How Rhodes Scholarships Work

The courtyard of the Oxford Union
AP Photo/Martyn Hayhow

Ask most college seniors what they want to do after graduation, and most of them won't tell you that they're looking for a few more semesters of intense study at a school far from home, family and friends. But each year, for hundreds of college students around the world, that's the goal. Those extremely motivated students spend most of their college careers working to become Rhodes Scholars.

Rhodes Scholars are winners of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. About 80 students are awarded the scholarship each year; those 80 students usually include 32 students from American colleges and universities [source: Miners].


When most people think of scholarships, they think of programs that help pay for undergraduate work. However, the Rhodes Scholarships pay for post-graduate work at the University of Oxford, in England. It's one of the most exalted and selective academic honors a student can achieve, and past Rhodes Scholars have gone on to some incredible accomplishments. If you think you have what it takes to be a Rhodes Scholar, or if you just want to learn more about one of the world's highest academic honors, keep reading.

Rhodes Scholarships History

The Rhodes Scholarships were established in 1902 and, according to the Rhodes Trust, are the oldest international education fellowships in the world. Though the scholarships have been awarded since 1902, the first Americans entered Oxford under the Rhodes Scholarships banner in 1904.

The Rhodes Scholarships were established by the will of a British statesman, Cecil Rhodes. In his will, Rhodes set out the beginnings of the Rhodes Scholarship program. He sought to create leaders who would be dedicated to service and academic inquiry. He also felt that those leaders would benefit from knowing each other -- that's why the Rhodes Scholarships cover study at Oxford University. Finally, Rhodes envisioned an environment where the scholars could learn from the differences among them. As a result, he named nine countries that would receive Rhodes Scholarships each year.


Since Rhodes' will, more countries have been added to the list of eligible areas. Now, Rhodes Scholars come from 14 different countries. Rhodes also originally made the scholarships open only to men; however, in 1976 the scholarships opened to women, too. And, as Rhodes originally specified, the scholarships have always been awarded without regard to race or religion.

The Rhodes Scholarships are administered by the Rhodes Trust in Vienna, Va. But how does a student go about winning a Rhodes Scholarship?


How to Win a Rhodes Scholarship

While the number of countries in the Rhodes Scholarship program has expanded, the basic criterion hasn't. The goal of the Rhodes Scholarships isn't just to find people who are good students now; rather, the selection committee tries to evaluate an applicant's potential over a lifetime. As a result, applicants are judged not only by what they've accomplished, but also by what they're likely to accomplish later in life.

Cecil Rhodes set out four standards for selecting Rhodes Scholars. He stated that applicants should be judged on literary and scholastic achievements, vigor (as shown through participation in sports), devotion to service to others and leadership abilities.


Because Rhodes Scholarships are so prestigious, many colleges and universities in the United States encourage their top students consider applying almost as soon as they arrive on campus. In order to win the scholarships, students must be nominated by their college or university. From there, district selection committees (there are 16 Rhodes districts in the United States) examine a student's application materials and the applicants undergo a series of formal and informal interviews. Each November, the winners are announced and the recipients enter Oxford the following October for two years of study.

Rhodes Scholarship Degrees

Rhodes Scholarship recipient, VMI cadet Gregory Lippiatt, holds a resolution honoring him on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., on Feb. 11, 2009.
AP Photo/Steve Helber

Once Rhodes Scholars enter Oxford, they typically stay for two years -- although they can apply for a third. The goal of most is to earn a Master of Philosophy Degree or a Master of Science degree. Either degree can be in any subject -- choosing a Master of Philosophy degree doesn't mean the student is only studying philosophy. Instead, a Master of Philosophy degree is one that's earned through graduate-level coursework and examinations. The Master of Science is earned through research and examination.

Oxford is very different from most American colleges and universities. For one, it's made up of 38 colleges. Each college has separate admissions. In fact, winning a Rhodes scholarship is no guarantee that a given college at Oxford University will accept you. Also, while most American schools use classroom discussions, at Oxford, much of the instruction is one-on-one, with students working with a tutor in a particular area. The tutor assigns readings and an essay on a particular topic, and the student and tutor meet to discuss the assignments. Finally, whereas at American schools, the same person teaches and gives tests, at Oxford, the tests are given by a university Board of Examiners, not the student's tutor. The result of this system is that the tutor and student work in partnership to prepare for exams.


Rhodes scholars are allowed to study any subject they choose, so as you can imagine, the courses that Rhodes Scholars have taken are extremely varied.

Notable Rhodes Scholars

With just 1,794 living Rhodes Scholars in the world, you would expect them to be a fairly accomplished group -- and you'd be right [source: Willen]. The most common career path for Rhodes Scholars is higher education. Some estimates indicate 40 percent of living Rhodes scholars work in higher education. The next most popular career field is law, with 20 percent of Rhodes Scholars ending up there. Government work is another popular career path. The Kennedy administration had 25 Rhodes Scholars in it, and the Clinton administration had 50 [source: Willen].

So, who are these Rhodes Scholars? Well, you've probably heard of at least a few Rhodes Scholars, even if you didn't necessarily know they were prior to reading this. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was one, as is Rachel Maddow, host of the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC. Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal is a Rhodes Scholar, too, and so is actor and musician Kris Kristofferson.


Former Senator and NBA star Bill Bradley was also a Rhodes Scholar. Like Bradley, Myron Rolle, a defensive back and sixth-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL draft, proves that Rhodes Scholarships aren't just for people who spend all day in the library. Since the selection criteria call for vigor demonstrated through participation in sports, athletes tend to do quite well.

For more information about Rhodes Scholarships and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Miners, Zach. "Where to Start if You Want to be a Rhodes Scholar." U.S. News and World Report. Nov. 23, 2009. (April 28, 2010)
  • The Rhodes Trust. "Oxford and the Rhodes Scholarships." July 9, 2009. (April 28, 2010) website_7_8_09.pdf
  • Willen, Liz. "Harvard Rhodes Scholar Factory Spurs Imitation at U.S. Colleges." Bloomberg. Dec. 29, 2004. (April 28, 2010)