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The Scholarship Chase
What is it like to apply for fellowships like the Rhodes
By Michael Brus
biography of Bill Clinton, the journalist David Maraniss describes the
interview process for Rhodes Scholar candidates as "equal parts dissertation
defense, locker-room sizing up, television quiz show, cocktail party bull
session, debating society, and drawing of straws."
students Eugene Huang, SEAS/ W'99, and Dina Westenholz, C'99,
would certainly agree.
Huang and Westenholz both advanced far in Rhodes competition
this year. Westenholz was among the final 13 candidates in Pennsylvania,
while Huang advanced to the final 10 of the Mid-Atlantic Region (from
which four Rhodes Scholars were selected). Huang, a veteran of job and
scholarship interviews, said his Rhodes interview was unlike any he has
encountered. Or, as Maraniss writes, it is one of "the most peculiar
enterprises in academia."
The Rhodes Scholarship, which grants two years of graduate-level
study at Oxford University, is only the most famous of the handful of
prestigious scholarships bestowed on the best and brightest of each graduating
class. While most Penn seniors have been busy dropping resumes at Career
Planning and Placement Services and interviewing for jobs, a coterie of
undergraduates has been aspiring to the loftier, even more cutthroat world
of academic fellowships -- the Rhodes, the Marshall, the Fulbright, the
Truman, the Luce, the Mellon, the Thouron, and even the USA Today.
The interviews "make you think seriously about
what you want to do [with your life]," Westenholz said. "With
the Rhodes in particular, you have to project ahead and behind. You have
to justify yourself on a whole new level.
"The crux of the interview is, 'How will you make
the world a better place if you get this scholarship?'" she said.
"That's more than just having a really good idea of what you want
to study at Oxford. That's a global life plan."
Most college seniors simply focus on what they will
do upon graduating, Huang said, but the Rhodes makes you focus on your
whole life. Applying for graduate scholarships becomes an almost all-consuming
process, he added. You can't simply block off time; it is a piecemeal
process that tests your organizational ability as much as anything else.
There are endless requests and reminders to professors for recommendations,
and the writing, circulating, and revising of dozens of application essays.
Huang said the Office of International Programs considers
applying for a scholarship like the Rhodes equivalent to taking several
extra classes. For him, the gamble paid off: Last month he won a Thouron
scholarship, providing two free years of study in England.
"It's very consuming," Westenholz added, "not
just in terms of time, but in terms of emotional investment. Which is
why the results can be so jolting, one way or the other." Everything
is fair game during the interview, Westenholz said. "My opening question
was to give a very detailed, but broad descriptive analysis of material
covered in a class two years ago." Some interviewers asked more personal
questions, and some gave the applicants a chance to be creative.
Thouron applicant Michael Pereira, C'99, noted
that most scholarship interviews last all day and give you many opportunities
to shine, whether it be informally over cocktails, lunch, and dinner,
or formally during the interview. The 18 finalists for the Thouron were
sequestered in a hotel outside Philadelphia from 7:30 A.M. to 7:30 P.M.
Though Westenholz found many advisors willing to bend
over backward to help her during the process, she thinks the University
as an institution needs to devote more resources to recruiting and preparing
"When it comes to institutional mechanisms to help
students who are [applying for academic scholarships], one telling disparity
is the degree to which the University helps [students] going into the
Westenholz noted that most of the scholarship facilitators
in the administration are divided among the Office of International Programs,
the College office, and the Benjamin Franklin Scholars program. Westenholz
only learned about some of the scholarships at the last minute through
her BFS advisor.
Pereira decided not to apply for the Rhodes because
of the University's poor track record -- it has not produced a Rhodes
Scholar in seven years.
"In conversations I've had with people I've heard
that the Penn administration does not cultivate a culture that encourages
people to seek aca-demic scholarships," Pereira said. "The emphasis
is on a job after college. I wouldn't attribute this to the quality of
the students, but to the culture of the administration."
Michael Brus, C'99, is a political science major from Madison.
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1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 2/17/99