achievement Opportunities Oxford

Slaying the scholarship game – advice from a selector

– by Eusebius Mckaiser

After 6 years of doing duty as a regional committee member selecting potential Rhodes Scholars to Oxford, I now retire from the Eastern Cape/Free State regional committee, so that a new pair of eyes can join that committee. I will do no other selection committee work this year, but might again in a year or two.

With all that experience, and no conflict-of-interest, I want to give advice to students about scholarships. Not every scholarship selection process is the same, but there are some general truths worth noting, and in particular if you’re applying for the Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, all of my advice will apply:

1. Do NOT leave your application to the last minute. Trust me, it WILL show in the quality of your written application, the quality of the testimonials you submit, and the quality of your engagement during scholarship interviews. Give yourself plenty of time to submit the best possible paper application.

2. The SINGLE most important advice – which really makes me tearful when I think of how many brilliant young people make this mistake – is this: do not decide for yourself whether you are worthy of a scholarship.

Apply. It is not illegal. It is not embarrassing. But take a chance on yourself.

Self-exclusion is one of the worst tragedies many young people suffer. It is sometimes based on lack of knowledge about opportunities, but it is more often based on us not knowing we are talented or worthy because no one told us.

It is easier to think you are worthy of a scholarship if your dad or uncle got one, or they encourage you, but the rest of us often do not even understand that we are good enough. So, apply and do not be your own judge.

3. I’m sorry to break this one but good marks are important. I have some relief though if you struggled with first year: Although consistently good marks in your undergrad matter, and an average of at least 70% for all your courses is crucial (at least for a Rhodes scholarship), how you END is more important than how you started. So the pattern of your marks on your transcript is important to us.

For example, in your first year of university, you might have been seduced by the freedom to drink too much or maybe you did not handle being with cleverer kids than you for the first time ever and so became demotivated, or maybe you struggled with taking notes, getting used to big classes, and missing Ms Jones who always held your hand every step of the way in school. And so you failed a subject, and averaged around 60% say. Fine. Don’t stress. Take a deep breath. If you improve in your second year – let’s say you average 70% again – and in your third year you get firsts/distinctions in your majors, or one of them, then it tells a story of someone able to dig deep, put a bad year behind them, and mature academically.

So work darn hard, but do not despair if you took a little while getting used to university. But just be clear that academic excellence cannot be discounted.

4. Engage in activities that develop or show off leadership skill and an interest in community involvement. There are some scholarships that only care for academic excellence. But the Rhodes is not one of them. All applicants are academically skilled and it really is about the other criteria. This means you cannot be just a bookworm.

So, here’s my sympathy: If you are poor, or academically struggling, it is hard to join the Debate Club or Habitat for Humanity What What etc. I get that. I really do. And I do not believe in right wing nonsense about telling people to pull themselves up by bootstraps they do not have.

If you endure food insecurity on campus, sleep in the library, fend off a sex pest teaching you, and worry about fees, extramural activities seem a luxury you cannot prioritise.

But try. Just do one activity, at least. We cannot be defined by the poverty we were born into. Most scholarships that are purely ‘merit’-based will not carefully look at your life narrative, sadly. Paper applications are judged cold, very often. And only in an interview might you persuade a panel why you are ‘weak’ on, say, extramural activities. But in a pre-interview selection discussion you might already be prejudiced for not having on your CV examples of community involvement and leadership.

So this is what I am saying: The world is unjust; we can and must chip away at those injustices. In the meantime, try beat the odds, and one way is to make sure you do not shy away from student societies while at university. Leadership, by the way, doesn’t mean SRC president. We now rightly have a much more expansive definition. You can show leadership as Treasurer of the Chess Club, frankly. You must do the hard work of thinking through what leadership even means to you, and come armed to an interview to engage the question, ‘Eusebius, what leadership skill have you shown while at university so far?’

5. Please think very carefully about who your referees are. Seriously. Let me spill some secrets here. One or two famous South Africans with ‘gravitas’ have sometimes sent us shockingly poor referee letters of a candidate, doing that candidate an injustice. [If you ARE an academic, or a famous name often asked for such letters, please rather say no to the student than using a form letter in which you just change the names?]

That literally happened once or twice on our committee. We knew because, for example, in one case a) the letter’s content was generic and not anchored in a description of the candidate’s work, character etc.; and b) the candidate was male but the letter referred to ‘her’ and ‘she’. And when I say this is a well-known person you all know and would probably love to get an endorsement from, I mean it.

So, don’t ask Eusebius to write you a reference letter just because he is the famous editor of his school newspaper. It won’t help. Choose wisely, and choose people, including academics, who genuinely know you. A long, heartfelt, assessment of your strengths, learning areas, etc., impact a committee much more favourably than a famous person saying, ‘I’d give Eusebius a scholarship. She is one of the best women I have taught in years!’

We do not care for recognising the name of the referee, just for their relationship with you, and then what they have to say about you. We like referees who are honest. You want someone who will give, yes, a favourable account of you, but you also want them to be taken seriously if they are able to qualify their praise or flag any qualities about you, related to a scholarship, that they are not in a position to comment on.

6. Second last advice: If a scholarship has a component that includes you needing to explain why you deserve the scholarship, what your life story is, or what you wish to study, please spend careful amounts of time on this part of the application and do not submit your first draft.

I have seen students with brilliant academic transcripts who could not articulate what they want to do next or what programme they wish to embark on. You are not expected to figure out your research projects wholly, of course- that is the point of wanting to study further, obviously. But we need a sufficiently strong indication that you have given thought – maybe done a bit of homework on this – what the academic requirements are of the programme you wish to go and study. Say, for example, you want to do the development studies master’s at Oxford, sure you could end up doing a thesis different to what your paper application predicted, but we want a sense of an intellectual curiosity from you already, and a sense that you’re ready to jump from coursework based degrees to a degree programme that will now require different methodologies.

Equally, be honest and sincere in any personal statement about what motivates you. You want to avoid passive voice, if possible, and simply write plainly about what makes you wake up, what you aspire to, and what in your life story anchors this. Sometimes the content of these statements are perfectly fine but the tone gives you a sense, sadly, of someone trying too hard to ‘game’, to write to a formula. I can in all honesty say I have yet to be on a selection committee where we try to catch someone out. Or humiliate them. Not so. So allow yourself some room to take a committee into your life, and don’t feel like you need everything figured out in a personal statement. Evidence of self-awareness is more powerful than a list of achievements with no back-story.

7. Lastly (and I promise a separate, longer post in a few months’ time, or sooner, about this topic. It requires separate discussion): Do not fear tough questions, including uncomfortable ones, during interviews.  We try our best to be consistent. But all selectors on all committees in all scholarships programmes are human. And humans err. But I have seen some serious attempts in our deliberations to eliminate unconscious bias, to listen to the silent observer who comes to the weekend to give feedback and do, if you will, quality control.

Even then, it takes effort to be consistent in how your treat candidates. I can honestly say that while the Rhodes process is brilliant, once or twice we struggled with consistency. But here’s the interesting thing right – anecdotally, I have noticed that candidates given a ‘tough time’ often end up getting scholarships that ones who had ‘easier interviews’ didn’t get. It doesn’t surprise me. A bit of discomfort can be healthy, and give you the opportunity to dig deep in an interview, and show off your full humanity.

If you are handled with soft gloves, it is emotionally a safe ride, but – especially if you’re naturally timid, your true potential, and current skill/knowledge levels, may not be noticed. And so, in a weird way, you should almost wish for a ‘tough interview’, if anything, and do not take it personally! It is deliberate from one or two committee members to test you, but certainly not to ‘catch you out’. So just run with it.

Oh, and do not be afraid to engage. Sometimes, in interviews, I notice candidates trying to figure out ‘the right answer’. No. Be YOU.

If you are asked about a moral issue or social policy, for example, don’t think, ‘Eusebius is gay. I better say that although I am Christian and conservative, I think homosexuality is AWESOME!’ If that’s your view, fine. But do not make it up.

We sniff gaming. It won’t help you. I have more respect for someone who thinks homosexuality is wrong, who owns that view and – most important in the interview – shows a reflective capacity at work (that they have puzzled through their own beliefs or can do so) than someone whose politics or moral intuitions are the same as mine but they show no evidence of moral reasoning, or reflective capacity.

I hope these help. If you work with a lot of young people who can do with a pep talk, and more advice, inbox me. I will give priority to invitations to speak to young South Africans who do not have role models to tell them this kind of information.

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