to say that your statement should stand out through unique lines of thinking, attempts to say something new, and original writing that doesn’t rely on formulas, clichés, or platitudes.
What does it mean to say something new? You want to make your reader consider something that they’ve never thought about before. This could take the form of connecting disparate ideas or experiences, complicating ideas or positions, describing differences instead of similarities—or anything else you can think of. It doesn’t mean you necessarily need to write about an obscure topic or experience. Great personal statements can be written about seemingly ordinary things, so long as they’re filtered through your unique perspective.
A personal statement that only you could have written will by definition also be an accurate representation of who you are and what you have to offer. If your application carries you into finalist status, your interviewers will certainly be looking to see if the person in front of them aligns with the portrait painted by your personal statement. As such, take care to avoid exaggerations and half-hearted claims, and instead focus on what truly matters to you, i.e. the positions you’re willing to go to bat for.
Meeting our applicants
To get a sense of the range of topics that these essays can span, below we’ll introduce you to three Rhodes hopefuls and their personal statements. Then, we’ll take a look at a full-length personal statement from one of those applicants.
Applicant #1: Naomi: Naomi studied linguistics as an undergraduate, as well as creative writing. Currently on a Fulbright grant to Japan, Naomi is an aspiring novelist, translator, and journalist. She is particularly interested in social issues surrounding language and is proposing completing two one-year master’s degrees: one in linguistics and one in comparative literature and critical translation. We’ll read her personal statement in just a moment.
Applicant #2: Jordan: Jordan is a current college senior majoring in education and minoring in economics. Because she’d like to eventually work in creating education policy, she’s planning to eventually go to law school. Before that, however, she’d like to earn a DPhil in education at Oxford. In her personal statement, she describes how her family moved to a neighboring, more affluent town when she was in fifth grade so that she could attend a better public school and how that experience opened her eyes to deep disparities in public education funding.
Applicant #3: Luis: Luis is also a current senior with a double major in computer science and political science. His interests lie at the intersection of tech and government, and he’d like to pursue a master’s degree in computer science at Oxford. His personal statement focuses on his time spent working on a losing Senate campaign and how it led him to his career goal, which is to create technology that improves election security and increases access to voting in disenfranchised communities.
An example of a great Rhodes personal statement
This Rhodes personal statement comes from Naomi. Let’s take a look at what she wrote:
My interest in linguistics began with a chance encounter: several years ago, while browsing a box of free books outside of an English-language used bookstore in Kyoto, Japan, I came across a tattered paperback from the 1970s called The Story of Language. Desperate for reading material in English, I grabbed it. Though an older and not particularly seminal text, it was the one that happened to open up key ideas for me surrounding language, particularly that our uses of language, and our perceptions of those uses, are context-dependent and constantly in evolution and flux.
As the child of a bilingual marriage, I have always had an interest in language and in thought in translation. For me, the natural expression of this interest was to dive into foreign language study—I grew up speaking Japanese and English, then added Spanish and later Mandarin—and into creative writing. Though thinking about how to best use language had been a lifelong activity, it had never before occurred to me that my choices might signify more than I realized. However, after I randomly happened upon this book during a family trip the summer before I began college, I signed up for an introductory linguistics course during my first semester. Enthralled, this eventually led to a self-designed major—my undergraduate institution offers no formal department in linguistics—which incorporated coursework in linguistics, philosophy, sociology, translation studies, and more.
While linguistics encompasses many fascinating sub-fields, I’ve always been most drawn to the cultural and historical perspectives it offers. For my undergraduate thesis, I conducted research on language usage among bilingual children and adults in order to examine how social capital surrounding different languages can shift across contexts. This research, in addition to the sociolinguistic lenses I’ve gained on the uses of dialect, gendered, and racialized language, have had the added benefit of greatly contributing to my work as a writer and translator.
For both writers and translators, understanding how language is privileged in relation to class, gender, race, location, and other contexts is essential. For the past three years, I have been at work on a historical novel set in the childhood world of my paternal grandmother, who, like me, was raised bilingually. Hailing from Okinawa, she grew up speaking both Japanese and Okinawan, also known as Uchinaaguchi. Okinawan, however, was already in the process of being culturally and officially suppressed through national educational policy and the rise of broadcast media and is now a UNESCO endangered language. A Fulbright grant to Japan this past year has allowed me to interview many Okinawans of my grandmother’s generation, research which has not only aided my writing in invaluable ways, but which has also helped me see how language stigmatization is an issue that has existed around the globe for countless generations.
Having grown up among the diverse, relatively liberal climate of northern California, my own experiences of being discriminated against for the languages I speak, or the way I speak them, have been relatively few. Nevertheless, I am troubled by trends I see nationally here in the United States surrounding language valuation, such as the evergreen push to enact legislation to make English our national language. During college in New York City, as a volunteer writing tutor in a local public elementary school, it was eye-opening to observe the way that children who spoke in dialects and/or who hailed from bilingual or non-English speaking homes—and who were disproportionately nonwhite and working-class—were frequently punished or socially stigmatized for “nonstandard” usages of English. Disheartened, I tried to reassure these children that they were doing nothing wrong. At the same time, I wondered how else one could make cultural change that would combat this discrimination, which is not only limited to children but exists in all sectors of American society.
The work that I feel I can most effectively undertake towards creating change around language lies in raising awareness through writing. I sincerely believe that art has the power to achieve social change, and one of my hopes in writing my novel is that its readers will take the example it sets of language suppression and stigmatization and look to see where these issues exist in our present day. I also aim to work as a translator of Japanese and Spanish literatures and am similarly optimistic that bringing new perspectives into English will help expand our cultural acceptance of what kinds of voices are worth privileging. Finally, I also believe that these issues can be brought to light more directly through journalistic writing, and I aspire to use my skills to expose the political dimensions of language to a wider audience.
To these ends, I propose a two-fold course of study as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford: a nine-month Master of Studies in Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics followed by a second nine-month Master of Studies in Comparative Literature and Critical Translation. I would be equally excited to undertake research under Oxford’s renowned linguistics department and to study through the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation research center, which is unique in its interdisciplinary approach. I believe that reading for these two courses in sequence would allow me to build on my existing background in linguistics, especially my research in sociolinguistic topics, and effectively combine it with an expanded scholarly understanding of the role of translators and of translation in critical work.
A respect and a reverence for language are at the heart of everything I do. Just as sociolinguistics informs how we read the people we meet every day through their uses of language, I believe that by intentionally refiguring our attitudes towards language to be more expansive and less prejudiced, we can create dramatic change in human relationships, and by extension, reduce societal inequality. I know that an Oxford education will give me the tools I need to work towards these changes, which I believe will help create a better, more inclusive society.
What’s working here? In this personal statement, Naomi creates a clear through line that weaves together her academic and creative interests, her family background, her career goals, her beliefs, and her aspirations for creating change. This essay simultaneously conveys both a concise narrative of her life path and paints a memorable portrait of who she is and what’s important to her through specific and interesting details. While she does describe accomplishments, such as receiving a Fulbright grant and working on a novel, these items are never superfluous and instead illustrate why she would benefit from a Rhodes Scholarship. On that note, a key takeaway from this personal statement is that no details are wasted or extraneous—everything ultimately connects and supports her candidacy for the Rhodes.
Section 5: The Rhodes Scholarship interview
The Rhodes interview weekend consists of a reception and interviews put on by the district in which you’ve applied.
The reception is typically a dinner, or sometimes a lunch, held on the first day of interviews or the day before. Though ostensibly a social event and an opportunity to mingle with your fellow finalists, the reception is also a way for the interview judges to get to know you better and to observe you in a social setting. Remember that the Rhodes Scholarship emphasizes personal qualities such as patience, listening skills, and self-awareness, and that whether or not you possess these characteristics will be on display.
The interview itself carries a great deal of weight in the final selection process. During your interview, you’ll face a six-to-nine person panel made up of Rhodes Scholars and community leaders and experts from a variety of fields. Interviews typically last 30–45 minutes.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what types of questions you’ll be asked, and the Rhodes interview is notoriously wide-ranging, open-ended, and challenging, with curveball questions frequently thrown in. You should be prepared to discuss your application materials, your academic field, current events, philosophical quandaries, and many other questions that you will likely not know the answer to. Expect that your statements will be pulled apart and prodded as the judges try to get a sense of your capacity for critical thinking, the strength of your convictions, how you handle yourself under pressure, and how well you reflect in-person what’s in your application.
Though you’ll likely feel challenged, defensiveness will not come across well, nor will dogmatic statements. Instead, you should feel free to respectfully and flexibly make the case for your beliefs. You’re not trying to please or agree with the judges; rather, you’re trying to gain their respect by articulating your positions, aspirations, and your engagement with the world.
It’s also fine, and even preferable, to say “I don’t know” when necessary rather than bluffing about things you’re uninformed on.
Ideally, you should treat the interview like a good discussion, attempting to draw connections between different answers you’ve given. The interviewers will already be familiar with your application materials, so there’s also no need to boast or bring up your accomplishments for no reason.
One of the best things you can do to prepare for your interview is to practice through a mock interview. Many on-campus fellowship offices hold mock interviews for their Rhodes candidates, so this is something you should absolutely take advantage of if it’s available to you. If your college doesn’t offer mock interviews, plan to ask friends or professors if they are willing to grill you in preparation.
The Rhodes Scholarship is extremely competitive, even for the best and brightest applicants, and its application process is time-consuming and complex. However, if you have an excellent academic record, strong engagement with extracurriculars, clear personal views and goals, and are passionate about leading the way towards change, you may have a good shot at winning a Rhodes.
For the best chances possible, you’ll first want to focus on cultivating an academic and extracurricular record that shows curiosity, depth, and motivation. Then, in putting together your application, strong and varied letters of recommendation, a clear and memorable personal statement, and a self-possessed interview will go a long way towards helping you become a Rhodes Scholar.