A guide to graduate scholarships

I was turned down from the Rhodes scholarship in late 2018 and accepted for the Gates-Cambridge scholarship in early 2019. After going through the selection for both and coming out the other end experiencing both success and failure, I realised how unprepared I’d been for the process. If you’re like I was - coming from a less affluent background and without institutional training/mentoring - hopefully you will find this guide helpful.

Obvious disclaimer though: I applied for a specific area of astrophysics from a specific state in Australia. Selection for these scholarships varies by location, subject, and year, and a great deal by individual. My view is only my own.

+ What are the Rhodes and Gates-Cambridge scholarships?

The Rhodes scholarship was established in 1902 in the will of business man and politician, Cecil John Rhodes. It is tenable at Oxford University in the UK, mostly for postgraduate degrees (Masters/PhD), although there are exceptions.

It lasts for 2 years in the first instance but can be extended to 3 years in the case of DPhil (aka PhD) studies. It covers university and accommodation fees on top of providing a stipend, airfares at the beginning and end of your program, a small settling-in allowance, health surcharges, and the application fee.

The Gates-Cambridge scholarship is much newer, having been established in 2000 with a large donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is tenable at the University of Cambridge, again for Masters and PhD, and again with some exceptions. It covers the same general costs as Rhodes does, with their total value being comparable. Gates, however, is much less well-known on an international level due to how new it is, and it comes with a smaller alumni network to match.

Further information can be found on the Rhodes and Gates-Cambridge websites, which you should become very familiar with.

+ The big difference: pre-selection

Both Rhodes and Gates require separate applications, but they differ in how these applications are managed.

The application for Rhodes is quite separate to the application to Oxford, meaning you have to submit far more supporting documentation compared to Gates. It also means that pre-selection is left up to the home institution, i.e. your alma mater which will be nominating you. You cannot apply for Rhodes without the support and approval of your local representative, so applicants who have little to no chance of being successful are weeded out early on.

Gates, on the other hand, outsources its pre-selection to Cambridge itself. You apply firstly to your department at Cambridge, and in the application you simply fill out the relevant sections for the Gates scholarship and any other scholarships you'd like to apply for. As part of the admissions process at Cambridge, all applicants are given a score out of 30 for their academic/research aptitude. Only the best (approx. >27/30) are then nominated to the Gates shortlist. Of the around 5000 non-US applicants to Gates each year, perhaps only 100 will make it to the shortlist that the actual Gates committee receive (and which are interviewed), and from that, around 55 will be chosen as scholars. Your biggest hurdle is to get to the shortlist, so don't neglect your Cambridge application.

+ The "ideal" candidate

In general, both Rhodes and Gates are looking for students who are academically and socially accomplished. That first point is usually not too hard to place in context - you want a high GPA, relevant experience for your field, and some publications or conference posters/presentations if possible. But the second point is a bit more nebulous. What does "socially accomplished" even mean? It doesn't mean that you have to be highly extroverted (although it can help), it just means that you need to exist beyond your coursework and beyond the bubble of your field. People generally show this through a few very large activities, like being a national champion in a particular sport, or being a talented musician. There is also a strong preference for people who are going to make the world better in some way, so some combination of community work, outreach, and volunteering are expected. But these should not be done lightly, and the committee can immediately see through any last-minute attempts to bump your volunteering hours. These activities need to mean a lot to you. They have to tie in with the over-arching story/image of who you are.

These are even described by the funding bodies themselves, which you can find on their respective websites. I'll go through a few extra details that I think are worth discussing though.

Rhodes

The elephant-in-the-room when it comes to Rhodes is sports. The Rhodes scholarship has a long history of requiring and preferring that applicants have a strong sporting background, and while it's no longer a strict requirement, the preference does still exist. It can be supplanted by involvement in e.g. musics/arts, but in general you do need to have an additional activity that you have practiced for a long time. Personally, I have practiced martial arts for a long time. Other real examples from candidates (both successful and unsuccessful) include playing multiple instruments and an avid love for hiking.

There is also quite a strong preference for fields that have a direct and immediate impact on people. Many who win Rhodes are entering law, politics, international relations, medicine, areas relating to climate change, etc. I noticed that even those applicants with less conventional backgrounds were often proposing to move into law or medicine.

Gates

Unlike Rhodes, Gates is decidedly more accepting of "scholarship for scholarship's sake", which is evident by the fact that they tend to accept at least one astrophysicist every year. This is undoubtedly helped by the fact that there are different interviewing panels for different groups of subjects. You are still expected to be a leader and to herald change, but this change could be within your own field and you do not need to literally save lives to do this.

Part of the benefit of being such a new program is that there is less "tradition" to contend with. But on the flipside, there's also far less information widely available on what Gates prefers in its applicants.

+ Application materials needed

Here are the stated application materials you need to submit, taken from the websites of each scholarship. I'll discuss some tips for a few of these in the relevant section (in bold).

As always, these are only to give you a general idea; you should always follow the most recent (official) documents, even if they contradict what I have here. The Rhodes scholarship in particular has some quite complex requirements for residency that I won't go into but which you should definitely be familiar with, so make sure you check the website.

Rhodes

  • Documentation to prove age, and citizenship or residency
  • Transcripts (Part 1)
  • A full CV (3-page limit; Part 2)
  • A personal statement (1000 word limit; Part 3)
  • An outline of your proposed research (DPhil applicants; Part 4)
  • Six referees, three of which should be academic (Part 5)
  • Head and shoulders photograph

Gates

  • Documents submitted as part of regular course application (e.g. transcripts - Part 1)
  • CV/resume (Part 2)
  • Personal statement (3000 char. limit; Part 3)
  • Research proposal (PhD applicants; Part 4)
  • Gates character reference (Part 5)

+ Part 1: Transcripts, classes, and grades

Competitive scholarships are, well, competitive, and all else being equal, grades are an easy way to distinguish between applicants. A perfect GPA won't help you, but a lower GPA can certainly harm you. Only Rhodes seems to have a strict grade requirement of first-class Honours, but be aware that there are "effective" minimums too. Rhodes will rarely take anyone with a GPA below 6.75/7.00 on the Australian scale, and the winners have an average GPA of around 3.8/4.0 on the US scale. The average Gates GPA is above 3.9/4.0 on the US scale, so it is as selective as Rhodes in that respect. For Gates in particular, your academics are the first hurdle to satisfy (see section The biggest difference above) and there is little to no chance to make up for a weakness here.

However, even if you're scraping the bottom of the minimum requirement, it can still be worth your time to apply. You can always ask your department at Cambridge or your Rhodes representative to give you an idea of your chances. These people have seen many people apply for Gates/Rhodes and will have a better idea of who might be successful.

+ Part 2: Your CV/resume

In Australia we tend to use "CV" and "resume" interchangeably at many stages, but they are different documents. A resume is typically quite short (1-2 pages) and will be changed to suit each job you apply for. A CV, on the other hand, can extend into 10's of pages as it is a full record of all academic work. As a current or recently-graduated undergrad, your CV will probably be around 2-3 pages in length, so the distinction is not so important yet.

Regardless of what you choose to call it at this stage, there are a few simple guidelines to follow, and I'd recommend Googling "academic CV" for more tips. You can look at my own to get an idea of layout, but this is going to be regularly updated and is not the one I originally submitted. And remember: writing a CV is always a fine balance between humility and bragging. Never lie, but never downplay or hide your achievements either.

  • Your CV should be succinct, neat, and clearly laid-out.

  • No "creative" fonts, no borders, no coloured or scented paper, no images.

  • Use colour wisely and sparingly, if at all, as your document may be printed in B&W.

  • Don't use "infographic"-style metrics, like bars or graphs to show competency and skill. Don't rate your skills either. Statements should be easily interpretable, and 4 stars out of 5 on "organisation" or "programming" has little meaning.

  • Use concrete examples and outcomes to demonstrate skills and achievement. For each job, you should be able to say what you did and what you achieved. Don't be generic here, and be wary of any sentences that start with any version of "I helped do X". This hides/obscures your contribution.

  • Be consistent with layout, e.g. place all dates on the same side of the page and don't mix bullet points with paragraphs. Someone glancing at your CV should be able to immediately pick up on the flow and find the information they need. Selective use of bold, text size, and alignment can help this.

Rhodes

The Rhodes scholarship application does differ in another key way to Gates: they want more in the CV.

At graduation, your CV would typically omit all work completed prior to entering university, but Rhodes is interested in all work done and all awards recieved since Year 11. This, along with including your sporting or musical achievements, can really push the 3-page limit on your CV. To get around this: make headers smaller, shorten task descriptions, and widen margins (just make sure not to go overboard).

+ Part 3: The personal statement

In my opinion, this is the most important part of your application. Grades act as a minimum cut-off and the interview is a sort of final selection stage, but the part in-between where most candidates are rejected is based on the personal statement. This is your chance to convey who you are and to convince the committee to give you a shot, so don't rush it and don't leave it till last. Also: make it your own. You can find examples online and I've included my own (for Gates and for Rhodes) for an idea of tone as well, but you will be immediately caught if you copy any of these sources. If you want a scholarship, do not plagiarise.

Note: The Rhodes scholarship expressly forbids that you get any help or feedback for this statement. No one can review any draft or give any substantial advice. It must be entirely your own work. For this reason, I will not review or provide feedback on any applications.

The most important thing to remember is that your application is a group of items, so don't repeat information unnecessarily. You don't need to say you have a high GPA or list your awards if that's included in your transcript and CV. Instead, focus on the parts of yourself that are not conveyed elsewhere: your personality, your background, and your goals. Someone reading your statement should be able to easily identify your key traits from it.

The Rhodes statement leaves enough room to discuss yourself, your experience, and your goals, even if only in brief. The Gates statement, on the other hand, is painfully limited, and you will need to construct this one with plenty of care.

When starting personal statements, I prefer a "cold open", i.e. I just jump straight into the story or setting. You don't have the luxury of space to really set up the premise and introductions are quickly forgotten anyway, so just dump the reader in cold. I always start with something a little bit bizarre or unexpected to pique curiosity too.

For the overall piece, look carefully at the rest of your application and compare it to the "ideal" candidate qualities. Look for which areas you're lacking in. This is where your statement should focus. In my case, my academics were already satisfied by my transcript, publication, and research proposal, leaving the leadership and service side of things. Applicants will usually be strong in 2-3 areas, so identify your weak area and try to shore it up through your statement, but be prepared to back this all up during interviews. Don't make statements or portray an image you can't authentically support.

+ Part 4: The research proposal (for DPhil/PhD applicants)

In my experience, the Rhodes scholarship application is very unclear when it comes to this item. The information online suggests that you only need to discuss your career/research goals within your personal statement, but when you go to submit these documents online, you'll instead be asked for a separate research proposal. The requirements for this document are the same as what your department asks for. For astrophysics, though, the department effectively wanted a personal statement, meaning I had to double-up a bit. In my case, I made my "research proposal" much more technical and specialised to astrophysics than my personal statement, otherwise one would have been totally redundant.

For Gates, it's expected that you write a proper research proposal either way, following your department's guidelines if they have any. Make sure you keep within the stated page limits. I'd strongly recommend that you ask your proposed supervisor for advice and feedback on this document; it'll help you create a better proposal and the process of writing this document can teach you a lot about your future PhD project. It's also a good idea to ask local PhD students (and professors) for examples of research proposals. These will give you an idea of the different layouts you can have.

Make sure you understand your own research proposal fully, especially for the Gates scholarship, as you can (and likely will) be questioned on it in interiew.

My only real regret is that I didn't include any images or plots in my proposal, although I didn't really have the space for it. Two pages is not much space once you get started. You can check out mine here, although this is again for my own project in a very particular field, so expectations will vary.

+ Part 5: Your letters of reference

The Rhodes scholarship application requires the most letters of reference (LORs) at six, with Oxford itself requiring another three, although you might double up on those. This is due to the fact that the Rhodes application is so disjointed and separate to the Oxford application. Gates, by contrast, requires three, but two of these are automatically taken from your application to Cambridge so only one extra letter is needed, and this third letter doesn't have to be written by a third person.

For Rhodes, your six letters should be split evenly between academics and character, so you should get three letters from professors and research supervisors, and the other three from people who know you from sports, service, or community work. This is a lot of letters to ask for, and it's normal to only have 4-5 really strong ones. Because you need to curate so many people, think carefully about what you'd like each person to say or talk about, and be sure to share your ideas with them. Some of your letter writers may know you in more than one context (e.g. academics and community work), so make sure they know which context you'd like them to focus on. Keep track of who has submitted what, and decide when/how you will remind people to submit their letters.

The Gates process here is much simpler in comparison. The only extra letter you need to organise is a sort of "character reference". Many applicants ask one of their two academic letter writers to also write the character letter, but make sure they're aware of your plan before they write either, otherwise they may end up repeating themselves in one or both letters.

I can't give you a whole lot more advice here since it's not generally accepted in physics for students to read their letters, so I don't know what mine said.

+ Rhodes only: The social event

As part of the application process, and prior to the interview, you are required to attend a social event with the other finalists and the panel members who will be interviewing you. This is quite a nerve-wracking experience, especially if you haven't been trained for it.

My events were held at Government House (in Tasmania and the ACT), hosted by the governor of Tasmania and the Governor-General, respectively. We arrived before dinner for some light drinks and stiff small-talk with the other finalists and the panellists, before sitting down to a 3-course dinner. In eating dinner, you cannot begin until the governor does and must stop when they do. The food is kinda fancy and a little bizarre, and as with most food at these kinds of events, you can be sure there'll be asparagus hidden somewhere in the dish.

In Tasmania, we remained in our assigned seats for the evening. In the ACT, the candidates moved seats between every course with the view that we'd get to sit and talk to more of the panellists. As it turned out, my rotations only moved me through the end of the table with administrators and support staff of the Governor-General. Building a rapport with the panel is important, and things may have worked out differently had I had a chance to speak to them at dinner.

In general, you should dress in business formal (unless stated otherwise) and if you're completely lost, you can do what I did: head to Myer and explain the situation to the store attendants. I have tattoos, and I made the choice to cover these for the dinner. They don't seem to be an issue in academia in general, but you never know how conservative someone might be (especially if most panellists are in industry) and it's best to err on the side of caution.

There'll be alcohol, but I'd recommend that you either abstain or pace yourself very carefully; a little bit might help calm your nerves and make you more conversational, but too much and you'll say something stupid. If you know you don't want to drink at all, the polite thing is to let the host know before you sit for dinner so that they can take your wine glasses away. For both this event and the later interview, some panel members may be quite combative and you will be asked for your opinion on some heavy topics; read up on recent events and don't take it too personally if someone gets argumentative or even plain rude.

+ The interview

If you've been contacted for an interview then you've passed the first hurdle, but the few who remain are also all highly qualified so don't become complacent. Since the first part of this process relies so heavily on academics, I'd recommend forgetting about that part of your application from here on out, and instead focus on how to display those leadership qualities that both programs look for.

The precise interview questions you'll be asked depends on yourself (your experience, field, and career goals), the panel, and the round you're interviewing in.

In general

Start by collating all of your application materials, then go through each one and try to think of questions you could ask about each part. Write out these questions and then give broad answers to them. Try to imagine the conversation and any additional questions that someone could ask based on your answers. Don't be afraid to take the questioning to quite a deep or personal level; even if these questions are not asked during the interview, you can't answer anything on the day with conviction unless you know yourself.

Don't just focus on the good things you've done either. You've certainly made mistakes during your life, so be prepared to discuss these and what you learned from them. You don't always need to portray yourself in the best possible light.

Interviews will last for around 20 minutes, which sounds like a long time but actually goes very, very quickly. Practice being succinct, and be aware that while you should take a moment to think before you speak, don't take two moments.

You'll be informed who your panel members are before the interview, so check what fields they're in. If someone is a specialist in your field then you'll get a lot more tough questions on that topic, and you want to be prepared. On the other hand, if no one is even in your general field then you'll want to keep your explanations of your work more general.

Rhodes

Rhodes has two rounds: the first is your local round within your constituency, the second is a national final against all other runners-ups in Canberra. (Take some pity on the Canberra folks: this is their only round and they have to compete against the best from the other states.) In the first instance, your interview panel would have carefully read your application materials and will ask you questions based on this. Expect them to focus on your weakest areas. Unfortunately there is only one panel for all applicants, and while there is usually at least one person in science, they are unlikely to be in your area of science. This means a large part of your application can't be discussed in any real detail: your proposed research. I think this is a big reason why a lot of fields will rarely elect Rhodes scholars.

In the second instance, things are made "fair" by asking the exact same questions of every single candidate, regardless of field or future plans. This means you will be asked esoteric questions that do not relate to yourself in any way. The challenge is to answer in a way that directs back to yourself in a good way. Since most applicants have a background in law and politics, these questions will focus on those areas and by answering them directly, you risk looking less dedicated to your own field. As an example, we were asked (paraphrasing):

The Prime Minister of Australia has been deposed, and wanting your help to draft an agenda, the new Prime Minister calls you and asks you what the 3 biggest problems in Australia are, barring climate change.

For someone in astrophysics who is otherwise interested in educational equality, this was rough. Answering this meant spending a majority of my time (at least 2/3 options) on things not relevant to my field or my future goals, and I was called out for apparently lacking direction immediately after answering this. There isn't much you can do to predict these questions, just know that there is some element of luck. Many candidates were not happy with the questions asked in that round, so you're unlikely to be the only one who had a rough time.

I found the travel time and packed itinerary for this round to also be absolutely brutal, especially since it falls close to the final submission date of your thesis (for me, the same day). Your chances are greatly reduced at the national round if you are in a hard science because of these deadlines, so make sure you cinch it at the state level. Coming from Tasmania was also an issue because there are so few flights to Canberra on any one day, so you get stuck with an early-morning flight and end up sleep-deprived.

Gates

The interview process for Gates is less intensive and more specialised. As an international student you will be interviewed over Skype or phone. I found evening (8-9pm local time, early morning Cambridge) to be the best time, but make sure you don't have an intensive day beforehand or else you'll be too fried to think properly. Panels are grouped by general field, so if you're in science you'll be interviewed by the physical sciences panel. My own didn't have any physicists, but it did have two engineers and a chemist. Because this panel is better equipped to discuss your research, make sure you really understand everything in your research proposal.

Acronyms in particular are easy picking. I was asked to explain AMR (Adaptive Mesh Refinement), and I am endlessly grateful that they asked me that one instead of MRI (magnetorotational instability).

+ What if I don't win?

Don't beat yourself up!

It's important to realise that most successful applicants actually win on their second try, after they've had a chance to practice the whole lot, reflect, and improve their application. I think the Rhodes experience was critical to me being successful for Gates as it gave me experience with the application process and interview.

But even if you aren't able or willing to try again, remember that these programs are always going to be biased towards a certain kind of person, and that those traits aren't necessarily a good predictor of success. The kinds of social achievements that they reward are also the more flashy kind; these may be harder to get in certain fields, and they aren't always the best way to help a community. At some level, having these achievements comes down to a heavy dose of luck too. I wasn't aware of the Rhodes and Gates-Cambridge scholarships prior to the application season, so there wasn't any time to add more large projects or become a more competitive applicant in general. If you're reading this and are beyond your second year of university, don't worry too much about being "behind". Both Oxford and Cambridge offer a raft of other scholarships, just make sure that you know what those are and how to apply for them.

You can be an absolutely fantastic, highly successful scientist and yet never make it beyond the first round for either scholarship. And there are many, many successful academics who were never even eligible to apply.

I will warn that Rhodes announces its winners and losers in quite a public fashion, after which you have to mingle with everyone's family and friends, along with the press and distinguished guests, while still reeling from the news. We even had a tour of Government House that included going up to the roof and seeing the royal rooms, although everyone seemed pretty shaken and there was little conversation. I think I gave a TV interview at this stage, but the shock hadn't worn off so I doubt I was a great conversationalist. Just go through the motions to get through the event: congratulate the winner, congratulate their family, congratulate the runners-ups and the losers, smile, nod, and look engaged as strangers talk to you and your family.

Then go and get some pizza.

+ What if I do win?

Congratulations!

You now have to wait an excruciating amount of time for things to get rolling. Progress in terms of your application and visa comes in waves, interspersed with long periods of waiting. Try not to go insane.

And let people know about your success. Post it on Facebook, post it on Twitter, post it on your blog, tell your university, tell the newspapers. Few students know about these opportunities and your representation can make a foreign experience look more approachable.

Finally: remember those who didn't win and remember the responsibility that you've accepted. These scholarships aren't just money for you to chill out and have a good time, they come with the expectation that you will work hard and be an upstanding citizen. You will be scrutinized more heavily as a representative of your university, city, state, even country. It is a great opportunity, but it comes at a steep price.


Payton Rodman