Frequently Asked Questions
Should I Apply?
A Q&A with the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust
2020 Frequently Asked Questions
The Rhodes Scholarships were established after the death of Cecil Rhodes, who dreamed of improving the world through the diffusion of leaders motivated to serve their contemporaries, trained in the contemplative life of the mind, and broadened by their acquaintance with one another and by their exposure to cultures different from their own. Mr. Rhodes hoped that his plan of bringing able students from throughout the English-speaking world and beyond to study at Oxford University would aid in the promotion of international understanding and peace. Each year, 32 scholars from the United States are among more than 100 Rhodes Scholars worldwide who take up degree courses at Oxford University. The first U.S. Rhodes Scholars entered Oxford in 1904.
Mr. Rhodes' Will contains four criteria by which prospective Rhodes Scholars are to be selected:
- literary and scholastic attainments;
- energy to use one's talents to the full;
- truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship;
- moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings.
The American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust administers all aspects of the Rhodes Scholarships in the United States. On behalf of the Rhodes Trustees in England, he determines the rules and procedures of the U.S. competition, advises colleges and universities, selects all selection committee members, interprets Trust policies and selection criteria for the United States, and advises Rhodes Scholars-elect. The current American Secretary is Elliot F. Gerson. The Rhodes Trustees have designated officers in other countries with Rhodes Scholarships who have similar responsibilities.
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The questions in the FAQ on this page are representative of those commonly asked of this office or of the Secretaries of Committees of Selection. The questions are divided into four sections:
- Is Oxford The Right Place For Me To Study?
- What Is Life Like At Oxford?
- What Does The Application Process Involve?
- What Are My Chances?
Is Oxford the right place for me to study?
How can I learn more about Oxford and whether it would be right for me?
First, try to contact recent or even current Oxonians if at all possible. Oxford has changed dramatically in recent years, particularly due to the expanding number of graduate degrees. The recollections of alumni, particularly about academic courses, may not reflect Oxford today.
Study the Rhodes Trust website (www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/scholarships/the-rhodes-scholarship/), the website for the US National Secretary (www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk/office-of-the-american-secretary/) and Oxford’s (www.ox.ac.uk) (linked to the Rhodes sites and vice versa). Read the Oxford graduate and Undergraduate Prospectuses, available on the web. Check whether any of your faculty attended Oxford and make an appointment to meet with them. In some circumstances, particularly in certain areas of graduate research, it is appropriate to write to potential instructors at Oxford to see if the proposed area of study is realistic and can be well pursued at Oxford.
My college advisor is urging me to apply. I’ve done extremely well and she feels that I have a good chance. I am interested given the great prestige of the award, but I really don't think I want to study for a degree at Oxford—but it might be fun to live in England, study a little and learn some new things, and travel and participate in some of the clubs and sports at Oxford. Should I apply?
No. The Rhodes Scholarship is a financial award for academic study. While there are many things to enjoy on the Scholarship, students who do not want to apply themselves academically in an Oxford degree course should not apply. Scholars must enroll in a program leading to a degree, and make satisfactory progress toward that degree to retain the Scholarship. Our committees are experienced in recognizing—and not selecting—“trophy hunters” or “academic tourists” with only modest interest in an Oxford degree. Moreover, those who apply primarily for the honor, or to “live abroad,” may tend to be dismissive of their academic experience. This disserves those who seek spots at the University who would be truly delighted by the prospect.
Which degrees are most popular for U.S. Rhodes Scholars?
In recent years, the various master’s degrees have become the most popular for U.S. college graduates at Oxford although doctorates are now pursued by almost one-half of a typical U.S. Rhodes class. This is a significant change from the experience in all decades through the 80s, when most U.S. Rhodes Scholars pursued second B.A. degrees at Oxford. There are several reasons for these shifts. Among the community of current Rhodes Scholars, it is now as common to take two one-year M.Sc. courses as it is to take the M.Phil., especially as there are many more one-year M.Scs. being introduced (than M.Phils.) each year. Moreover, these “taught master’s degree” options are designed at least in part with the interests of overseas graduates in mind, with a combination of tutorial-like instruction, small classes, lectures and opportunities for some research and writing. At the same time, many of the undergraduate degrees now assume greater preparation than in previous years, made possible by the higher degree of academic specialization in British secondary schools than in the U.S. Finally, graduate education in general—including at the doctorate level—has received steadily greater support and emphasis at Oxford. Nonetheless, various B.A. degrees continue to be the right choice for a few U.S. scholars, and Oxford continues to be renowned for the quality of its undergraduate teaching.
There are more “interdisciplinary” B.A.s today than there were when most U.S. Rhodes Scholars who wanted a “broadening” experience with strong, tutorial-centered teaching had little to choose but Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). You might consider History and Politics, Economics and Management, Geography (an extremely diverse and vibrant discipline in Britain), History and Economics, History and English, or Human Sciences (a multidisciplinary biological and social science course).
I want to do a one-year master’s degree, and am not interested in any other degrees. Is it okay to apply with just that in mind?
No. Per our updated Conditions of Tenure guidance document, the Rhodes Scholarship is for not less than two years. We strongly encourage considering either a two-year degree or doing a second one-year degree after the one you are contemplating. The experience one gains from Oxford is, in our accumulated experience, exponentially greater for those who are there for two (or more) years.
My advisors at my college say Oxford is not a good place for me to do graduate work in science. Is that correct?
This is absolutely incorrect. In most sciences, Oxford is among the most distinguished institutions in the world, and most of its science departments receive the highest possible rating as done by the British Research Assessment Exercise. The now very old perception that Oxford’s strengths in the arts is not matched in the sciences is almost certainly no longer correct—if it ever was (Bacon, Boyle, Harvey, Halley, Radcliffe, Sherrington, Hinshelwood, Todd, Florey, Tinbergen, Hodgkin, and many other renowned scientists did their research at Oxford). As in the United States, the strength of the graduate research programs in the sciences at Oxford can’t fairly be generalized, and depends very much on the particular field and subfield and the individuals under whom you might work as a graduate student. As in all doctoral courses in Britain however, the Oxford doctorate tends to include very little work outside one’s dissertation.
A relatively high number of U.S. Rhodes Scholars have read for science degrees, or were undergraduate science majors. In recent years, approximately 40% of Oxford students overall have been enrolled in science courses.
Oxford is not the best choice for every Scholar, and you should be certain that your work will be supported there. I strongly urge you to explore the extensive material available in Oxford’s web pages in your particular areas of interest and then, perhaps, to correspond with particular faculty in your areas of interest, or you might ask my office or your district secretary if he or she can give you the name of a recent U.S. graduate of the Oxford science course you are considering.
I’d like to do a D.Phil. in chemistry. What will American universities think of that compared to a U.S. Ph.D.?
Once again, generalizations are difficult. Chemistry happens to be an extraordinarily distinguished department at Oxford—it is one of the world’s largest—and its D.Phils. are likely to be regarded as among the world’s best. Once again, how one’s doctorate is regarded has much to do with one’s supervision and the quality of one’s individual work. And the breadth of work one is expected to do for a doctorate at Oxford is less than in the United States. You are well advised to consult with leading U.S. professors in your area of interest to determine the best fit for your career aspirations.
I am interested in an academic career in the U.S. and would like to do a D.Phil. in the social sciences/humanities. How will American universities regard my degree?
As in the sciences, one cannot safely generalize. Because the Oxford D.Phil. does not involve broad coursework in addition to the thesis, because one usually develops no teaching experience while pursuing a D.Phil., and because depending on the field and institution, there may or may not be “credit” for a D.Phil., it is well-advised to consult with U.S. professors in your area of interest before choosing the D.Phil. as opposed to other degree options. But there is no question that it is a highly regarded degree everywhere in the world, and some enormously distinguished faculty members at the most distinguished universities in the United States have Oxford D.Phils. as their final degrees.
I’ve heard that if you are a graduate student at Oxford you’re entirely on your own and have no classes. That sounds pretty lonely. What’s it like?
It is true that the D.Phil. degree often involves no formal “classroom” work, and is strictly a research degree. But many must precede the D.Phil. with an M.St. or M.Sc. which are both “taught” degrees, one of the many other “taught” graduate degrees, or other coursework with fellow students. Other friendships grow in research groups, in science labs, and through advisors. In any event, there is abundant camaraderie in the college Middle Common Rooms (“MCRs”). (MCRs refer to the room(s) and social organizations in colleges for graduate students, including those reading for second B.A. degrees.) Moreover, there is extensive social interaction among students, faculty, and research scientists. In many fields there are (sometimes very large) group collaborations, and there are seminars and colloquia, topical summer schools, etc. And many U.S. scholars find sports, drama, or musical groups fast ways to establish friendships. There are also many student societies that are organized around academic interests. For example, the Migration Studies Society is an interdisciplinary student group which connects students who have an interest in immigration issues. All that said, be aware that even B.A. students are usually studying only in small tutorials of only one, two, or three, and not the large classes they were used to in the United States. Oxford does require a measure of independence and the ability to carry on separate pursuits.
I’ve heard of the tutorial system but don’t know much about it. How does it work?
Candidates “reading” for (i.e., studying or preparing for) B.A. degrees are assigned a tutor (or tutors) for each Term (the academic year is divided into three eight-week terms). A tutor may continue for more than one term, or even for all terms, or you may have different tutors each term. It is the tutor’s responsibility to assure that you are prepared to do well in the examinations you will take at the end of your course. Typically, he or she will assign a weekly essay on topics selected in subject areas covered in those examinations. In your weekly “tutorial,” you will usually read your essay aloud to your tutor, followed by critique and discussion. You may be alone with your tutor, or more likely (today) share your tutorial with one or two colleagues reading the same material. Selected taught graduate degrees are also conducted using the tutorial system, some with two or more students assigned to a tutor.
I already have a B.A. Why would I want to get another? Isn’t it better to do a graduate degree?
The Oxford B.A. is a very different degree, with far greater specialization, than one would get in one’s major in a U.S. college. It is more equivalent in depth to a United States M.A. In fact, an Oxford B.A. becomes an M.A. seven years after matriculation, without further examination (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Degrees_of_the_University_of_Oxford). More importantly, the B.A. provides the advantages of close individual supervision from one’s tutor, a renowned distinguishing characteristic of Oxford undergraduate education. But U.S. scholars should do the degree that best meets their interests. It rarely makes a significant difference in a U.S. Rhodes Scholar’s subsequent career if the degree won is a B.A., M.Phil., M.Sc. by Research, M.Sc. by Coursework, M.Litt., D.Phil., or anything else. As explained above, however, most U.S. scholars in recent years have pursued masters’ degrees, although doctorates are also popular.
For a general description of the available Oxford degrees, and more information describing the tutorial system, please review the Scholarship information section on the U.S. Rhodes Scholarship website, www.rhodesscholar.org, and the Rhodes Trust website, www.rhodeshouse.ox.ac.uk, and the Undergraduate and Graduate Prospectuses, also available on the web.
What is life like at Oxford?
It’s hard to learn much about all the different colleges at Oxford. How can I learn more? How much difference does it make which college I attend?
It is hard to learn about the differences among Oxford’s colleges without visiting them. But the web has made an enormous difference. Almost every Oxford college has an excellent and expansive website. That information—plus that in the Undergraduate Prospectus (also available on the web) should be sufficient. If you can supplement that with discussion with recently graduated Oxonians, that should give you most of what you might want to know. Moreover, if you are like most Rhodes Scholarship applicants, and are likely to attend only if successful in a scholarship competition, you’ll have some time—sufficient but not abundant—after you win a scholarship, to learn what you need to. Importantly, it should be noted that the vast majority of people come to enjoy the college in which they are placed very much indeed, even if it was not their first choice. Rhodes Scholars—just like other Oxford applicants—frequently do not receive placements in their preferred colleges. This rarely makes the Oxford experience any less enjoyable. A few Rhodes Scholars may find their best option is to leave college choice to the Warden of Rhodes House. Finally, college choice is frankly less important for graduates than undergraduates because graduates’ academic experience is at the University and not in the colleges.
What’s the social life like at Oxford?
That is best to ask a recently returned Oxonian. In general, it is not terribly dissimilar from a U.S. college, although there are some distinguishable features. Because the terms are short and the B.A. programs are quite demanding, term time is probably, on average, more academically focused than at most U.S. institutions. On the other hand, the unique camaraderie of college MCRs, JCRs (the college-based social organizations for graduate students [including those reading for second B.A.s] and undergraduates respectively), and butteries (college snack bars)—combined with the popularity of countless pubs in the city—make a generally more social and gregarious environment than at many if not most U.S. colleges. Weekend dorm room “parties” are replaced by daily gatherings for coffee and drinks in MCRs or pubs. The very existence of the many colleges facilitates extremely close friendships with perhaps the most cosmopolitan cross section of international students in the world. The small size of the colleges—from about 200 to about 500 students (with an average of about 350)—where most meals are taken and most sports and many societies are housed, and most, if not all B.A. instruction is provided, also fosters far closer relationships than the norm in most U.S. institutions. And one should remind oneself, of course, that while we share a common language, British and American culture—academic and social—are still quite foreign to each other. The source of additional appeal to most (although of consternation to a few who are unrealistic about the cultural differences, especially that British universities are less, shall I say, consumer-driven than many U.S. institutions have become in recent years).