Thursday, July 23, 2015

Advice and Sample Essays for Prospective Rhodes, Marshall, NSF, NDSEG, and Hertz Applicants

When applying for graduate scholarships, you have an advantage if you’re from a school that’s had many previous candidates: you can read decades of essays from successful applicants, be groomed by scholarship advisors, and so on. You’re also at an advantage if you happen to be good at networking, and can reach out to previous successful candidates.

Both these things seem unfair to me. In an attempt to level the playing field, in this post I’m providing two things: the essays I used to apply for scholarships and some tips. Obviously, I am not an expert and my experience is only one datapoint. This advice is specific to the scholarships named in the title, which I applied for and received; it may be applicable to other competitions as well. (I also applied for the Gates, which had a similar process, but withdrew my application when I decided to go to Oxford.) If you use the materials, please respect the fact that I am providing you with personal information for your benefit; do not plagiarize, redistribute or talk to me about my essays. If you have questions which are not answered here and which you think would be useful for many applicants to have answered, feel free to contact me and I will update this post if necessary! I am, unfortunately, probably not going to answer questions about specific applications.

Should I apply? I think the answer to this question varies by scholarship.

NSF, NDSEG, Hertz: these all give you funding to pursue a science PhD at a program of our choice. If you are applying to science grad schools, I would strongly recommend you apply if you have any chance of winning; they’re free money and prestige with no downside besides the time investment. To find out whether you would be a competitive applicant, I would a) read the criteria for the scholarship and b) talk to a professor in the sciences, your school’s scholarship office, or a previous applicant.
Marshall: funding for several years of study at an institution in the United Kingdom. Has a reputation for being more academic than the Rhodes; see this Wikipedia entry which I suspect is written by a Marshall Scholar. If you think you might conceivably be interested in studying in the UK and have a reasonably strong academic record (minimum undergraduate GPA is above 3.7), I would apply.

Rhodes: funding for several years of study at Oxford. Two things to understand (which I didn’t) when applying: a) if you win, you will be under strong pressure not to turn it down (unlike other scholarships, the Rhodes does not name alternates; I think this is silly, but that’s the way it is) and b) going to Oxford for a year or more can dramatically change your life. For example, I estimate that ⅔ of American Rhodes Scholars in long-distance relationships at the beginning of my year were not in relationships at the end. So try to actually imagine spending a year in Oxford; don’t just apply for the scholarship because it’s prestigious.

That said, I think the Rhodes is a wonderful experience, mostly because the other scholars are a diverse and passionate group and even if you’re somewhat antisocial like me you’ll probably make a lot of friends. (Update in the interest of balance: a 2014 Marshall Scholar tells me that the Marshall can also change your life and is well worth applying for.) Also, don’t be deterred from applying because:

  1. “the Rhodes is just for athletes” ~ this is no longer really true. I wrote on my resume that I did “long-distance hiking”, which was true but pretty lame.
  2. “the Rhodes isn’t for scientists” ~ silly for at least three reasons. i) there were lots of scientists in my year; ii) spending a year talking to non-scientists is arguably especially useful for scientists, because you’re probably going to spend the rest of your life surrounded by scientists; iii) many Rhodes scientists go on to do useful things precisely because they can communicate with non-scientists: see Leana Wen, Atul Gawande, Siddhartha Mukherjee, and Jonah Lehrer.
  3. “the Rhodes application involves a cocktail party” ~ it’s really not a big deal. There were no cocktails at mine.
Advice for all scholarships: if you’re not sure whether you have any chance, err on the side of applying. All scholarships are kind of a crapshoot, and it’s easy to get intimidated by profiles of the winners (I did).

Tips for essays:

a) start early. Some people start writing their Rhodes essays 6 months ahead of time (I started in July for the September deadline, but I also took ideas from writing I had done much earlier). Some candidates describe the essay-writing process as one of self-discovery: you decide what matters to you as you’re writing the essay. This takes time and multiple drafts.
b) most of the essays require you to both tell personal stories and detail your academic achievements. This combination made me uncomfortable (rereading my essays, I feel like a bit of an asshole) and you may feel the same way. It is okay to be honest about why you are an impressive candidate; just try not to sound too arrogant.
c) do not worry if you don’t have some inspiring personal story explaining why you care about what you study. Many successful candidates don’t. That said, if your academic and personal lives are entwined, by all means incorporate that. I would advise against including sad personal stories that aren’t actually deeply important to you, not just because it’s kind of a sleazy thing to do but also because it’s unlikely to be effective.

Tips for interviews:  

The Rhodes, Marshall, and Hertz involve interviews (the Hertz has two rounds).

a) It is normal to be unable to answer interview questions. This happened to me in both the Rhodes and Hertz interviews. Admit it, don’t bullshit, tell them what you do know, and don’t panic. I know successful candidates who thought their interviews were disastrous.
b) The thing that prepared me best for interviews was doing college debate, which trained me to give a concise and structured answer and then defend it. A good way to prep for interviews is to have debaters read your application and ask you questions -- or, if you are lucky enough not to know any debaters, smart, obnoxious, argumentative people. Old scholarship applicants are also good at doing practice interviews, which I recommend doing -- contact your school’s scholarship office to see if they will arrange them.
c) Read old interview questions to get a sense of what you’ll be facing. I provide a complete list of my interview questions in the Rhodes and Marshall folders; here are some Hertz interview questions. For the Hertz interview, I might recommend Randall Munroe’s What If? which speculates about what would occur in a bunch of implausible physical scenarios; see if you can figure them out without reading his answers. (In my Hertz interview, I was asked what would happen if a car with a helium balloon tied to the floor suddenly stopped on the highway. Another candidate was asked to name every way he could use common kitchen implements to distinguish between salt and sugar.) Google is your friend for practice interview questions.
d) Be prepared to defend everything in your application. Candidates who claim they spoke a foreign language have been addressed in that language. I was asked to recite an equation from a paper I wrote. Reread your application before your interview, and don’t claim achievements you can’t defend.
e) Get the small stuff right. Show up really early. Wear a suit. If you’re flying in for the interview, it’s probably worth it to fly in a day early if you can.
f) Prepare for each interview specifically. The Rhodes and Marshall will require knowledge of current events. The Rhodes interviewers may ask you about Cecil Rhodes, and the Marshall interviewers may ask you about George Marshall and the United Kingdom. The Hertz interviewers may ask you basic science questions in fields you claim to know about (I was a physics major, so I reviewed my quantum / statistical mechanics and electromagnetism notes. I told them I hadn’t taken chemistry since 10th grade, so they left me alone about that). Research your interviewers (you will often know their names) so you can tailor your answers to their level of knowledge. Prior to my final round Hertz interview, I wrote up a short statistical analysis of previous Hertz candidates and presented it to my interviewers.

Longer-term tips:

The New York Times tells me that people start preparing to apply for these scholarships freshman year. (I also like that article because it makes Harvard sound evil.) That is definitely not always true; certainly no one sent me the memo (although maybe Stanford does for some people). That said, winning any of these scholarships will require you to have done things before your senior year -- and those things are worth doing anyway. Specifically:

a) Get to know your professors. This helps in two ways. First, all these scholarships require at least 3 letters of recommendation (the Rhodes requires 5 - 8). Letters carry a lot of weight, and they should be from people who know you reasonably well -- getting an A in someone’s class is probably not sufficient. (I had done research or one-on-one work for most people who wrote my Rhodes recommendations.) Second, most professors are way smarter than their students. If you want to meet dazzling people who will help you learn a lot and do cool things, professors are good people to talk to.
b) Do things that you’ll probably fail at but will offer a large reward if you succeed, as long as there’s no downside to failure besides time and ego. Examples: try taking classes for which you lack the prerequisites, as long as you can drop the class if you’re clearly unprepared. Send your writing to publications which are likely to reject it. Reach out to people who are too important to talk to you. Do academic research. Apply for awards. Etc. You will not win these scholarships simply by having a good GPA.

Hopefully this was at least somewhat helpful and not hopelessly generic. If you have successfully applied for these scholarships and would like to contribute tips or essays, please let me know!

Other resources I found useful: see Phillip Guo and DJ Strouse on science fellowships and Alex Lang on the NSF. I did not find that much useful writing on the Marshall or Rhodes, but try Googling. Your school’s scholarship office, your professors, and past winners or applicants are all worth reaching out to.


Thanks to Talmo Pereira, an NSF winner who offers the following resources: 

And here are my application materials (2015): Research Plan - Personal Statement - Ratings Sheet"

Thanks also to a recent Marshall Scholar who wished to remain anonymous but who shared their interview questions; I have added them to the Dropbox folder with the requested caveat that "all interviews are different and this set of questions will not be representative of other experiences".