When you consider that only one out of eight or ten applications will survive the first filter, you need to create an application that sings. And you want it to sing opera, not country western.
Many of the best applications indeed "write a story." That is, the selector comes away from the application knowing where you have come from (which may include any hardships you overcame), they see where you are, and they understand where you are going. You want to direct your story in such a way that the U.K. program (which you have researched and with which you have formed personal contact) seems a natural "next chapter" in your narrative. Students often fail to see this narrative element because they answer one question on the application, go for lunch, answer the next, write some e-mail, answer the next, etc. The answers may all be accurate and may individually be strong and thoughtful, but as a whole, they might not leave a lasting impression on the selector. In the end, you want to leave the selector thinking, "I want to meet this person."
That is why an interesting story with a protagonist who shows ongoing growth is important. Several selectors have drawn attention to this story line, this consistency in who you are, how you reach out, what degree you are pursuing and propose to pursue in the U.K., and what the evidence is to back all this up. You want it all to dovetail together as much as possible.
But it's your story. In the end, your autonomy is paramount. Be detailed, be humorous, be colorful, and be honest. Think of varying sentence length, eliminating useless verbiage, avoiding an overuse of "I," and removing that opening set of sentences which sounds so much like a cliché. (The last is incredibly common, even among good writers, because it may be the first time one has ever been asked to write about oneself in a thoughtful and sustained manner.)
To use a metaphor other than "writing a story," think about "painting a portrait." Paula Warrick at the American University in Washington, D.C. uses this fruitful image for the personal statement because it must say as much as possible within a very small space but still retain a clean, cohesive quality. A quality portrait is not just an image but has an agenda. Does your personal statement justify funding to develop your skills and knowledge, and through it are you successfully juggling both primary and secondary themes? A quality portrait is selective in the information it presents, and things that are extraneous don't get brushed in. Does your family background directly relate to your long-term career and academic goals? A quality portrait relies upon conventions. Are you making full use of literary conventions such as the rhetorical techniques of storytelling? Take a moment right now to think of a portrait that most impresses you and think about how its individual components relate to one another. Now ponder ways in which you can create a true likeness of yourself on paper that forwards your agenda, selects what is best about you and relies upon the conventions that can be put to best use. Yet always remember that, aesthetics aside, it must always be a true likeness of yourself. Never exaggerate your claims because this is not the place for caricatures.
The Rhodes' personal statement asks for the candidate's "academic and other interests" (along with reasons for wanting to study a particular program at Oxford), and similarly the Marshall asks for the candidate's "academic and other interests and pursuits" (leaving a separate essay for justifying program and university choice). Both of these thousand-word statements leave much to your discretion, but think through the implications of everything you write. Remember not just to claim your passions but to prove them as well. That is, anyone can claim a passion for physics, but the more attractive candidate justifies his/her passion with, for example, concrete examples of summer research programs at CERN. Anyone can love the environment, but the more attractive candidate is out on Mt. Hood doing impact studies on proposed ski lifts. Demonstrate those academic interests with concrete examples, detailed color or past recognitions of achievements. At the same time, don't go overboard. Remember that you will have an opportunity to list many of your past achievements elsewhere in the application. So be selective, but after being selective, be detailed.
The content of your personal statement is of course most vital, but keep in mind that the way you write up that content in itself demonstrates something about yourself. Are you organized? Are you thoughtful? Are you creative? Are you evidential?
All this is well and good, but you may be asking yourself, "How do I get started?" Answer: Just start. Consider free writing at first about the significant moments in your life. Don't worry about punctuation and refinements. Ask yourself what is unusual, special or distinctive about you. What drives you? What do you care about, and what are you doing about it? Some people work better starting from lists of things they've done, arranging them in hierarchical groups of importance to them. Lay out your CV, your roster of past coursework, your extra-curricular activities, your list of passions and so forth in front of you, and then sit back, looking for a common theme. Don't write to impress, and be honest. Finally, don't be attached to anything you've written as the first drafts rarely resemble the last ones.
The Rhodes, Marshall and Mitchell personal statements are limited to 1000 words, whereas the Gates is set at 500 words.
In the past, I ended this web page on application essays with a warm invitation to utilize me, your other teachers and friends by getting us to read rough drafts and soliciting comments from us. Yet the best help we could offer you was limited to being a devil’s advocate or inquisitor, questioning your assumptions and making you think through the gaps. “It is your own work, and the comments people give you should really be limited to giving you questions to consider or asking you to analyze certain points you’ve raised,” I wrote. “It cannot be overemphasized that this personal statement is your personal statement.” Specifically in terms of the Rhodes scholarship, we must now restrict our help even further because, in 2014, the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust and the warden of Rhodes House sent a letter of concern to all fellowship advisors that focused on the originality of the personal statement:
Many essays are now edited extensively and repeatedly by advisors, fellowship offices, university instructors, family and others. We are no longer confident that the essays reflect the writing ability and style of the applicants, nor, even more important, that they reflect accurately applicants' true personal goals, values and aspirations. Many essays have become formulaic and predictable, mirroring what we presume is a general, albeit mistaken picture of what a "good" Rhodes essay should look like. There is no such model.
Hence you will be asked to append this statement to your Rhodes essay:
I attest that this essay is my own work and is wholly truthful. Neither it nor any earlier draft has been edited by anyone other than me, nor has anyone else reviewed it to provide me with suggestions to improve it. I understand that any such editing or review would disqualify my application.
I sincerely sympathize with this problem. During my brief stints judging the Rhodes state and regional competitions, we regularly received professional, highly polished personal essays from certain institutions that made their candidates sound walk-on-water marvelous, but when the candidates arrived for the interviews, their walk didn’t match their talk. Those candidates were taking interview opportunities away from others whose essays were not quite so highly polished even though they would have been great candidates.
We will of course abide by these even tighter restrictions than we had already placed upon ourselves, although I must personally admit my sincere regret in not being able to help you at all. I see this process, not just as a way of identifying future Rhodes scholars, but also as a teaching moment in which we can help you think through how you describe yourself in general. As stated on this website’s home page, our goal has never been either to groom you or to pour you into a model template. Yet we’ll still try to help you every other way we can.
And so I can only offer my advice long before you put pen to paper. Write your essay, and then walk away from it for a while. Reread the above general admonishments about organization and evidence, concision and storytelling, asking yourself if your essay achieves these kinds of goals. Rewrite and repeat. Rewrite and repeat. Rewrite and repeat. Writing this essay requires a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but the process can also be a great deal of fun as you give voice to your passions. It is hoped your essay will rival Carmen.
Michael McCullough's Rhodes Application Essay
I spent my childhood on a road less traveled than most. I grew up in rural Oregon at the end of a dirt road, just as my great grandparents had done. (We even attended the same grade school.) In contrast to my peaceful surroundings, my childhood posed several unique challenges. A difficult, premature, twin birth caused brain damage. The problem, recessive hydrocephalus, was not correctly diagnosed for ten years, when it was corrected with brain surgery. In the meantime, I was left to work out problems with coordination, reflexes, migraine headaches, and speaking.
I stuttered so severely that my twin brother, Kevin, had to interpret to others for me. The stuttering resulted in social ostracism during my grade school years. Sometimes the kids would wait to ridicule me until they thought I couldn't hear them. Often they wouldn't.
While these obstacles made my early life difficult, hindsight has proven them the most valuable experiences in my life. It was much like walking around with a weight tied to my foot. At first it was an inconvenience, but lifting it daily made me stronger. My struggle taught me concentration, empathy, humor, and tenacity. My self-esteem became internalized because there were no external rewards. Isolation fostered independent thinking and taught that happiness is a choice, not a direct consequence of circumstance. The concentration I had to acquire to beat my physical impairments not only made it easier later to excel in athletics, but now helps me in all aspects of my life.
I am grateful for the sense of balance that my condition required I develop. Even commonplace stress from tension, junk food, worry or sickness would have a profound adverse effect on my progress, especially in my speech. Simply, just to talk I had to be healthy both physically and mentally. A proper diet, a calm perspective, and regular exercise were crucial to me for more than just fitness. I used to run before any important speaking I had to do (also before dates) because running greatly improves my fluency. Although the consequences of falling out of balance are no longer so severe for me, the health patterns are ingrained.
Of all the physical problems, stuttering has taught me the most. As a child I was always curious, but I couldn't talk effectively. So I had to listen, to observe. I learned that there is a whole art to getting answers to questions without asking them. Oddly, stuttering gave me lessons in public speaking. In order to retain fluency, I must always be aware of my tone and timing. This awareness now facilitates my teaching neuroanatomy sections at the medical school, doing stand-up comedy, and making other public presentations; these, in turn, make it possible for me to finance a large portion of my education. Moreover, stuttering can put public speaking in perspective. Asking a girl out (Janice) for the first time when I stuttered severely was much more difficult than speaking in front of five thousand people with the slight stutter I have now (especially since Janice said "no" while the speech went well).
In my late teenage years it was as though a pendulum had swung. It still seems odd to me that I went from being a dysfunctional speaker at age twelve to a professional speaker at eighteen. As a young boy my coordination was such a problem that I required stitches over twenty-five times because of accidents. Later on, in the attempt just to attain normal body function, my body control had developed to such an extent that I could voluntarily alter the blood flow in my limbs, change my heart rate, and control the dilation of my pupils. More practically, this awareness allowed me to set a new school record in the discus within six months of training, become a five time varsity athlete in high school, and raise myself to the top qued (a form of ranking) student training at the Stanford JKA Karate Dojo by the beginning of my junior year in college. The past six years have felt like an extended Christmas. I feel fortunate that now I can focus on challenges that extend beyond my own needs and into the public domain
My first big external challenge was working with Oregon politics. As a senior in high school I was elected by the students of Oregon to represent them on the Oregon State Board of Education for a one year term. Fortunately, A Nation At Risk had just been published, so quite a bit of attention was being focussed on education. As a consequence, I was able lift my position as the student advisor from being a mere token, to one having some meaningful involvement with the educational evolution in Oregon. I received funding to research the notion that the students as a whole favored establishing higher standards, including increasing the graduation requirements. At the time, the state teachers union disagreed, but my survey projects demonstrated that my notion was correct. I was pleased that subsequent circulation through AP and UPI allowed the results to have a wider effect. With the support of the surveys, several of my propositions were incorporated into the Oregon Action Plan for Excellence, and later into increased high school graduation requirements in Oregon.
The board position was a real turning point in my life. It sharpened my skills in speaking, diplomacy, and using the press. More significantly, I was surprised to find that even in higher circles of politics personal relationships and mutual respect play an important role in decision making, and the post gave me a brief taste of what it was like to work for others. In retrospect, helping create the Action Plan was my first chance to do something meaningful in the larger world. My enthusiasm skyrocketed as did my expectations for the role I might be able to play in this life.
Coming to Stanford was a challenge, both because the pace of learning was faster, and because I was left to finance most of its costs. Having two flexible degrees in the physical and social sciences has helped me to develop a broadened perspective. Studying perception left me with the impression that even if an objective world exists (I think one does), humans are forced to interpret it subjectively given the imperfect senses and intellectual instruments at their disposal. The most important questions in this field have yet to be asked. I hope to play some role in their solution. An important lesson I gained from majoring in both Human Biology and Political Science was that social and scientific spheres act in tandem. For example, politicians influence research funding and new technology influences politics. I discovered a world much more complicated than I had previously imagined. Before setting out to play my role, I want to learn more about it.
I was fortunate to find (and create) employment in college which both supported my education financially and educated me in its own right. I was often able to help others as I helped myself. During my freshman summer I was hired to work on Stanford's Investment Responsibility Task Force. Our assignment was to track the activity of Stanford owned corporations with regard to issues of investment responsibility, particularly the behavior of South African subsidiaries, and to develop a database which would store and present this information. For instance, we kept records and ethnic profiles on upper level work positions of all of the American based South African subsidiaries and monitored the progress that these corporations were making towards racial equity. It was the first database of its kind anywhere and continues to remain the largest. I left the task force shortly after realizing that our work was probably little more than public relations show and not a sincere investigation into the South African investment question since the completed database was not really being integrated into the decision making processes of the trustees. I was very disappointed.
Since everyone I worked with was older than myself, the task force position really helped groom my presentation skills as it brought me into the whole new world of more formal interaction. Most significantly, the investigation of corporate activity and especially the exposure to Stanford politics helped teach me how people work for, against, and within bureaucracies successfully. The highlight of the experience was a brief meeting with Bishop Tutu when he visited the United States. As I probe the database occasionally today, I feel both the pleasure of seeing the completed project and the frustration that it has not yet been applied to its potential.
My most recent project has been much more rewarding. As a junior I created and piloted the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program along with a friend, Marc Lawrence. This past year I continued to direct it alone, raising over $250,000 for the project in grants and grant commitments. The program brings gifted minority and underprivileged high school students onto the Stanford Campus, houses them for five weeks, and exposes them to medicine and the human body through lectures, labs, and hands-on experience in the hospital. The increased administrative responsibilities in the new program removed me from much of the teaching which I enjoy, but the program, and the direction of its staff, taught me a lot about responsibility and accountability. I found that often important decisions have to be made with inadequate information. I learned to trust my instincts and also how to work one hundred hours per week. (Responsibility for nineteen kids for half the summer also increased my appreciation for American parents). The program continues to grow. Currently, my biggest task is to organize the program so it will survive after I am gone.
In many respects my life has been a prolonged training seminar. At every turn I have been presented with opportunities to struggle, to grow, and to learn. Along the way I have found a deep satisfaction with helping others. I am eager to apply what I have learned. However, there are gaps in my education I should fill and some important skills I would like to improve before I finish my formal education.
If I am selected, after I have completed my work in England, I intend to go to medical school. (In fact, currently I am in the middle of applying). After my medical training is done, I hope to always serve in at least two worlds. Specializing in emergency medicine will give me a transferable skill with a flexible schedule, permitting me to pursue meaningful involvement outside of medical practice. During my early career, my outside pursuits will remain focused on medicine. Health care delivery will be changing dramatically in the next twenty years. Currently the field is in chaos. This nation needs policy makers who work within medicine. I hope to be among those who can bridge this gap.
The Philosophy, Politics and Economics course at Oxford is particularly suited to help me achieve this goal. The coursework is well tailored to fit my needs: an emphasis on philosophy would hone skills in writing and critical thinking; continued study of political science is pertinent to my policy interests and will give me a better sense of history; and an understanding of economics, which I am currently lacking, will be necessary to work effectively with the health care crisis facing the United States. Money is a large, if not the largest, driving force behind health care delivery in this country. Without understanding how money works, any impact I make on health care will be impaired. In the near future many decisions will need to be made regarding the distribution, regulation, and possible denial of health care resources. A PPE program emphasizing politics and economics would give me the background required to deal with these problems and for many others I will approach in the future.
The harvest I could reap from the tutorial-based education in England would be nearly as valuable as the subjects themselves. At Stanford my richest learning experiences have grown out of extended visits to the office hours of professors and teaching assistants at Stanford. It always inspires me to spend time with people who are truly passionate about what they do; it doesn't even really matter what it is. I have been fortunate that many of my professors did not mind these intrusions on their time (once I even got to help edit a new book). Still, intrusion is an appropriate word. Early in my undergraduate career I realized that this institution is not really set up for this kind of learning. Oxford is different. Having large tracks of independent investigation punctuated by periods of private time with a professor (especially under his or her scrutiny) is just the kind of learning I have tried to create for myself as an undergraduate through guided independent study and directed reading. In this kind of focussed environment, especially without the burden of finances, I know I would flourish.
The emphasis on writing papers at Oxford would also be particularly useful to my future. While my composition skills have been strong enough for the scope of the work I have done to this point in my life, in order to communicate my ideas effectively to a larger audience in the future I will have to improve. With papers due every week, the increased speed and sharpened clarity with which I would eventually be able to compose arguments would be one of the the most useful leadership tools the experience could give me.
Simply spending two years in Britain would round out the experience nicely by giving me a widened perspective. I am grateful to have grown up in the Oregon country in a farming community since it instilled a work ethic in me and gave me common sense. Still, I grew up with little exposure to the larger world. Recognizing this ignorance, I have tried to increase my awareness of society outside my own experience through my and independent reading. While I understand much more than I did four years ago, to be an effective leader I need to have the first hand experience with different cultures that this scholarship would help provide. At the same time, I will gain an appreciation of my cultural roots. With all this in hand, then my work can really begin.
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