he personal statement required of Rhodes applicants is an important piece of the application. In 1,000 words or less, an applicant needs to:
- discuss his or her academic experiences and interests
- lay out a clear research agenda and/or explain what he or she would like to study at Oxford University
- explain how his or her experiences thus far—in college and in life more generally—have led him or her to apply for this scholarship
- what he or she would like to do with the opportunities afforded by receipt of a Rhodes scholarship.
That’s a daunting prospect for many of us. You may find the advice of recent Rhodes winners useful as you think about and begin writing your essay. You can find their advice here. We’ve made available some winning personal statements from recent Rhodes Scholars. Reading through them can give you an idea of how much detail and which areas winning essays tend to cover. Remember: these are for inspiration and information. You need to write your own essay, reflecting your own experiences and interests. Looking at examples can be a helpful way to get started.
|RHODES ESSAY 1:||“Without contraries is no progression….”|
|RHODES ESSAY 2:||“My double major in Government and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) always provokes one of two reactions….”|
|RHODES ESSAY 3:||“My grandmother clutches her rosary and wags an admonishing forefinger at me as I sort through the dozens of saris she has collected….”|
|RHODES ESSAY 4:||“Before I knock, I peer through the window of the door….”>|
The Marshall application is structured differently from the Rhodes, with opportunities for separate statements on future career aims and the applicant’s proposed academic program. As our example indicates, Marshall reviewers will consider applications from art students who wish to study at certified schools of art and design in the U.K.
- MARSHALL ESSAYS: “I grew up in Oakland County, a predominantly white suburb of Detroit, Michigan. It and a handful other counties circling Detroit are largely the result of the white flight….”
“Without contraries is no progression.”
Having twelve parents in a town of 600 was erratic and eye-opening. My six parents in childhood were products of divorce and remarriage, the six foster parents in adolescence the consequence of unsuccessful remarriages. While dialogues of dysfunction usually accompany this kind of tale, mine was one of fluid counterbalance. The various homes that welcomed me, often last-minute with my sleeping bag in hand, revealed to me a supple sense of diversity. The one constant in [my Midwestern town], however, was ignorance of the outside—geographically, politically, and religiously. The homogeneous farming community—and [my state] generally afforded little opportunity to explore or appreciate uniqueness. I suppose this “small town mentality” is best exemplified by the evening in spring 2003 when American bombs ignited Baghdad. The dormitory dining hall’s eyes gaped at the television, while the hall’s ears heard rapid whispers equating ‘terrorists’ with ‘Saddam’ and ‘Muslims’ with ‘Osama’. Knowing my military stepmother was headed to the center of the conflict, I ignored the broadcast with defiant ignorance. As the bombs flattened, so did my budding global perspective; simply put, not knowing the details of the struggle seemed better than trying to understand a multifaceted conflict.
I studied in Oslo later that year, still trying to overlook the Middle Eastern and Islamic world. Ironically, my best friends in Norway were Moroccan, Israeli, and French-Afghani. I also taught at the Oslo International School, with the student populace representing over 40 countries. My companions and students abroad, who ultimately became my teachers, were touchstones of a world that I had embarrassingly dismissed, avoided, and even rejected.
Long fascinated by literature and religious studies, I began to grasp religious scholar Karen Armstrong’s idea that “Theology and literature both teach one to connect the like with the unlike and to see that this can make a new truth.” Drawn to the wisdom in this, I found a way to embrace the seemingly irreconcilable contrasts in my life. In the spirit of this balance, my mother returned from the war and my father, just months later, left for Baghdad. By this time, my global interest had dramatically transformed from that of a farm-boy freshman. The world during that time became much smaller for me: my father, working with U.S. intelligence in Iraq, often emailed me in [the Midwest], for Iraqi news. I realized then that something is, and has been, profoundly irregular in the interaction between east and west. Despite our online ‘global community’, even basic facts are lost in their voyage across hemispheres. If such discrepancies exist, what hope do Middle Eastern voices, perceptions, and emotions have to find a western audience and vice versa? I found myself longing not only to understand but also to influence modern struggles with hindsight from the medieval literary and religious past. In my passion to integrate medieval classics like Beowulf and Chaucer with the seemingly disparate modern Middle East, I was continually drawn to the crusades.
Fortuitously, my return from Europe this summer aligned with my father’s short leave from Iraq. Amidst sharing adventure stories, our conversations drifted to my continuing interest in the crusades and the divergent voices echoed in Arabic and Christian art, literature, and historical records. I was taken aback when he mentioned that, in fact, he had numerous conversations with Iraqis on exactly that subject. When I asked him if he thought that affected how they view the current conflict, he reflected, “I’m positive it does, but I’m not sure how.” By the end of the day, my father and I had developed plans for my trip to Baghdad in February so that I could begin to find out.
In 1984, Amin Maalouf collected narratives by Arab chroniclers of the crusades in The Crusades through Arab Eyes. In Iraq, I hope to gather modern narratives from Iraqis and American soldiers about their cultural memory of the crusades and their consequent perceptions of today’s clash. I believe that the most effective way to change the world is to change people’s perspectives and ideas about the world. While sociology and political science can deconstruct the struggle through their lenses, the intimate lens of literature—like Maalouf’s collection—affords a crucial catalyst for such growth.
Admittedly, medieval studies can be viewed, and perhaps rightly so at times, as a distant and obscure subject. My interest is in the crusades’ fundamental relevance to global issues today through its correspondences and its contraries. While at Oxford, I plan to compare eastern and western medieval literature, manuscripts, and art portraying the crusades. For instance, I will study Persian historian Rashid al-Din’s stylized Persian depiction of Pope Gregory IX in Oxford’s Fulk of Neully [Ms Laud Misc 587 fo.1] alongside “St Bernard, Cistercian abbot of Clairvaux” [MS 49 fo.162r]. The primary literary source I will work with is The Song of Roland for its fictionalized depiction of Charlemagne as quintessential enemy of Islam. More specifically, I will evaluate models of the convivencia, the coexistence of Christians and Spanish Muslims. In that context, I will use manuscripts like Alfonso X of Castile’s A Treatise on Chess to explore further the development of Prester John, a Christian-Muslim mythical hero, as an exemplification of “crusading convivencia.” Not only does Oxford have the richest supply of relevant manuscripts, it also boasts the leading group of scholars of the religious Middle Ages.
My passion is to mine the riches inherent in opposites: provincial town and multifaceted world, willful ignorance and ardent curiosity, the medieval and the modern. After spending this spring working in Iraq and this summer joining a professor on an ancient Canaanite archaeological dig outside Jerusalem, my journey towards the crusades will continue. I hope to find myself at the welcoming doors of Oxford University next fall, to approach the unique manuscripts of the Bodleian library with awe compounded by anticipation, and then enter into the finest academic community available to cultivate my research and contribute my voice.
RHODES ESSAY 2
My double major in Government and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality (WGS) always provokes one of two reactions. Some people, like my uncle, make light of the concept of a man majoring in women’s studies; others, like my grandmother, pull me aside with a worried look and encourage me to try studying something besides gay and lesbian theory. I had always planned to work in human rights advocacy, and my academic choices seemed like good preparation for that field. Still, my uncle’s skepticism nursed a suspicion that I would perpetually be an outsider if I studied issues like feminism, ethnic conflict, racism, or poverty. My grandmother’s concern fostered an equal and opposite conviction that there is something self-serving about fighting for gay and lesbian rights when you have a personal investment in that struggle.
When I arrived at college, I had not begun to grapple with the ethical underpinnings of social justice. I dove into [my university’s] First-Year Urban Program, a week of volunteering which stressed that it can be counterproductive to work on behalf of a group without working with those people themselves. As I listened to a homeless speaker reminisce about how clueless volunteers could be, my mind flashed back to rooms full of white, middle class Midwesterners, and I wondered what I had actually contributed to local campaigns against poverty, racism, and violence. I kept myself updated on the politics of those movements, but without attempting to interact with individuals who were personally fighting those battles, I could never confidently say whether I had helped or hindered their efforts. In the years that followed, I threw myself into gay and lesbian activism on campus—and felt naturally authoritative when I spoke up.
It was outside the campus context, however, that I witnessed how the ability to understand others—and not outsider or insider status—truly characterizes effective advocacy. After receiving a Weissman Fellowship from [my university] to work abroad, I spent a summer at the International Lesbian and Gay Association in Brussels, Belgium. It was initially jarring because developments in the United States were rarely mentioned in the office, where I was tracking the decriminalization of homosexuality in Africa and Asia, publicizing anti-gay violence at parades in Latvia and Russia, and translating materials on women’s health and same-sex domestic violence. What I considered contemporary gay and lesbian issues—like adoption and marriage—were distant goals on the organization’s agenda. Nonetheless, though I was working on behalf of people who were thousands of miles away and had different objectives, my familiarity with the movement’s resources, symbols, and terminology made me markedly more effective as an ally.
Shortly afterwards, I left for South Africa to do field research for my thesis. In 1996, the South African Constitution was the first in the world to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and I investigated how the subsequent decade of progressive legal victories occurred in spite of an overwhelmingly unreceptive public. The Government Department demanded a quantitative comparison of countries where similar reforms had been proposed. Professors in WGS, on the other hand, suggested that I use personal testimonies to understand how post-apartheid politics shaped gender and sexuality. I quickly realized that the movement in South Africa could not be explained by comparative cases, since apartheid and history put it in a class unto itself, but the personal (and occasionally, contradictory) perspectives of my interviewees also failed to produce a definitive conclusion. It was only through a combination of fieldwork and legislative research that I found that the country’s progressive legal framework masked very specific problems—ranging from administrative indifference to endemic violence—in communities fragmented by race, class, and gender. As an outsider who still felt a connection to the movement, I was not sure whether I could accurately depict that reality. As one interviewee pointed out, however, the gay and lesbian movement in South Africa has historically depended on activists who challenged claims that homosexuality is “un-African,” but also relied on outsiders who listened to South Africans, lobbied governments, and raised awareness around the world.
I have witnessed the ways in which individuals use journalism, law, and political pressure to draw international attention to populations who suffer from abuse and repression. Whether one is part of those populations or not, the ability to listen to others and contextualize observations is a necessary precursor to meaningful advocacy. Without that background in anthropological theory and ethnographic practice, it is difficult to know whether attempts to work with marginalized populations do more harm than good. As an undergraduate, I have developed a better understanding of the ideological justifications for human rights. Now, I want to train myself to conduct fieldwork and bring the pursuit of those protections to light.
I am seeking a program that trains students to put research skills to use, but also encourages graduates to think critically about their work. Oxford’s program is especially attractive because of its insistence on the inseparability of rigorous methodology and sociopolitical theory. The MPhil in Social Anthropology stresses training in quantitative and qualitative methodologies, but graduates are encouraged to apply those skills thoughtfully by engaging with Marx, Weber, and other social theorists. The first year of the program is virtually identical to the MSc, and provides an introduction to the field of anthropology before those concepts are put into practice in the second year. Students from a variety of disciplines, from academic anthropology to advocacy and human rights, are thus able to pursue the degree and enrich each others’ experiences. In South Africa, minority movements succeeded because they stressed that human rights are indivisible. Oxford’s Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology stresses this interplay of religion, nationalism, and ethnicity, and Dr. X and Dr. Y would be especially invaluable resources while studying the political mobilization of identities. As a human rights advocate, the ability to conduct cross-cultural research, understand key concerns, and bring violations to light aren’t only skills I hope to master, but ones I am determined to practice.
RHODES ESSAY 3
My grandmother clutches her rosary and wags an admonishing forefinger at me as I sort through the dozens of saris she has collected over eighty years. Fish curry cooks over a wood fire in the kitchen while a cow saunters in the street outside. It is a soggy monsoon afternoon in Sampige, the village home of my mother’s family since before Vasco de Gama landed in India. My summer is drawing to a close. I have done bloody battle with leeches in the jungle, wrangled a classroom full of children yelling, “Ajith said a bad word—beat him!” and encountered a man who, hearing I was American, growled and proudly showed me the pixilated Osama bin Laden on his cell phone. Yet few memories stand out as vividly as my grandmother and the unlikelihood, bordering on absurdity, that this woman’s granddaughter should sing the fight song at college football games, use the word “Google,” or watch MTV’s Pimp My Ride.
Daughter of a Midwestern boy and a girl from Calcutta, I find it amazing that my Indian grandmother, experientially a world away, set the stage for my life. As I have studied for degrees in Letters and International Studies, the interconnectedness of human experience across time and culture has been a recurring theme. Just as religious nationalism in Serbia has parallels to India’s Hindu-based BJP party, knowing about the governance of Sparta under Lycurgus lends historical perspective to the fusion of faith and governance. My academic background forms a broad and rich foundation for the English Language and Literature B.A. at Oxford. Having seen the interplay of various academic disciplines, I am anxious to apply this awareness to studying the intertwined development of literature and language.
I have known for several years that I want to become an English professor and a writer. Like most word-geeks I am fascinated by the ability of skillful writers to capture images and convey effects through their handling of language. I want to explore the technical and formal aspects that make it possible for literature to reflect and change the people who read it. One of the best courses I have taken was an introductory American History class in which we read novelists from Alger to Kesey to DeLillo. Along with learning about historical events, we discovered through literature how those events had shaped Americans’ view of the human experience. Understanding history, philosophy and politics gives literature its grounding while literature gives those subjects their life. One reason I love literature is its power to challenge me and refine my view of myself and others. Literature charts my common ground with characters as diverse as a street urchin in a Dickens saga and a modern Japanese businessman in a sketch by Murakami.
Studying at Oxford was a childhood dream of mine, discarded along with my tutu. I was originally attracted to the fact that Bertie Wooster was an Oxonian, but the English Language and Literature B.A. degree and the tutorial system rekindled my interest when I participated in the Honors at Oxford program. The English B.A. focuses on giving the student a solid grasp of the development of English literature from Beowulf to present. Learning the foundations of literature provides the basis for future specialization just as a background in the broader humanities enriches the understanding of literature. Reading James Joyce’s Ulysses taught me how literature and culture anchor a writer’s work and broaden his scope of possible expression. Anyone could describe Leopold Bloom making a pot of tea. James Joyce chose to relate the event in the form of a catechism, borrowing cultural and literary associations of Christianity which lend Bloom’s every thought and action a preternatural significance and make a statement of bold humanism without ever straying from the narrative. Without Joyce’s knowledge of his historical and literary family tree from Homer to Yeats, Ulysses would have been un-writable. Without a similar awareness on the part of the reader, it is unreadable as well.
The best professors I have encountered have been those who combine their expertise with knowledge and interests beyond their specialties. In their offices a question about Iraq turns into a discussion of Virginia Woolf. They are the professors who see their own subject as a contribution to my broader development as a scholar and as a person. Literature in particular is a fertile ground for interdisciplinary application and has practical relevance in other fields. As an English professor grounded in both literary history and interdisciplinary studies, I hope to bring students in touch with the beauty and power of the written word, with an eye to helping them clarify their own values, discover their potential and find their niche in the world.
As an aspiring writer, I know that producing two papers each week will be invaluable to my development. I have written for friends and family and known the delight of a well-formed sentence from an early age, but it was not until college that I took my own writing very seriously. I have learned to appreciate the connotations and sound qualities of individual words and to notice how those attributes can be used to create subtlety of meaning. Writing an opinion column for the school newspaper has exposed me to the challenge of distilling my own thoughts and observations for the consumption of strangers. I enjoy examining a narrow facet of life and seeing how it reflects upon the greater whole.
I have always tried to live my life with initiative. Whether traipsing onstage in a bikini when my friends dared me to enter a beauty pageant or visiting my Grandmother in Sampige, through a wide range of experiences I view life from a variety of angles and incorporate them into my worldview and writing. Studying English at Oxford is a logical next step towards a career of using literature to examine assumptions and discover unsuspected commonalities, thus bridging a span as wide as that between myself and my grandmother, who recently heard that she is mentioned in my essay for the Rhodes Scholarship. “See how good God is!” she exclaimed. “My name is going to Oxford!”
RHODES ESSAY 4
Before I knock, I peer through the window of the door: the room is strewn with blue balloons and extravagant bouquets. Mrs. K reclines in her bed in her hospital gown. Her eyes reveal a familiar and painful story, one shared by each of the families I visit. Her husband sits in a small wooden chair beside her, his face etched with worry as he considers the life his newborn will lead.
This couple’s first child, Jackson, was born with a myelomeningocele, a defect that occurs when the neural tube (the embryologic precursor to the brain and spinal cord) fails to close during fetal development. While his childhood will be interrupted by multiple surgeries and his body will be marked forever, he is lucky to have been born in the United States, where people with neural tube defects (NTDs) can often lead relatively normal adult lives.
As I enter the room, I consider how little I know about NTDs. Although I understand what is known about their etiologies, available treatment options, and potential consequences of these deformities, I know little of the strife, emotional burdens, and agony associated with them; little of the shattered dreams, new realities, and lifelong fears that follow a diagnosis. I visit families like Jackson’s to learn. They are my teachers.
Their lessons contextualize the research that is my passion. I study the etiology of NTDs in Guatemala. The country has an extremely high incidence of NTDs, but Guatemalan children afflicted with this deformity are not privy to the luxuries of medical and surgical intervention available in the US. Children who could be saved if born 1000 miles north often die as a result of the deformity.
I am the lead researcher among a team of neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists, pediatricians, nurses and social workers who travel to Guatemala each year with Project Shunt, a medical mission sponsored by the Department of Neurosurgery at the University of Michigan to heal children afflicted with neurodevelopmental defects. We are studying the aggregate-level effects of the toxin fumonisin FB1. This toxin, found in rotting corn husks, is thought to be a direct cause of NTDs in populations that consume corn as a main staple. Our work has the potential to dramatically curb the incidence of NTDs in Guatemala and beyond.
The decision to become a physician was easy for me: growing up, my primary interests were people and science. And medicine, in my mind the confluence of social work and physiological engineering, was an obvious choice. On a daily basis, doctors have the special opportunity to help others in their weakest and most dependent states and to manipulate scientific principles in their aid.
As a first generation Egyptian-American, much of my extended family still lives in Egypt. I was raised a stone’s throw from the poverty and despair that marks much of the world. As I continue to move between the relative opulence of the US and the deprivation of countries like my parents’, I realize my challenge as a physician and scientist as one to study and alleviate health disparities that fall along ethnic, socioeconomic, and national lines.
Currently, I am a first-year student in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Fellowship at the University of Michigan pursuing both MD and PhD degrees in hopes of developing a career in academic medicine. This way, I will combine my clinical interests with an extensive research agenda; I will continue my research in neurodevelopmental epidemiology hoping to alleviate the international burden of congenital neurological defects. Clinically, I will specialize in pediatric neurosurgery. As a neurosurgeon, I may mend with my hands some of the defects I cannot avert through my research. Also, many countries in the underdeveloped world lack quality neurosurgical care; for example, it is estimated that there are only 65 neurosurgeons in the entire region of sub-Saharan Africa, as compared to about 110 per state in the US. To address this global shortage, I would like one day to create an international fellowship to train general surgeons in high-yield neurosurgical techniques. Logistical, technical, and ethical issues often mar the conceptualization, planning and administration of epidemiologic studies and public health campaigns in the developing world. To improve my skills in research and administration and to strengthen my background in international health, I will study Global Health Sciences at Oxford.
Why would I take pause from a fully funded, combined MD/PhD course to pursue studies at Oxford? First, the University’s individualized pedagogy is ideal for training researchers. Training at Oxford, I can benefit from one-on-one interaction with some of the world’s premier epidemiologists: I plan to conduct research with the British National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, a world-renowned perinatal epidemiologic think tank. Second, the Global Health Sciences program at Oxford is interdisciplinary, unlike public health courses in the US. The program places equal emphasis on theory and application, preparing its graduates for all aspects of international public health research and administration. Third, studying at Oxford will place me among a community of elite scholars that will broaden my horizons and refine my perspective. This opportunity will not delay the completion of my education. Because I am already pursuing MD and PhD degrees, my studies at Oxford will fulfill required PhD coursework, allowing me to return and finish both degrees on schedule.
My religion teaches that if one saves a life, she has saved all of humanity. I remember reading this verse with my father as a boy: “How great,” I thought, “would it be then to save a life every day?” Quick to share my thoughts with Baba, I told him that I wanted to be a doctor when I grew up. My father, a professor, thought for a moment, and reasoned, “Abdulrahman, wouldn’t it be better to learn why people die, and then teach everyone around you to save lives? Wouldn’t that save more lives?” His reasoning stuck; but so did mine.
I grew up in Oakland County, a predominantly white suburb of Detroit, Michigan. It and a handful other counties circling Detroit are largely the result of the white flight spurred by the city’s 1960s race riots. Whenever my father and I visited the city, he casually pressed the automatic lock button as we crossed Eight Mile Road, the dividing line between the suburbs and the city. He grew up in Detroit and remembered a vibrant, diverse city—drastically different from the dilapidated, primarily African American city I saw. My mother worked as an advocate for urban teens in the city for years, and my father drew up building proposals in an attempt to rebuild the city. The daughter of a community-minded architect and teacher, I was raised to think of myself as a catalyst for social improvement through creativity.
While studying at [my college], I focused on performance art, a discipline in which the human body becomes the artistic medium. Some of my best classes involved collaborations with a female juvenile facility, local farmers, and the Humane Society. In each of these classes, we used art to reach out to different members of our community. During my senior year, I performed a monologue in front of large-scale paintings I created about my city’s namesake. Upon graduating from college in 2006, I was awarded a fellowship with Artrain USA, an art museum in a locomotive that travels the country, bringing world-class exhibitions to impoverished, art-starved communities. I created puppet shows and paintings about the towns we visited and staged re-enactments of significant local events. After my fellowship with the Artrain USA, I was awarded an artist residency with a community arts organization with two galleries, a stage, classrooms, and seven resident artist studios. [The city], historically a working-class port town, offered a host of historical events, figures, and rituals for me to explore. Its modern day culture also fascinated me—its rich cultural diversity, its proximity to the Mason Dixon Line, and the ways in which blue collar [citizens] who had lived on the same street for 40 years bumped up against recent Latin American immigrants.
[The city] seemed, in some ways, to echo my father’s stories about Detroit. But while in Detroit much of the white population now lives north of the city, [my new city’s] racial divide consists of block and neighborhood divisions. It struggles with high crime, drugs, and gang-related violence. When I moved into the Creative Alliance, there had been a spike in drug-related theft on our block. Every day I heard a different racial or ethnic slur uttered on the street. I wanted to change the hostility somehow, but couldn’t figure out how to break through the tension of my new city. Then, I saw a photograph that changed everything.
In the old newspaper photo, “Washday,” a row of pristine marble steps leading to the city’s row houses are meticulously scrubbed by housewives in the midday sun. The residents were unbelievably unified, as though the women had decided to scrub their steps at precisely the same hour. I had never noticed anyone in my neighborhood scrubbing steps and began to suspect that the absence of this performance was a symptom of something greater than a lapse in marble maintenance. Beginning in the late 19th century, this ritual was performed each Saturday by the female heads of household all first-generation Americans and recent immigrants from Italy, Poland, and Germany. The performance of the weekly chore, once unifying them in their fresh homeowners’ pride, fell off gradually as the 20th century progressed, renters moved in, and a generation moved on. I decided to use this aspect of [my city’s] history as a point of entry into the complexities of its current social structure by performing the once-communal chore.
Though great in theory, this was not an easy task. Almost immediately I realized that I was afraid of my audience, afraid they might not remember or care about the part of their history I was trying to resurrect. Would they slam the door in my face? Some did. But many more said “yes.” Every Saturday for the past six months, I have worn a 1940s housedress and apron. I go door to door with a bucket of water, scrub brush and a can of Bon Ami Polishing Cleanser, knock on my neighbors’ doors, and ask “Do Your Steps?” Their reactions range from delighted glee as they recount their days scrubbing steps to confusion if they are strangers to the ritual. Most often, we end up in a lively discussion about the history of their block, the ritual of step scrubbing, and their theories on why the tradition ended.
This is just one example of my belief that it is critical that people engage with the history of the place they live to understand its present social, cultural, and economic dynamics. Just as I’ve seen in [cities across the country], historically based performance art could do wonders to shed light on international affairs in an engaging, thought-provoking way. It performs the double purpose of drawing historians and politicians to art, and drawing art appreciators to politics and history. Sometimes it takes an outsider to look at a country’s history and politics to re-ignite an interest in or reframe that piece of history.
Many other performance artists have taken their inspiration from global and cultural politics. Guillermo Gomez-Pena, for example, is a Mexican-born performance artist, creating work about the politics of the U.S./Mexican border. NaoKo TakaHashi is another performance artist whose work highlights the ambiguities of national and individual identities, focusing on re-location in London. I would like to become just such an ambassador, learning about a new place while connecting with its people through history.
Marshall/Proposed Academic Program
I earned my Bachelors of Fine Arts Degree in Art & Design in 2006 from [my university]. Since graduating, I have held two artist residencies and worked as an arts educator in impoverished urban and rural communities. These experiences have made me crave the ability to affect more people in new places with my work, which is why I would like to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree. Scotland has a rich, 10,000-year-old history. I want to investigate the history of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry. I am fascinated by formerly industry based urban areas, and how the populations once in these industries (whether it is shipbuilding in Glasgow, steel in Baltimore, or cars in Detroit) change and are affected differently during the height, decline, and renewal periods of the industrial-economic shift.
For a performance artist, the Glasgow School of Fine Art provides the perfect academic and cultural environment. The GSA’s strong support of students creating work in a variety of media, especially time-based work and performance, make it a perfect match for my approach to art making. The School is a small, highly focused international community of artists that encourages socially engaged artwork. Several of the School’s faculty members, a number of whom are performances artists, have received or been finalists for the Turner Prize. Because the focus of my work is on the reenactment and creative exploration of local histories, I seek to study under Julie Roberts, Edward Stewart, Stephanie Smith, and Alan Currall. Roberts is known for her paintings that investigate objects associated with medical institutions. Edward Stewart and Stephanie Smith are performance artists concerned with researching the politics of identity and gender. Alan Currall is a master of using his life, relationships, and surroundings as creative media. I am eager to see how my work responds to, benefits from, and is challenged by an entirely new academic and cultural environment.
I anticipate my work in the MFA Program will combine historical research, performance, painting, and installation to further my creative investigation of local histories. I envision my creative research as a sustained and thorough inquiry into the history of the people, places, and events surrounding the shipbuilding industry in Glasgow. I will utilize The Glasgow Museum of Transport, The Kevlingrove Museum & Art Gallery, The Glasgow & West of Scotland Family History Society, The Mitchell Library, The Museum of Scottish Country Life, word of mouth, tall tales, rumors, and local gossip to conduct my creative historical research.
Marshall/Choosing the UK
My multidisciplinary, creative investigations of local histories in towns and cities of the United States have proven fascinating, challenging, and rewarding. The most creatively lucrative have been my explorations of places where I am, initially, a total outsider. I then use art as a way to become an insider, to gain access to the essence of a by inserting myself as a character in its past. It is exhilarating and inspiring to consider how many more historical individuals, places, events, and industries I would be able to explore in Glasgow, the largest city in a country whose roots stretch back to prehistoric times.
Select recommenders as soon as possible. Choose carefully; you will want both a variety of perspectives and strong support:
- It is essential that recommendations be written by people who know you well enough to cite specific examples of your accomplishments and talents.
- Letters from faculty with considerable standing in the academic community are desirable, but only if they can speak enthusiastically and in detail about your qualifications.
- Visiting faculty, academics with whom you have studied at other institutions, or GSIs are appropriate if they can speak personally to your strengths and promise.
- Not all letters need to be from those you have studied with in the classroom; positive anecdotes from a supervisor in a research or work setting can strengthen your case.
- It is wise to avoid the “form” letter, even if it is from someone with a high degree of name recognition. Senators, vice presidents, congress members, university presidents, and others encountered in the course of an internship or other endeavor are asked to write numerous recommendations. Too often their letters are written by others and say very little that is telling about the candidate.
- If someone appears reluctant to write for you, whether it is because they do not feel that they know you well enough to produce an effective letter or you have not allowed adequate time for the preparation of the letter, it is probably best to find another person to write for you.
- Recommendation packets from Career Planning and Placement cannot be used for nationally competitive scholarship competitions.
Make the task of writing your recommendation as convenient as possible for the recommender:
- Allow plenty of time for the preparation of the letter. Keep in mind that faculty members travel, vacation, and just take time off during which they do not want to write recommendations. Do not expect them to write letters during summer or winter break unless you have made arrangements in advance.
- Make an appointment to explain your reasons for applying for the specific scholarship and your plan of study. Provide your résumé, personal statement, and transcript if those will help with the recommendation, but let the writer know that those materials will be part of your application so just quoting from them will not prove useful.
- While it is a good idea to let the writer know what aspects of your accomplishments you would like him/her to write about, do not expect the letter to address things about which the recommender has no first-hand knowledge.
- Keep the recommenders informed about your progress through the competition. As soon as you hear the results, positive or negative, you should let them know and thank them again for their support.
Based on the experience of Rhodes selectors, this document was originally intended to assist those who have been asked to provide Rhodes recommendations, but the advice herein is applicable to Mitchell and Marshall recommendations as well. These suggestions are not those of the Rhodes Trust or other scholarship administrators, but they reflect rules of thumb that selection committees follow. We present them to you as helpful guidelines (not iron-clad rules) when composing recommendations for any of the prestigious British/Irish scholarships.
Overview of the Rhodes, Marshall, and Mitchell Scholarships
The Rhodes scholarship is an international award for study at the University of Oxford in Oxford, England. Eighty-three recipients are chosen each year, 32 of them from the United States. Recipients may choose any full-time post-graduate course offered by the University of Oxford (the only university where the scholarship is tenable).
The prestigious George J. Mitchell Scholarships are awarded annually to 12 Americans, under the age of 30, to pursue a year of postgraduate study at any university on the island of Ireland. The awards are named after former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, who spearheaded the historic Good Friday Agreement of 1998 that produced peace in Northern Ireland. The scholarship recognizes outstanding young Americans who exhibit the highest standards of academic excellence, leadership, and community service. It seeks to link future American leaders with the island of Ireland.
The Marshall Scholarship was established by the British government in 1953 as an expression of gratitude to the United States for economic aid under the Marshall Plan after World War II. It is awarded annually to up to 40 U. S. citizens for study at any of Britain’s universities. The selectors look for candidates of high ability and wide interests who plan to take up careers not only in higher education but in commerce, industry, the arts and professions, and public life.
Note to faculty members: Some scholarship winners opt to take a second BA. You should ask the applicant about the degree program she or he has chosen. It is important that you write about her or his suitability to undertake the program (see below).
The Importance of Recommendations
Roughly 1,200 Americans apply for the 32 Rhodes scholarships each year, slightly more apply for the approximately 40 Marshalls, and up to 325 vie for the 12 Mitchells. Every application is read. Conventional wisdom has it that anyone with a GPA lower than 3.7 (on a 4.0 scale) has to be quite extraordinary in order to make it to the interview stage. Applications comprise a 1,000-word personal statement; curriculum vitae; official university transcript; nominating letter from the applicant’s college or university; and four to eight letters of recommendation, depending on the scholarship. Letters may be obtained from faculty members, academic advisers, employers, clergy, coaches, and other mentors or supervisors who have firsthand knowledge of the applicant’s leadership skills, interests, intellectual capacity, and achievements. At the University of Michigan, we encourage applicants to secure the majority of their letters from faculty members.
Unusually compelling recommendations are essential to successful applications:
- The Rhodes regional selection committees typically receive anywhere between 40 and 60 applications, and if each candidate submits eight letters (as most do), selection committee members (who read every application) face a pile of some 480 letters. The Mitchell readers committee reads 60–70 applications to get to 30–35 semi-finalists. Another review committee reads every semi-finalist application to select the 20 who reach the interview stage.
- By definition, “good” candidates have an exemplary academic record and a long list of extracurricular activities. What sets them apart is the depth and quality of their research and leadership experiences, as reported by the letter writers.
It is of vital importance, therefore, that your letter be clear, detailed, well written, and of a reasonable length, usually two pages. (The Mitchell and Marshall competitions have strict 1,000-word limits; their online systems will not accept one word over 1,000.) Generic letters attesting to the candidate’s suitability for a job or internship are not suitable. Selection committee members look for proof of candidates’ potential to succeed in an Oxford degree program and play a leadership role in their respective fields, and the letters of recommendation need to offer that proof. As the Marshall materials state, “Unsubstantiated hyperbole often undermines the credibility of a positive recommendation.”
Our recommendation, then, is that letters should:
- Be specific in relating instances of academic and/or leadership achievement, be it in a classroom, laboratory, or individual setting.
- Minimize general praise of the candidate’s qualities (e.g., statements in the form “Candidate is a highly motivated and hard-working young man/woman”).
- Speak about the specific scholarship; please acknowledge that you are writing in support of the candidate’s application for the Rhodes, for example, and be sure that you haven’t accidentally put “Fulbright,” “Marshall,” or another scholarship name (as has, unfortunately, happened in the past).
- Explain why the candidate is likely to succeed in the program of study she or he is seeking to enter. (This is not necessary if you are a non-academic letter writer.)
- Take as long as necessary to communicate the specifics of a candidate’s worth, and no longer!
We have emphasized specific examples. This can take several forms. If you are a professor or GSI and taught the student in a course, you might explain how he or she contributed to in-class discussions, sought out extra work during office hours, or wrote a stellar term paper. Many letter writers devote a paragraph to this sort of example, giving details (for example) on the term paper’s topic, challenging sources used and original arguments put forth. Candidates with scientific training are almost always described as having strong analytical skills; it’s even better when the letter writer can point to a project or experiment in which the candidate put those skills to the test.
Non-academic examples can include events organized by the candidate, athletic contests in which he or she put in extraordinary effort, and volunteer work that demonstrates the candidate’s commitment to helping others (one of the traits valued by selection committees).
If you are unable to give specific examples of a candidate’s personal or academic qualifications for the scholarship, we recommend that you make this clear to the candidate and, if necessary, decline to write a letter of recommendation. Each candidate is advised to meet with his or her letter writers in person, if possible, and to be as clear as possible about what he or she would like to have described in the letter. Please do not take affront if you feel the candidate is unusually frank about this: we want to help you, the letter writers, while also ensuring that the letters contain those all-important specific examples.
Please direct questions to the University of Michigan’s Rhodes Scholarships representative, Ellen Meader.