Rhodes Scholarships Recommenders
Writing Recommendation Letters by Joe Schall
In the United States, only 32 Rhodes Scholarships are awarded per year, supporting two or three years of graduate study at Oxford University in any field. This, along with the fact that students must supply excellent letters from five to eight references, underscores just how incredibly competitive the award is and how necessary it is for you to write a detailed, emphatic letter in support of the candidate. If you cannot be genuinely positive and substantive in support of a student, you should encourage the student to seek an alternative reference. Students submit a transcript, a statement of academic and other interests, and a statement detailing why they wish to study at Oxford University. Because the application package for the Rhodes is due early in the academic year, students might even request a letter of recommendation from you during the spring.
The criteria you should address in a Rhodes Scholarship recommendation letter include:
- Proven intellectual and academic quality of the highest standard;
- The student’s integrity of character, and demonstrated interest in and respect for their fellow beings;
- The ability to lead and the energy to use their talents to the full.
The Rhodes Scholarship “Request for Letter of Appraisal” form is detailed about the kind of letter the selectors are seeking. To win a Rhodes Scholarship, the student must truly be among the nation’s best, and the letter writer’s comments must provide highly concrete evidence of the student’s superior intellect, integrity, and leadership. Go well beyond the student’s transcripts in your comments (Many of the applicants will have a 4.0 GPA anyway), helping the committee to discern the distinction of the student’s accomplishments, and present your opinion of the student as a prospect to influence the nation and enhance the scholarship’s reputation. Since the Rhodes Scholarship is grounded in esteemed public service, concrete examples that you give of a student’s public service—altruism, volunteerism, activism—are especially beneficial. Strong athletic ability can give a student a slight edge as well. Write a tightly focused, uplifting, savvy letter.
Considering the two sample Rhodes scholarship letters provided, the first paints a picture of the student in fairly broad strokes, focusing in particular on the student’s character and commitment. The second letter digs deeper, giving full context to the student’s interest in the European economy, and giving appropriate context to the recommender’s 40 years in the United States Foreign Service. Both letters tie the student’s background in agriculture to his future research commitment, thus giving us a sense of the student’s motivation and character.