The Rhodes Scholarship
Each year, 32 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded to US students, supporting two years of graduate study at Oxford University in any field. In addition to educational costs, Rhodes Scholars receive a maintenance allowance for term-time and vacation expenses. The scholarships are viewed as long-term investments in individuals with “excellence in qualities of mind and qualities of person,” measured by their academic superiority and devotion to humankind. Selectors who compose Rhodes Scholarship committees come from fields including academia, law, government, medicine, and journalism.
The Rhodes Scholarship Selection Criteria
Standards by which Rhodes Scholars are judged include:
- exceptional literary and scholastic achievements;
- demonstrated devotion to service, moral character, and leadership.
An additional criterion that can weigh in a candidate’s favor is success in athletics or another demonstration of physical vigor.
The Rhodes Personal Statement
Given the prestige of the Rhodes Scholarship and the staggering competition, many applicants struggle with the fact that they are limited to two fairly short writings in their applications. Candidates provide a list, not longer than two pages and in a font size no smaller than 10 points, of activities and honors in college, and a 1000-word essay setting forth personal aspirations and detailing a specific plan of study for their proposed academic work at Oxford. Needless to say, these documents are scrutinized with great care by selection committees.
The list of activities and honors should be selective and grouped logically into categories, as in a resume or curriculum vitae, and some very brief description could be used amidst this list to give context as necessary. Most important, though—in that the writer has the opportunity to interpret and persuade—is the writing of the personal statement. Excellent Rhodes personal statements are infused with concrete examples, a self-reflective tone, a showcasing of priorities and service, and an overall picture of yourself as a person of accomplishment and character. Some applicants make the mistake of seeing the essay as an academic mini-thesis or a narrative resume, while others treat it as an exercise in purple prose. Some even seem to make a demand for the scholarship or grovel at the feet of the selectors. Such poor visions of what a personal statement should be explain why the Rhodes application calls for the essay to be “written in as simple and direct a manner as possible.” Meanwhile, remember the bottom line about the goal of the personal statement in the eyes of the readers: describing your specific area of proposed study and reasons for wishing to study at Oxford.
Evaluation of Two Sample Rhodes Personal Statements
The two sample Rhodes statements provided in the pdf below are interesting to contrast with each other, in that the first student aims to study health, disease, and culture and the second to study British literature. Also, one writer links herself directly to Oxford only in the final paragraph, while the other links herself throughout.
One of the most striking features of the first sample is its introduction, in which the writer places herself soaked in sweat and deep in thought on a mound of rock in northern Kenya, contemplating the fate of a Homo erectus woman who died 1.7 million years ago. This narrative leads the writer to an extensive explanation, including service-based examples, of the marriage between her degrees in Women’s Studies and Anthropology. Her second page is devoted to her research, including work at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. We also find details evidencing physical rigor and athletic competition.
In the second sample, the writer opens with the simple phrase “I have found my mentor,” then describes the very person she wishes to study with at Oxford, making further references to this professor in five of the essay’s eight paragraphs. Amidst various literary references, we find examples of the student presenting a paper on Chaucer at a conference as a junior, and finally describing herself as one like Sir Gawain—an adventurer seeking a deeper understanding of self.
Though neither of these candidates received a Rhodes (which punctuates the keenness of competition), both were put forth as candidates by their schools and made it to the interview stage.
Click here to download a pdf of two sets of Rhodes Scholarship personal statements by former students.
Applying for the Rhodes Scholarship involves six steps and an extensive time investment. Begin the process and download the application at the rhodescholar.org website.