WU fares well for Rhodes scholars
Bill Clinton, George Stephanopoulos and Bill Bradley have more in common than just a political background. Before landing in Washington, they studied at the University of Oxford as Rhodes Scholars.
When British businessman Cecil Rhodes passed away in 1902, his fortune went to establishing the Rhodes Scholarship. An Oxford alum, Rhodes naturally chose his alma mater for the honor, as he believed that the residential colleges provided an ideal environment for both personal and intellectual development. Since 1904, more than 7,000 Rhodes Scholars have completed Masters programs at Oxford.
Among that prestigious group are several Washington University students. According to Joy Kiefer, dean in Arts & Sciences and an institutional representative for the Rhodes Scholarship, the University’s students have done well in the admissions process compared to applicants from other colleges in the nation.
“We have a good track record,” Kiefer said. “Last year we had two finalists, which is very impressive.”
According to Kiefer, the application process is extremely rigorous and selective. Around 600 students apply each year and only 12 to 16 are eventually awarded scholarships.
Applicants must submit five to eight letters of recommendations as well as a personal statement. If chosen as finalists, students must then interview with Oxford faculty.
Kiefer stresses the importance of every piece of the application.
“Applicants must be able to tell a story about how they excelled and how they will contribute to Oxford and ultimately the world,” she said.
The scholarship judges the applicants by four standards: literary and scholastic attainments; energy to use one’s talents to the fullest; sympathy, kindliness and fellowship; and the moral force of character and instincts to lead.
“Applicants must have significant leadership experience, display academic excellence and contribute not only to the University community but also the larger community in a considerable way,” Kiefer said.
Although participation in sports is no longer a requirement, candidates still must show physical rigor.
“You have to show that you have persistence to see something through,” Kiefer said. “They want to see that candidates are devoted to their goals and are passionate.”
For the scholarship to attract the most qualified candidates, all applicants must first apply internally within one’s own college.
“Sometimes professors recommend students, but mostly students research the program themselves,” Kiefer said. “We have a primary vetting process mainly because we do not want to encourage those who are not qualified to spend so much time and energy on the huge application if they obviously will not make it.”
Although the scholarship is not heavily advertised on campus, Kiefer said it is important for interested students to attend the spring information session in their junior year. In order to make the University’s early September deadline, students must complete their application and obtain letters of recommendations during the summer.
“Applicants send me their materials about a month before the application deadline,” Kiefer said. “I then sit down with faculty members and discuss the applications. We endorse however many candidates we see fit.”
This year, the University endorsed three candidates.
The applicants’ letters of recommendations are accompanied by a letter of endorsement from Chancellor Mark Wrighton. According to Kiefer, most colleges have a similar internal vetting process.
If students are named finalists, the University encourages them to interview in the district of their permanent residence.
“We advise candidates to go back to their home districts, so they are not competing against one another,” Kiefer said. “In the end, however, it is the students’ choice.”
The interview is a two-day process. On the first night, the 16 finalists join the selection committee for cocktails and dinner, where the atmosphere is intended to be casual. The committee regards the evening as a chance to learn about the candidates and judge how they think and answer questions.
Often, topics that arise will come up in the official 20-minute interview on the following day.
Due to its familiarity with the program, the University even provides mock interviews for finalists. The interviewers are comprised of faculty and Rhodes alumni.
“Students must be well-prepared on a wide range of topics and current events related to their field of interests,” Kiefer said. “They have to be able to speak about what they specifically want to study and why it is necessary that they go to Oxford.”
Despite the highly-selective nature of the program, Kiefer believes the intense application process is extremely valuable to students.
“The process is really an exercise to focus on what you want to do, figure out what’s important to you and how to talk about yourself,” she said. “Even if you do not make it, you have the bare bones for other applications and other interviews.”
Applicants who do not make the cut often reapply after they graduate. When 2008 University alum and Rhodes Scholar finalist Reynolds Whalen found out he did not make it, he admitted feeling discouraged.
“I feel that once the pool has been narrowed to the 16 finalists, there is no concrete method for choosing a winner,” Whalen said. “At first, this realization made me not want to reapply, but then I decided that rolling the dice was worth the possibility of getting the scholarship even if the selection process is completely arbitrary, which I feel it is at the finalist stage.”
Whalen said his desire to go to Oxford for graduate school has intensified over the past year. He plans to get a Master of Science in African studies and to travel to Rwanda at the end of November for six months to make a film for a development program.
“I would like to help facilitate the integration of theater into existing education and development programs in East Africa, as well as create new drama groups that will change the way we think about performing arts and further revealing their unique quality to inspire positive social change,” he said.