There are thousands of scholarships out there for students at every level of academics, and they can all make a huge difference in the right student's life. But when it comes to prestige, name recognition and financial impact, there are a few that stand out—none more so than the century-old Rhodes Scholarship, whose recipients have gone on to become presidents (Bill Clinton), prime ministers (Canada's John Turner and Jamaica's Norman Manley), senators, Supreme Court justices, Olympians, Palme d'Or winners, university presidents, NFL stars, Nobel Prize recipients, and more.
The scholarship was founded in 1902 upon the death of Cecil Rhodes—a British diamond magnate so wealthy he had an entire country named after him—as the first large-scale international academic exchange program. Its mission is simple but wide ranging: funding prestigious programs of study at Rhodes's alma mater, University of Oxford, for qualified students from outside the United Kingdom. Each year, regional selection committees pick 32 Rhodes scholars from the United States from a field of around 1,000 applicants; there are 80 Rhodes scholars worldwide each year. Those selected receive tuition and living expenses for at least two years, with a third potentially available depending on programs of study. To apply, students must be ages 18 to 24, and must have a completed bachelor's degree prior to entering Oxford. And, just like in 1902, those recipients are selected based on criteria laid out in Rhodes's will:
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. truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship;
4. moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.
To help translate that into slightly more modern terms, I spoke with Dr. Molly Zahn, who studied at Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship from 2001 to 2003, and who is now an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. "[Selection committees] want to see candidates with very strong academic records who also are very committed to making a difference in the world, in whatever way they choose," she said. "My number one piece of advice is to have really thought about who you are, what you want to do to make the world a better place, and how spending a couple of years at Oxford will help you accomplish that. That doesn't mean you can't ever change your mind … but you have to have a good sense of yourself and how Oxford will help you at this point in your life."
[See U.S. News's rankings of the World's Best Universities.]
The Rhodes Scholarship program criteria allow for a vast array of applicants, and recipients are able to study for plenty of different degrees (a second bachelor's degree, or a number of master's or doctorate programs) in a wide variety of fields—a fact that's sometimes missed by potential applicants.
"There's a stereotype of Rhodes Scholars all being lawyers and politicians and medical doctors," Zahn said. "We have plenty of those, but there are truly people from all different fields—just in my class there is a playwright, an orchestra conductor, a Jesuit priest [in training], someone working on an organic farm, a rabbi who leads a large synagogue, a geologist, and so on. Nobody should decide not to apply because they think they aren't in the 'right' field."
If all of this has you thinking about applying, the best time to act is in the spring of your junior year of college. The Rhodes Scholarship Trust makes its online application available in July; it's due in October, but there's enough that goes into it that you'll want to get a very early start. "The application is very time consuming," Zahn said. "Besides getting five to eight letters of reference, you really [need to] put in a lot of time writing a good personal statement, and you need to be nominated by your college or university, so it's not something you can just decide to do at the last minute."
[See answers to some common questions about becoming a Rhodes scholar.]
And even if you've got the academic standing, a healthy amount of independent research and committed community service work, and a great idea what you'd like to do with a Rhodes Scholarship, there's one more important point: Make sure you really, truly want to spend a couple years in Oxford. The selection committees understand the prestige of the award, and one of the chief things they're looking for is whether students are just after that prestige, or after the full experience: the largely independent and small-group study of a British university, the wide international melting pot of students at Oxford, and the unique combination of academic and cultural immersion that the scholarship provides.
The Rhodes scholar experience is incredibly valuable in many ways, Zahn said. "Being a Rhodes scholar opens up a network for you that helps you in very practical ways. In my rather small field there is not really a 'network' of Rhodes scholars to tap into. But, I've met people from all over, made some lifelong friends, got a great master's degree from some of the top people in my field—[which] helped me get into a good Ph.D. program—and was exposed to a much broader range of ideas and people than I ever would have been without the Rhodes."
To learn more, RhodesScholar.org should be your first stop; in particular, the FAQ and Rhodes Trust brochure go into lots of detail about the differences between American and British universities, the best programs to consider, and more.
Matt Konrad has been with Scholarship America since 2005. He is an alumnus of the University of Minnesota and a former scholarship recipient.