Where to Start if You Want to Be a Rhodes Scholar

If you're a college student wondering what the Rhodes Scholarship is all about, here are the facts.

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The Rhodes Scholarship is the oldest international fellowship. Established after the death of British colonialist, magnate, and statesman Cecil J. Rhodes in 1902, it brings outstanding students from many countries around the world—with 32 each year coming from the United States—to pursue studies in all of the fields available at the University of Oxford, the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

[Read about the 2010 U.S. recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship.]

Rhodes scholars hail from a wide range of academic institutions and from all walks of life. Above all, the selection committees seek applicants who offer the promise of effective service to the world. In other words, Rhodes Scholarships are seen as investments in individuals, rather than in, say, highbrow research proposals. But that doesn't mean getting a scholarship is easy. Each year, the 32 American Rhodes scholars are culled from an initial pool of roughly 1,500 undergraduates and recent college grads.

Here's some information to get you started:

[Slide show: 12 Famous Rhodes Scholars]

Q: What are the criteria for becoming a Rhodes scholar? What principles are at the heart of the program?

A: Cecil Rhodes set forth in his will four standards by which prospective Rhodes scholars should be judged: (1) literary and scholastic attainments; (2) energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports; (3) devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, and unselfishness; and (4) moral force of character and instincts to lead and to take an interest in one's fellow beings. In short, scholars are chosen for being more than bookworms; the selection committees are looking for intellectual talents combined with concern for others.

Q: What does the second requirement mean? Do I have to be a star athlete?

A: No, satisfying that standard does not require evidence of outstanding achievement in organized sports. However, applicants should be able to demonstrate the physical vigor that will enable them to make a lasting contribution to the world. It is also fair to say that unusual athletic distinction is a plus; in previous years, as many as a quarter of successful applicants have been varsity athletes.

Q: How can I best demonstrate "concern for others"? Does tutoring or volunteering to work in a shelter count?

A: Concern for others is critical, but it can be reflected in countless ways aside from direct, hands-on charitable work. "Starting an orphanage in Africa is not required," says Elliot F. Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, which administers and awards the scholarships. Reference padding, with sudden charitable activity in an applicant's junior year, for example, is usually transparent to committees.

Q: What are the "selection committees"? Do committee members read my application?

A: Yes. Sixteen district committees in the United States identify the 32 American students each year who best satisfy the criteria. Each committee considers applications from applicants who either maintain their legal residence in the state(s) grouped within the district or who will have received at least two years of college or university training and a bachelor's degree in one of the district's states before October 1 in the year following application. Each of the districts may pick two candidates as Rhodes scholars-elect.

Q: If my home state falls under a different district than the district where I go to college, is there a strategic advantage to applying within one district instead of another?

A: The sixteen districts are drawn so that each has approximately the same number of applicants, so the choice should be made purely on convenience. Selected applicants are invited to a personal interview with their district's selection committee, and transportation costs are the applicant's responsibility. It's not going to boost your odds of acceptance, for instance, to apply as a North Dakota resident, if that's where you're from, rather than as a Harvard student, if that's where you go to school, says Gerson.

Updated 11/22/10: An earlier version of this story contained outdated link text.