A Prestigious Opportunity
Started by the estate of Cecil Rhodes in 1902, the Rhodes Scholarship program is the oldest international educational fellowship in the world. Every year approximately 80 recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship come from all over the world to study at Oxford University, including 32 American Rhodes Scholars. The program offers students two extraordinary opportunities - the chance to study at one of the world's most prestigious universities and the enriching experience of living abroad, all expenses paid.
Rhodes Scholars often go on to have distinguished careers in all different walks of life. Famous former Rhodes Scholars include musician Kris Kristofferson (1959), athlete Bill Bradley (1968) and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal (1994). There's even a famous contemporary Rhodes Scholar: Myron Rolle, a star football player from Florida State University, is currently studying medical anthropology at Oxford. He plans to enter the NFL draft after his year in England.
The Rhodes Scholarship Committee of Selection emphasizes the fact that they select recipients based on the strength of the individual, not their institution. In the century since the program started, Rhodes Scholars have been selected from more than 300 different American colleges and universities, and most years at least one winner is chosen from a school that's never had a Rhodes Scholar before. Nevertheless, supplying a Rhodes Scholar is an honor for a university and typically makes the school more attractive to prospective students. This year, Harvard had the most Scholars with five students headed to England in 2010. Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) earned three, and three other schools had two recipients each: Yale University, the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and the U.S. Military Academy. The remaining 18 Scholars came from schools as diverse as Princeton and the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).
Becoming a Rhodes Scholar
Rhodes Scholars typically get funding for two to three years of study at Oxford, with funding available for up to four years if their work requires extra time. However, the Committee of Selection asserts that they make their choices based on the merit of the individual, not just the proposed project, noting that 'extraordinary intellectual distinction is a necessary but not sufficient condition for election to a Rhodes Scholarship.'
Competition for the Rhodes Scholarships is fierce, with only 32 American students chosen each year out of about 1,500 applicants. Prospective Scholars must distinguish themselves through service and character as well as academic achievement. In his will, Cecil Rhodes set out four criteria for judging Scholarship applicants:
- literary and scholastic attainments;
- energy to use one's talent's to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports;
- 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.
From the U.S. Rhodes Trust Brochure (PDF).
So how do you earn this illustrious fellowship? The good news is that you don't have to attend a prestigious school to qualify. As mentioned above, the Rhodes Committee of Selection looks for students from all different institutions. The minimum requirement for applicants is to be between 18 and 24 years old and have sufficient academic standing to earn their bachelor's degree before they start at Oxford. Beyond that, it's a question of putting together a truly stellar application:
Start preparing early.
Successful applicants must have a demonstrated track record in all the areas listed in Cecil Rhodes' will. What does this mean? You should already be an excellent student with a history of some form of community service before you even consider applying. The unusual second provision doesn't mean you have to be a star athlete, but you should be able to demonstrate a physical rigor that will allow you to continue to make significant contributions to society - and athletic prowess certainly doesn't hurt. This advice also applies to the application process. Most institutions recommend you start by the spring of your junior year since the application deadline for the following year is in early October, and many schools have their own internal deadlines to guide students along.
Seek out a mentor.
The application process is complex and relies heavily on recommendations from professors and support from your academic department. Having a strong relationship with at least one professor who's willing to act as a mentor will not only improve the quality of your recommendations, it can make the application process a lot less stressful and confusing.
'Extraordinary intellectual distinction' may not be a sufficient quality for a successful application, but it is a necessary one. It's important to go above and beyond the minimum requirements of your school or major to demonstrate academic achievement. The Committee of Selection is looking for someone with both a strong academic background and well thought out academic plans. However, many Scholars do use the program to branch out, studying an entirely different subject at Oxford than the one in which they majored.
Demonstrate a commitment to service.
Exhibiting 'concern for others' is as important for a Rhodes Scholar as intellectual distinction. There are many ways to demonstrate this quality, such as volunteering, tutoring or working on a project that benefits your community. However, it still comes back to starting early. The Committee of Selection will see right through resume-padding moves like the development of a sudden interest in charity work in an applicant's junior year in college.
Interested students can learn more about the Rhodes Scholarship and application process on the U.S. Rhodes Scholarship website.