The World of Hypercompetitive Graduate Scholarships

You walk down the hall, gaze averted from the door that separates you from your panel of interviewers. You wonder what kind of expression your interviewers will have on their face. You exhale and step into the room where you will defend your chance to earn a prestigious graduate scholarship.

The Fulbright, Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes scholarships are four of the most prestigious graduate scholarships in the world. By the application deadline of February 2, over 150 Stanford students will have applied, according to John Pearson, director of the Bechtel International Center.

The fall application process culminates in an interview conducted by the Faculty Senate Committee, which eliminates half of the applicants and determines whether or not to advance a candidate onto the national selection process.

The Marshall, Mitchell, and Rhodes provide students an opportunity to study at any university in Ireland, England, and at Oxford, respectively. Most scholarships cover one year of tuition, research, and living expenses.

Survivors of the initial round of interviews will undergo further scrutiny in an interview with the national scholarship committees in November.

The late start of the quarter works to a Stanford applicant’s advantage. Amy Jacobson ’11 said, “[Since the Fulbright deadline] was within the first week of school, the actual work of writing essays and completing the online application hardly overlapped with my autumn quarter coursework.”

However, it is still difficult to balance application processes with other academic responsibilities. Varun Sivaram ‘11, who is applying for the Rhodes, Gates, and Marshall scholarships, explained, “It’s been painful. Since these scholarships are extraordinarily competitive, I’ve had to hedge my bets with concurrent applications to other jobs and grad schools….All of us applicants look at everyone else going to pub night with envy.”

While each scholarship has its own criteria for applicants, most respect the initial goal of Cecil B. Rhodes. Scholarship committees look for students who are able to communicate their talent, tenacity, and direction to become a future leader.

As such, the interviews evaluate the character of the applicant. Miles Osgood ‘11, a hopeful for a one-year Marshall, recalled, “The most difficult challenge was to be alert and prepared for any question, any non sequitur—while remaining personable. It’s easy to slip into question-answering machine mode and to forget that the interview is a chance for the board to discover who you really are.”

Interviewers have been known to ask students their opinions on current events in their country of interest. It is common for Fulbright interviews to pose questions in the native language of the place of research and expect responses back in that language.

“The tough questions helped me evaluate seriously the real-world merits of [my research over the last year],” said Osgood.

Lauren Finzer ’09 won a Fulbright to examine how the growth of supermarkets is affecting the fruit and vegetable consumption in India. She explained, “I really appreciated the interview as an opportunity to get feedback from experts with knowledge of India. After I got the scholarship, my interviewers were incredibly kind in making the time to advise and prepare me for my time in India.”

In the end, Stanford students are generally among the most successful applicants in the nation. Last year, 56 students who applied through Bechtel won scholarships across 15 different programs. Four Stanford students won Marshall scholarships earlier this year – the most in the country. Four students also won Rhodes scholarships in 2008, a success rate that is now impossible due to new regulations that limit the number of Northern California Rhodes scholars to two.

However, the prestige of these awards is not the motivating factor for many Stanford students. Michael McCullough ‘89, winner of a Rhodes scholarship and founder of QuestBridge, said of his experience: “The program allowed me to speak to national and international leaders as well as to make sure that decision for my future made sense.”

As Finzer said, “The Fulbright is an amazing gift—a chance to research a fascinating topic and get out of my comfort zone in a completely new country.”

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