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Graduate Matters

Becoming Rhodes Scholars: preparing the application

The most helpful advice the authors received was ‘show, don’t tell.’


The Rhodes Scholarship, possibly the world’s most prestigious international scholarship, is awarded annually by the Rhodes Trust for high-performing student leaders to attend the University of Oxford. The winners of the 2020 Quebec, Canada competition look back on their experiences completing this elaborate process.

The Rhodes Scholarship application is a rigorous process that takes months to prepare. The Canadian competition currently consists of a 1,000-word personal statement, a two-page CV and six reference letters, among many other documents. Ensure that you have carefully read the eligibility criteria and application requirements numerous times before you begin!

How did you first hear about the Rhodes Scholarship

Constance: I had never heard of the Rhodes during my time in high school or CEGEP but when I moved to the U.S. for my undergrad, the scholarship sort of became part of the landscape right from the start – especially at a school like Harvard. Every year, some of the seniors applied for it, some received it and there were articles about it in the school newspaper. We received email announcements about workshops and training sessions for various scholarships and fellowships, and there was a dedicated office and team of advisors to help students who were interested in these types of opportunities. I think the level of awareness, the preparation resources available and the knowledge about the specifics of the Rhodes and of the Quebec constituency really vary from one university to another, be it within Quebec, in Canada, in the U.S. or elsewhere abroad.

Virginie: The first time I heard about the Rhodes Scholarship was years ago, from a professor I was working for while doing my bachelor’s degree in philosophy at the Université de Montréal. He saw potential in me and strongly encouraged me to apply for it, even though I was only finishing a BA at the time and was preparing to undertake a master’s degree in philosophy at the Université de Montréal. I would never have thought that I was a good candidate for this scholarship if that professor had not encouraged me to apply for it. I probably would have never even heard of it since the scholarship is not highly promoted or publicized at the Université de Montréal.

How long did it take for you to prepare your application?

Constance: The process for me was spread out over four months, from August to November. In August, I worked on three to four drafts of my personal statement and resume and reached out to two recommenders. Based on those materials, I got the endorsement from my university in September, after which I reworked my personal statement through two to three more drafts and asked for the other four letters of recommendation. Those required a bit more time investment on my part, since some of those recommenders had not previously written letters for me or even scholarship letters more generally.

Virginie: Like Constance, I prepared my application during approximately four or five months, during which I worked on several drafts of my personal statement and managed to find the most efficient format to include as much information as possible in a two-page CV! I also drafted a research proposal, mostly because my referees wanted to have a good idea of what I was planning to work on as a graduate student at the University of Oxford. The letter-writing process was incredibly smooth since all my referees were professors who already knew how to write letters of reference. I was very moved by their incredible letters and their genuine trust.

Do you have any tips for writing the personal statement?

Constance: I think the sub-questions that need to be addressed are pretty much the ones you would expect: how is this course, this university and this scholarship the logical next step for you based on your journey so far; what will you contribute to these communities; how does that fit within or extend the vision of the scholarship, etc. As far as writing techniques, the most helpful advice I received was “show, don’t tell” (i.e., use examples to illustrate more generic or abstract statements), read it aloud and leave it alone for several days if possible between drafts – especially since you are not allowed to get outside feedback on it, making fresh eyes all the more important.

Lastly, the one piece of advice that guided all my decisions throughout the application process was this: think more about what you want to show and less about what you want them to see. That motto really de-dramatized things for me because it gave me confidence that I wouldn’t regret anything; everything I did felt authentic and I was happy with it, so if the selection committee wasn’t, then maybe the scholarship wasn’t the right fit for me.

Virginie: Another tip that really helped me write my personal statement is this: tell your life story (e.g., what motivates you as a socially committed individual, and why the choices you made in your life made sense at that time and how these choices contributed to building the person you are today). For instance, in my case, I highlighted the fact that my interest in animal ethics goes back to my childhood. I talked about the fact that I grew up with numerous animals and that I already wanted to become vegetarian at the age of nine. These elements explain why I devote my life to animal protection today. I don’t think the committee members want to read a personal statement that has a very academic tone. I believe they really want to see your personality shine through.

For which program at Oxford did you apply? 

Constance: The course of study I proposed to the selection committee was actually a little unusual. I wanted to do two one-year taught courses: an MSc in education (on the comparative and international education track) and a postgraduate certificate of education (PGCE). What was bold about that is that the PGCE is not usually funded by the Rhodes Trust because it is not “degree-granting.” As a teacher preparation program, it leads to the obtention of teaching credentials and a certificate of study, but not a master’s degree. I accepted the scholarship with the understanding that I may not be able to convince the administrators of the trust to value teacher training the same as they do other postgraduate programs, but I wanted to try. Last year, the answer was a pretty clear no.

This year, however, the trustees agreed to make an exception – although they are not changing the conditions of tenure of the scholarship to include all postgraduate certificates and diplomas, they will allow me to do a PGCE and will continue to consider special requests like mine on a case-by-case basis. I can’t overstate how meaningful that decision is to me. To teach is to lead. To teach is to contribute to “the world’s fight.” And to teach requires at least as much expertise as obtaining any master’s degree. I’m glad the trustees’ decision reflects that.

Virginie: During the winter of 2020, I applied for the DPhil and BPhil in philosophy, but my two applications unfortunately turned out to be unsuccessful. Being a Rhodes Scholar doesn’t mean you will be automatically admitted to all the courses at the University of Oxford, and the philosophy programs are among the university’s most competitive. Furthermore, it is not unusual for Rhodes Scholars to experience such refusals, which is something I wish I had known last year. At that time, the outcome of my applications made me feel alone, unworthy and undeserving of the Rhodes Scholarship, despite the incredible support I received from Rhodes House and the Quebec Selection Committee.

I thus decided to start a BA(Hons) in philosophy, politics and economics (PPE) at the University of Oxford in October 2020. However, I realized quickly that this degree was partly repetitive of what I had previously studied in philosophy at the Université de Montréal, and I was really struggling last fall to see good reasons to complete the course. With the approval of Rhodes House and the encouragements of my potential doctoral supervisor, I reapplied for the BPhil and DPhil in philosophy and was admitted to the DPhil for an entry in October 2021. I will be forever grateful for the amazing support people working at Rhodes House provided. It was life changing for me.

How did you select your referees?

Constance: For the academic references, I picked the four faculty members from my undergraduate university who I thought knew me the best as a person, as a student and as a researcher. All had taught me in one or two classes, one was also my thesis advisor and two others were departmental advisors, so all of them had seen me grow in some capacity over the course of my years there. This combination was only possible because I had the privilege of being in small, tight-knit and well-funded departments where students are given lots of individual attention, and for that I am incredibly grateful. I found the character references more difficult because in the extracurriculars and jobs I had in undergrad, there was rarely an authority figure supervising – students mostly ran things on their own. Since recommendations from peers were not appropriate, I picked two “adults” who had witnessed some of the work I had done related to issues I really care about and met with them to talk about what those experiences entailed beyond what they had seen.

Virginie: I picked four professors from the Université de Montréal with whom I studied either as an undergraduate or graduate student. It was important for me to obtain letters of reference from professors who work in various philosophical areas and who were able to witness my ability to succeed in very different branches of philosophy. For the character references, I picked two professors teaching at other universities, located outside of Montreal, and with whom I had worked at the Société de philosophie du Québec, a learned society aimed at promoting philosophy in Quebec.

In part 2 we will look at the interview process of applying to be a Rhodes Scholar and beyond.

Constance Bourguignon is pursuing a MSc in comparative and international education. Virginie Simoneau-Gilbert is currently studying a BA(Hons) in philosophy, politics and economics, and will begin her DPhil in philosophy in October 2021.
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