The Rhodes Scholarship Application:
A Student’s Perspective
Truman’s first Rhode’s Scholarship recipient, Andrew McCall, recounts his application process and provides helpful advice for Rhodes Scholarship applicants.
Who should apply:
One of my professors suggested I should apply for the scholarship in my Junior year, and I only then became aware of what it actually is. I glanced over the criteria on the website and it sounded like a good fit, because I have swum competitively since I was eight years old. However, at the interview I noticed that very few of the finalists literally fit with the profile set down by Cecil Rhodes, as only two of the twelve of us were varsity athletes at our schools. The other winner from our district was not out of shape, but her credentials that I am aware of were purely academic and service oriented. So apparently participation in athletics may be a plus, but it does not make or break an application.
You don’t have to have a clear idea of what you want to do with the rest of your life, but you have to put together a good plan for the next five to ten years that at least sounds like you’ve given it a lot of thought, and that studying at Oxford clearly furthers. You do have the opportunity to change your plan if you win the scholarship because you apply to Oxford separately. One of my interviewers actually recommended that I pursue a different degree because of how hard it is to get into the BPhil.
I didn’t start writing my personal statement until September, but I had been bouncing ideas around in my head for about a year, and had already considered and rejected three or four themes before I decided in early September. This is the only way you can speak to the committee members before they choose their finalists, don’t waste it. It shouldn’t be cliché or cute, but it also doesn’t have to be dry academic writing. If something you write speaks to the committee members personally, that will be a huge advantage.
Put interesting things you do on your CV, even if they’re not strictly an activity. I say this because I waffled on whether or not to include the fact that I write fantasy, thinking that since none of it has been published, that it didn’t really belong beside my swimming and artistic accomplishments. I put it in, and it was referenced a number of times in my interview, and I got the sense that they chose me partly because of what I said about what and why I write.
The application is entirely online now, which is convenient in that you won’t have to worry about how long the mail takes, but it’s not without problems. You have to upload all of your supporting documents, like personal statement, CV, and transcripts, but they wouldn’t let me upload anything bigger than 2MB. So uploading a picture of myself and my transcript took way longer than it should have (JPEGs are too big, as are higher resolution PDFs). I recommend beginning this process prior to the night the application is due, because it might take a few tries.
I got an email from the District Secretary on November 7th inviting me to an interview in KC. I had heard that they send out invitations during the first week of November, and so had been stressing about it since the end of October. That didn’t help. In the email I was invited to the District 12 interviews, which would be held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, with a reception dinner on the preceding evening. What this actually meant was an hour-long reception with finger food and drinks, followed by dinner.
Some districts have state level interviews, followed by district interviews. They have had state interviews in Missouri in the past, but there weren’t any in 2009. I do not know if this was because they had fewer candidates, or maybe this is just the way the committee wanted to do it.
The evening before the reception, Thursday, I got an email from the District Secretary with the names of each of the committee members, as well as the other finalists. I considered Googling everyone in the email but didn’t have the energy to deal with it so I went in blind. A number of the other candidates had apparently done just that, because I heard them open conversations with the phrase, “I understand that you did the PPE program while you were at Oxford.” This was particularly intimidating to me because I had no idea what PPE even stood for, so I kept my mouth shut (it means Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and is one of the most popular second Bachelors degrees pursued by American Rhodes scholars). I was not the only one who was in the dark, however, and obviously it didn’t hurt my chances too much.
Note on the interview committee: there were seven committee members in total, six former Rhodes Scholars and the chairman who organized the entire weekend. The former scholars ranged in age from about twenty-six to mid-fifties. Most were professors or researchers at universities, some were still in grad school after having taken time off, and one worked for H&R Block. The chairman was the president of the community college where the interviews were held.
I was the last to get to the reception on Friday night, and so conversation groups had mostly already been established. The chairman of the committee sat myself and another candidate down and asked, “So, what’s your story?” As it was directed at the other candidate, I listened to him talk about having gone to New York after his freshman year at Mizzou and lived on the street in an attempt to document the lives of the homeless there, and gain a deeper appreciation for the life he had. After he talked for a while longer the chairman turned to me, and asked me the same question. I fumbled and started to talk about the time I studied abroad in Austria, but he cut me off and said he didn’t want to hear about my experience in a foreign environment, he wanted to know what I wanted to do with myself, my life, my talents, and why. After I had answered, he went on to ask the same question of a new set of candidates, and I started talking to some of the other finalists and interviewers. The chairman was by far the most direct member of the committee, because he asked in a single sentence what the entire interview process was meant to find out.
I don’t know if they do this every year, but the interviewers spread themselves out to four different tables and the dinner was divided into courses (salad, entree, dessert). After about 20 minutes the Chairman rang his glass and we switched tables for the next course, so I ended up sitting with almost all of the interviewers during part of the dinner. At the end of the dinner, the chairman put the twelve interview slots in a basket and had us pick them out. They were spaced every half hour from 8 until 2:30, with a break for lunch.
Note on accommodations: Obviously this will differ from year to year, but since the interviews were in Kansas City, I had the opportunity to stay at my former roommates house rather than a hotel, and my brother drove over to spend the night too. In retrospect I am really glad that I was not in a hotel room by myself the night before my interview, because I would have been stressing myself out and probably unable to sleep. Staying with a friend and having my brother there gave me a chance to relax and forget about the whole situation for the evening and next morning, because I drew the last interview slot. If you are a person who would stress under these circumstances and have the opportunity to stay with a close friend or family member around whom you can relax, do it.
The chairman came out and brought the candidates back into his office, where we sat at the head of the table with the seven interviewers. They all alternated asking questions, but in answering some of the questions I went back and forth with one or more of the committee members, particularly on the question involving President Obama’s race. Because of this format, the interview felt very much like a discussion to me, so I would advise you not to be afraid to say what you believe is the truth, even if a committee member espouses contrary opinions. At three different times I contradicted or corrected the interviewers. The first was a technical error on their part, referring to Kant as a continental philosopher, the second was on whether Obama is accepted as black by American blacks (I had mentioned this in my personal statement), and the third was about the nature of literature.
I can’t remember all of the questions they asked because a lot of them were in the course of a conversation started by another question. These are the ones I recall are:
What is representationalism and why does it need to be defended? (I presented a paper my sophomore year entitled A Defense of Representationalism. This was their opening question)
Could you explain the difference between Continental and Analytic Philosophy, and why you want to study it?
What do you think Obama’s election means for black Americans?
In your CV it says that as captain of the swim team, you are responsible for the teams wellbeing in and out of the pool. Could you explain what that means?
What do you see yourself doing in ten years?
You mention on your CV that you write fantasy. Could you tell us more about your books?
Of the three different sorts of writing, hard philosophy, philosophical literature, and literature, which will be the most important to you later in life? (I explained that I believe all good literature is philosophical, so there are really only two categories, and literature is where I hope to invest the most energy)
I was not asked any of the curveball questions I had worried about going in, the entire interview was pretty focused on my aspirations and how they could possibly matter to or help anyone else. There were not very many technical questions about my field either, but I suspect this was because none of them had much background in philosophy.
After my first interview (I finished at 3:00), all of the finalists assembled in the waiting room because they had told us that re-interviews would start at 3:30, and they would probably announce winners around 4:30. We waited together until 5:30, when the chairman came out and said they wanted to re-interview myself and one other candidate for about five minutes. My second interview actually lasted closer to ten minutes, and was very focused on how I see my philosophical studies making a difference in the world outside of academia.
Applying to Oxford
No, applications are not done even if you win the scholarship, and at this point you have decide for sure which degree you want. The day when a paper application had to reach Oxford for a second undergraduate degree was two weeks after the interviews, so it needed to be finished during Thanksgiving break. There was no online application option for undergrad degrees. People applying for a graduate program had until the beginning of January and could submit their materials online like for the scholarship application.