Applying to Gates and Rhodes

Look a little different? Don’t worry! My website may have changed, but the content is largely the same.

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.

But I have no interest in lying to you. I was a strong applicant for both Gates and Rhodes, even if I didn’t know it at the time. I had very good grades and extensive research experience. My own combination of strengths and weaknesses was what informed my approach to the applications. If you have a significantly different profile—for example, a lower GPA—then your application style, your modus operandi, will necessarily be different to mine.

Your application is the story of who you are and who you want to become.

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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 experience is only my own and I cannot give specific advice to individuals.

You should also keep in mind that I have a very specific point-of-view when writing this guide. I have won Gates and was denied Rhodes. I will try my best to be fair and to treat the scholarships equally, but I am only human and there will undoubtedly be some bias still.

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The scholarship details


For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information, please be sure to check out the Rhodes website at
At Oxford University, PhDs/doctorates are known as DPhils

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/DPhil), although there are exceptions and limitations.

It covers up to 2 years of study in the first instance or 3 years for DPhil studies, and includes the full University Composition fee (tuition), a stipend of £15,900 p.a. in 2019/20, the Oxford application fee of £75, a single economy airfare at the beginning and end of your course, and the inbound visa and health surcharge costs.

There are also additional funds available to support scholars in attending conferences, completing fieldwork, and settling in to the country.


For the most up-to-date and comprehensive information, please be sure to check out the Gates website at

The Gates-Cambridge scholarship was established in 2000 with a large donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It is tenable at the University of Cambridge for Masters and PhD studies, with some exceptions and limitations.

It covers the full University Composition fee (i.e. your tuition), a very competitive stipend (£17,500 p.a. for 2020/21), a single economy airfare at the beginning and end of your course, and the inbound visa and health surcharge costs.

There are also additional discretionary funds available to scholars, including funds to attend conferences, a family allowance (for those who will bring children with them), fieldwork assistance, parental leave, and hardship funds. As an aside, I have found the Gates community to be incredibly compassionate during the COVID-19 pandemic, as they covered extra flights home and back to the UK.

In short, it is a full-cost scholarship. About the only thing it doesn’t cover is the application fee to the University itself, which currently sits at around £60.

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Should you apply?

What the “ideal” candidate looks like

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 and relevant to your field). 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, it just means that you need to exist beyond your coursework and beyond the bubble of your field.

Volunteer work that you sought out on your own volition is worth much more than volunteer work which was required to pass a class. Systems or programs that you spearheaded are worth more again. The aim of the game is to show initiative. Any common garden gnome can follow the pack and apply to advertised positions, but it takes extra insight and determination to create something new.

Some show their leadership skills 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/or 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 and image of who you are.

There is more specific advice 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 and sports

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 requirement, a 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 unsuccessful and successful) 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. This is the case for many competitive scholarship programs aimed at making change in the world.

The Oxbridge postgraduate system

When deciding whether to apply to Rhodes/Gates, you should first decide if you want to attend Oxford/Cambridge as a postgraduate in the first place.

There are a great many versions of Masters degrees offered at each university, and the nomenclature is not standard, but it’s safe to assume that any taught degree (i.e. degree involving classes) will be intense. As an anecdote, I know of at least one Marshall scholar from one of the most prestigious universities in the US, who graduated there with highest honours, and who complained early about the apparent ease of Cambridge’s Part III of the Mathematical Tripos… and who barely squeaked by with a “Merit” grade when all was said and done. A Merit is certainly nothing to laugh at, but it is far from the highest mark possible, and it took of the US’s top scholars many weeks of intense study to earn it. You should not think of a Masters degree at Oxbridge as some kind of holiday. It will be hard work.

For PhDs, you should bear in mind the length: nominally 3 years with a possible extension to 4 years for writing up. There can be no further extension for a full-time degree. This is quite short, especially compared to a US PhD (6+ years on average), but there is no coursework. You are expected to have the equivalent of a Masters degree already, and so further courses should be unnecessary at this point in your career. Depending on the kind of project you’re doing, that 3 year limit may be very stressful. You are also generally not permitted (with the exception of the IoA) to do any form of “rotation”. You must pick a supervisor before you apply and that is the person you will do your PhD under. You must know what you want to do a PhD on.

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The application process


Firstly, in order to apply to Rhodes you must be nominated by your regional representative. Each country is split into regions and each region is assigned a representative by the Rhodes Trust. This person (or someone they appoint) will look over your applicant profile before you submit any kind of formal application to the university or to the scholarship. Their job is to ensure all applicants are eligible to apply and that you are generally prepared. Some universities will offer more specialised training and mentoring to apply to such scholarships, so you may have met your local Rhodes representative very early in your studies.

Once they give you the go ahead, you can then apply to Rhodes. This application is entirely separate to Oxford’s admissions, so you’ll have to keep your proposed supervisor up-to-date on your progress in the competition.


The application to the Gates scholarship is largely outsourced to Cambridge itself, and the sum total of your paper application will be to tick a box and to paste in your personal statement, alongside uploading your CV et cetera.

Other major details, including all of the things you enter in your Cambridge application form and your 2 academic letters of reference, are automatically passed on to the Gates committee. They also see your department’s assessment of your application from an academic standpoint. In fact, you must be nominated by your department. This means you cannot prioritise Gates over your university application. The department you apply to can only nominate a limited number of people, so if you do not impress your department academically, you will not be considered for Gates regardless of which boxes you ticked.


Many courses will have different deadlines depending on start date, nationality, whether you apply to funding, and the specific research group you want to work in. You can check these here for Cambridge and Oxford
Beware: the dates below are correct as of 2020, but may shift in the future. All dates are widely available through the scholarship websites.


US citizens resident in the US

All other eligible applicants



US citizens resident in the US

All other eligible applicants

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Application materials

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 necessarily help you, but a lower GPA can certainly harm you.

On a US 4.0 GPA scale, where an A grade is worth 4.0, a B grade 3.0 etc, your average Gates scholar will have achieved above a 3.9. As for Rhodes, in the Australian grading system there is a strict grade requirement of first-class Honours, but even in this window they 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.

This isn’t merely some pointless hoop to jump through. Since being at Cambridge (I write this in my second year), I’ve realised that the undergraduates here and at Oxford are often at least 1 whole year ahead of the students at other institutions. Even if you have a degree from MIT, you are no exception to this and will most likely find yourself playing catch-up. As Oxbridge are such vibrant places, with so many opportunities and extracurriculars to join in on, no one wants you to have to spend all of your free time studying.

However, even if you’re scraping the bottom of the minimum requirement, it’s still be worth your time to apply. You can always ask your department at Cambridge or your local Rhodes representative to give you an idea of your chances. They have seen many people apply for Gates/Rhodes and will have a better idea of who might be successful. I prefer not to weigh in on chance-me’s since I only have a sample size of 1—myself.


A résumé is typically quite short (1-2 pages) and will be changed to suit each job you apply for. A curriculum vitae (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 and will be a blended style halfway between that of a regular résumé and a full academic CV.

Regardless of what you choose to call it at this stage, there are a few simple guidelines to follow, and I’d also recommend Googling “academic CV” for more tips. You can look at my own too. And remember: writing a CV is always a fine balance between humility and bragging. Never lie, but never downplay or hide your achievements either.

Rhodes wants more

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 received since Year 11. This, along with including your sporting or musical achievements, can really push the 3-page limit on your CV. Look for any places where information has been repeated or multiple lines can be consolidated into one. The goal here isn’t to cram as much as possible into 3 pages, but to carefully curate the “information density” on the page, making sure that the pages aren’t too sparse or too busy.

Personal statement

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 this document.

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 actually 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 have read this page then so have the people on the committee.

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 (3000 chars ≈ 200 words), and you will need to construct this one with plenty of care. I would encourage some creativity here!

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.

Research proposal

Rhodes can be a little unclear on this one. All DPhil applicants must submit a research proposal. If your department also required a research proposal then you will submit this to Rhodes. The confusion, at least for astronomy, comes when your department asks for a research proposal that is not really a research proposal. For astrophysics, the department actually wanted a personal statement, meaning I had to double-up a bit. In my case, I made my department’s personal statement much more technical and specialised to astrophysics than my Rhodes 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 interview. The same is not necessarily true for Rhodes as their interview panels are much more general, and there may be no one within your panel with enough knowledge of your field to discuss your proposal.

It should be noted that my project has deviated significantly from the one I described in the proposal–this is perfectly fine and largely expected. The project will naturally change as you learn more and explore different research questions.

Letters of recommendation

The Rhodes scholarship application requires the most letters of recommendation (LORs) at six, with Oxford itself requiring another three, although you can ask your Oxford writers to also write for Rhodes. This is due to the fact that the Rhodes application is so disjointed and separate to the Oxford application. Gates, by contrast, requires three, two of which 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. The three academic letters are the ones you would resubmit to Oxford as part of your course application. 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 talk about. 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.

You can also ask a different person to write your third letter, and this is probably a better option if you do have someone outside of your academics who can attest to your character. This person should be very familiar with your leadership work, so the “best” person will depend on the nature of that work. If this personn is not an academic and doesn’t have a lot of experience with academia or these kinds of awards, you should certainly send them some information about the scholarship and its selection criteria to help them write it.

I can’t give you a whole lot more advice here on specifically what a letter should say since it’s not generally accepted in Australian physics for students to read their letters, or even to draft them.

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If you’ve been contacted for an interview then you’ve passed the first hurdle, but the few who remain are all highly qualified like yourself 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 unless it’s a significant weakness, 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.

The social event (Rhodes only)

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 then 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.

In Tasmania, we remained in our assigned seats for the evening. In the ACT, candidates rotated seats between every course with the view that we’d get to sit and talk to more of the panellists. Building a rapport with the panel is important, so strike up a conversation!

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. I had one person ask me how I could possibly justify studying astrophysics given climate change is far more important. They just want to see how you’ll handle yourself under a bit of pressure.

Tips and tricks

General interview advice

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. Speak out loud. Dictate them. Write them down. 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 and your motivations.

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.

It’s important that your interview convey something that can’t be seen in your CV or personal statement. Where these two documents have facts, the interview needs to have passion. Tell the stories that you didn’t have room to write about. Be sincere and open and avoid scripting–it’s obvious when people do this and makes you sound like a robot.

For both scholarships, it is very likely that no one on your interview panel will be familiar with your field, or that only one person will be. Be prepared to explain your research and its importance using language that is accessible. Avoid jargon and think of analogies you can use in place of rigorous definitions. The more details you throw at people, the less they’re going to remember, so keep it relatively simple and broad. I very generally talked about black hole accretion disks, how they’re important in understanding the evolution of the Universe, and as places to test extreme physics.

Be prepared for the inevitable “why do you want to study at Cambridge/Oxford?” or “why do you want the Gates/Rhodes scholarship?”. In essence, what they are really saying is “There are many equally prestigious universities and full-cost scholarships, both in the UK and around the world. Why pick Cambridge/Oxford/Gates/Rhodes over the others?”. The difficulty is that you cannot answer the “why Cambridge” question just by directly trash-talking Oxford. To answer it properly, you need to find the things that are actually unique or special. Generic ideas of prestige or the generic allure of a full-cost scholarship is not enough, and they are specifically looking to weed out people with such “shallow” motivations.

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. Don’t be offended if you are cut off or feel like you’re being rushed by the panel–they have a very tight schedule to get through and set questions they want to ask before you go.

Be prepared with your own question/s at the end! You will almost certainly be asked if you have any questions for the panel, and your answer should be an enthusiastic “yes!”. If you are awarded one of these scholarships, it will almost certainly change your life. And you may have to decide between Gates/Rhodes and another attractive option. So what do you want to know more about? What insider knowledge do your panel members have that you could not find anywhere else? It is very important that you do not ask questions that are easily Googleable.



Your panel for Rhodes will be composed of alumni and major figures in your local community. Because the Rhodes scholarship favours business leaders, you should expect the majority of your panel to come from industry, politics, or otherwise the “real world”. There may be very few academics, and they are almost certainly not academics in your field.

Because of this, your research proposal may be off limits during the interview. Expect to be asked more esoteric questions concerning your morals, how you would respond to certain situations, and which world issues you believe to be the most important.

For some rounds in particular, they will ask all interviewees the exact same questions. That means the questions are not tailored to you, your application, your background, or your future goals. As an example, I was 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. What do you say are the 3 biggest problems?



The Gates interviews are conducted by panel: Arts, Biological sciences, Physical sciences, Social sciences.

Each panel is composed of Gates alumni in a relevant field and Gates Trust members. This means there may be someone on your panel who is something of an expert in your proposed topic, and you can be questioned on your research proposal.

Personally, my interview focused on my proposed research and my outreach work. If your grades are lower, they might ask about those. If someone on the panel knows your field well, they may ask more about your previous research experience and question you more deeply on your proposed work. You will likely be given the names of those on your panel–give it a quick squiz to see if anyone’s in your field.

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). If anyone figures out a way to explain the MRI and how it works in 30 seconds, to a general audience, please let me know.


Tips and tricks (for in-person)


Tips and tricks (for online calls)

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What if I don’t win?

Don’t beat yourself up!

It’s important to realise that a lot of 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 failure (both of them!) 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 it isn’t necessarily a good predictor of success, intelligence, hard work, tenacity, dedication, or any other broadly positive character trait. The kinds of social achievements that these programs value and 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 I applied in, 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. (Pro-tip: the individual colleges offer their own scholarships, so check their websites)

You can be an absolutely fantastic, highly successful academic and leader and yet never make it beyond the first round for either scholarship. And there are many, many successful academics and leaders 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 everyone who looks in your general direction, smile, nod, and look engaged as strangers talk to you and your family.

Then go and get some pizza.

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What if I do win?


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.

Let people know about your success. Post it on Facebook, post it on Twitter, post it on your own 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.

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  1. May vary considerably for different panels/countries/regions. ↩︎