A Guide to Some of the Most Coveted Scholarships in America
Prestigious Scholarships for Graduate Students
Dr. Tianhui Michael Li
Marie Myung-Ok Lee
Scholarships are a great resource to reduce the cost of graduate school, but those who are able to qualify for some of the world's most prestigious scholarships, get more than just money. These highly competitive scholarships can help you network with the world's brightest thinkers and help lock in future employment prospects. They are major coups on your resume.
Successful applicants require a strong strategy and understanding of each program's priorities. Below you will find a detailed explanation of what you need to know to apply for prestigious scholarships such as The Rhodes, Fulbright, Churchill, Marshall and Harry S. Truman.
Each year, the Rhodes Scholarship program selects 32 Americans to study at the University of Oxford; as many as 89 additional scholarships are given globally.
The Rhodes Scholars program was established in 1902 by Cecil Rhodes to identify future leaders who would make major contributions during their lifetimes. Candidates are evaluated on academic success, participation in activities such as sports, commitment to public service, and leadership potential.
The Rhodes scholarship covers University and College fees for two years at Oxford. In some cases, a third or fourth year of studies can be underwritten. Students receive an annual stipend, private health insurance, and travel to the U.K. at the beginning and end of the scholarship term.
Eligibility varies by country. In the U.S., applicants must be U.S. citizens, a permanent resident or DACA recipient. Applicants must apply through a U.S. state or territory or the District of Columbia. They must be between the ages of 18 and 24.
Applications are available each year in July. Check annually for specific dates.
Eligible countries are listed online.
Applicants should have the following:
- An endorsement from their college or university
- Between five and eight recommendation letters, with at least four academic references and one character reference
- A 1000-word personal statement that provides a narrative of why you're a good fit for the scholarship
- A list of your extracurricular activities and leadership positions
- Proof of citizenship or lawful permanent resident status
- Certified transcripts
- Head and shoulders photograph
Sixteen committees around the U.S. review materials and select candidates for interviews. Interviews are wide-ranging and designed to test your intellectual ability, character and long-term leadership potential.
It's great if there are well-known people willing to recommend an applicant — but only to the extent that they actually know him or her and can say something particular and useful. A generic, boilerplate letter from a university president or former Cabinet secretary is a waste.
The interview is fast-moving and wide-ranging. The questions are creative, sometimes off-the-wall, and in many cases, lines of inquiry that finalists simply can't prepare for. The selectors want to see finalists think on their feet. They want to see them take interesting, thoughtful positions and defend them. Sometimes they're trying to ensure that there's a real human being behind the great grades and impossible achievements.
Famous Rhodes Scholars
- Bill Clinton
U.S. President, 1968
- Rachel Maddow
Television host and author, 1995
- Peter Beinart
Editor of The New Republic, 1993
- Susan Rice
National Security Advisor, 1986
- Edwin Hubble
The Marshall Scholarship was established after WWII by the UK Parliament as thanks to the U.S. for the success of the Marshall Plan. It provides funding for exceptional college seniors to pursue two years of graduate studies in any academic area at a college or university in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The goal is that with an enduring understanding of British culture, Marshall Scholars will facilitate ongoing positive relations between the U.S. and U.K.
The Marshall Scholarships are available for one or two years. The two-year scholarship may be extended on a limited basis for strong academic reasons, subject to availability of funds. Typically up to 40 scholarships are awarded annually, with approximately eight being one-year scholarships. The award covers university fees, living expenses, books, research and travel, round-trip travel from the U.S. to the U.K. and additional support for dependent spouses.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens and have obtained a bachelor's degree with a minimum GPA of 3.7 by the time their U.K. program commences. While there are no age limits, students must be a full-time enrolled student at an accredited U.S. college or university or have graduated within the last 30 months. Candidates should not have studied for or hold a degree from a British University.
Marshall Scholars are typically outstanding students who have shown strong leadership qualities. The online application asks for details of activities, sports, jobs, projects and more. Applicants must also submit essays outlining their program of study, how they'll benefit personally from a fellowship, and how they'll support improved U.S. - U.K. relations.
In addition, four letters of recommendation and certified, official transcripts from all colleges are required. Each aspect of the application process should tie back to the core program goals, and emphasize strong academic performance and leadership potential.
The Marshall selects for candidates who are truly accomplished in their chosen field of expertise but who also have a deep abiding interest in other fields and are generally well-rounded. Having spent a lot of time with current and alumni Marshalls and Rhodes, I would say the committee seems to select for these "T-shaped" candidates — the ones who possess both depth and breadth. Especially for science applicants, the interviewers usually rely on recommendations to determine your depth of experience in your chosen field and use the interview to gauge your breadth of interest.
You can apply for a Marshall in either your home's or school's consular district. Due to the density of Ivy League institutions in the Northeast, many candidates attending school there choose to apply from their home districts, which are perceived to be less competitive.
Famous Marshall Scholars
- Robert Lane Greene
- Thomas Friedman
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, 1975
- Roger Tsien
Nobel Prize-winning chemist, 1972
- Nicole Krauss
Fulbright Scholar Program
The Fulbright Scholar Program gives merit-based grants for students, scholars, teachers, professionals, scientists and artists. For U.S. citizens, it provides the opportunity to gain international exposure and develop personal projects, while citizens from other countries can earn the chance to do the same but in the United States.
There are several programs and awards available in the Fulbright Scholar Program that enable college and university faculty members with a Ph.D. (or equivalent terminal degree), artists and professionals to teach or conduct research. More than 8,000 grants are offered annually, with a small number available to U.S. international education administrators. For a full list of these programs, visit the Fulbright website.
There also is a Fulbright Student Program, which enables graduating college seniors, graduate students, young professionals, and artists to study, teach or conduct research.
Under the student program, approximately 900 grants have been given annually, using funds dedicated by Congress. Applicants can be recent graduates, current graduate students, professionals, and artists. Programs supported range from coursework to artistic and research projects. There's often a language requirement, depending on the destination.
The Fulbright Student Program offers different grants, including traditional research/study grants and English teaching assistant grants. Research and study grants cover travel to and from the host country. The program covers room and board, where applicable, as well as incidental costs depending on your destination's cost of living. In certain cases, it also covers tuition, language programs, books and materials and mid-term enrichment. Candidates should review the country guidelines.
To apply for a Fulbright under the student program, you must be a U.S. citizen who holds a minimum of a bachelor's degree before the start of the grant. For applicants in the creative and performing arts fields, you should have a minimum of four years of training or professional experience. Candidates are required to be in good health and pass a medical exam. Language proficiency is required for many of the 140 countries and destinations covered by the program.
Universities have their own internal deadlines. Applicants should check annually for updated application deadline.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens. Students enrolled at a U.S. college or university must apply through their school's career service office or other designated representative. Those not currently enrolled can apply through their alma maters, provided the school accommodates alumni applications. All other candidates are considered "at-large" and can apply from their state of residence.
Students should begin by contacting their college or university to see what resources are available and familiarize themselves with the destination country's program. Applications involve drafting a statement of grant purpose outlining the proposed project. It's also helpful to have correspondence from the host institution (even if it's not formal acceptance) highlighting its willingness to accept you.
Candidates must draft a personal statement to showcase their accomplishments, who they are and why they're pursuing the Fulbright. Applicants must include three letters of reference, official transcripts for all educational institutions, and if required, language exam results.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee was a Fulbright Scholar in 1997 for Creative Writing and Women's Studies in Korea. Today, she is an author and professor at Columbia University's Creative Writing program.
I visited Brown's career office where they had a binder of successful Fulbright essays and I spent the whole day looking through them and seeing commonalities: focused project, a project that was do-able in 9 months, infrastructure set up." Here are some sample personal statements and essays.
An important piece of advice: I was told by the IIE that my chances of getting one for a creative field in Korea were probably zero. And I didn't listen. Everyone else did do a STEM type Fulbright (e.g. currency or the car industry) but I met a photographer who'd gotten one my year, and he had been rejected earlier. So we were the first people to get creative ones. So don't be afraid to reapply!
Famous Fulbright Scholars
Nobel Peace Prize winner, 1965
John Hope Franklin
American historian and author, 1954
President of Afghanistan, 1985
Pulitzer Prize-winning Author, 1985
Harry S. Truman Scholarship
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship provides support to college juniors who plan careers in public service. The scholarship looks for a strong history of civic engagement, volunteer work and public service throughout high school and college. It supports graduate studies that will enable students to be more effective in careers in public service. There's a strong emphasis throughout the application process in showing both an established history of service and demonstrating that future educational plans support a student's ability to be a change agent. Sample application materials provide deeper insight into the process.
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship provides funds for up to three years of graduate studies. The scholarship covers actual expenses for tuition and required fees, the average cost for room and board, and money for books in many programs, as long as there's a strong connection between the area of study and future career in public service.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens and usually, college juniors; however, there is no age limit. Candidates must be planning a career in public service and be willing to work in that sector for 3 of their first 7 years after graduation.
Applicants are advised to check deadlines annually.
The Harry S. Truman Scholarship is available only to U.S. citizens. Candidates need to receive their login criteria to the system from a faculty representative. If their school doesn't have a faculty representative, a willing faculty member may contact the foundation and establish that relationship.
The Truman Scholarship application demands a significant amount of information, including a detailed background on service experience, going back as far as high school.
There are also a number of targeted essay questions within the application, including a personal statement about the candidate's commitment to public service and an explanation of how a graduate degree will make the candidate an "agent of change." Students also must provide a policy proposal on an issue important to the candidate; preferably, focusing on an issue related to past experience and future plans, while integrating research and sources. An institutional letter of support, three recommendations, and official transcripts are additional requirements.
Jessica Ullrich advised a range of students on graduate scholarship opportunities in her position in the Tufts University Provost Office.
The Truman Scholarship is anchored around public service. It's important to develop a clear evidence-base showing your long-term commitment to civic, volunteer, and government causes. When possible, find an organizing theme.
The interview is an important part of the process. It's been said the scholarship is won and lost at district interviews. Mock interviews can be organized with advisors, a career services office, or even professors.
Famous Harry S. Truman Scholars
Bill De Blasio
New York City Mayor, 1981
Presidential Advisor and ABC news anchor, 1981
US Ambassador and Senior Presidential Advisor, 1995
The Churchill Scholarship, set up by Sir Winston Churchill, is a specialized program fostering graduate studies in science, math, and engineering. Started in 1963, the Churchill Scholarship provides at least 14 scholarships for American students to pursue a one-year master's degree at the University of Cambridge, based at Churchill College. The program aims to strengthen U.S. - U.K. ties around science and technology, to foster innovation, prosperity, and security.
The Churchill Scholarship covers the period of the winner's academic program (typically 9 - 12 months). All university and college fees are covered, as are living expenses. Travel expenses, visas and health fees are also covered. Additional support may be available for special research grants and for married applicants.
Applicants must be U.S. citizens enrolled as a senior at a participating U.S. university or a graduate with a bachelor's degree from one within the past 12 months. When they take up the scholarship, candidates must have a bachelor's degree or equivalent, typically with a minimum GPA of 3.7.
The annual deadline for submission is typically in October.
Currently, over 120 institutions participate in the Churchill program. The full list can be found here.
Each participating institution can nominate two applicants. Your university will provide you with a letter of institutional endorsement. Once applicants have received the university or college's endorsement, they must apply to the University of Cambridge separately from the scholarship program.
Applications include information about which program at Cambridge you intend to study, publications, non-academic interests, career plans, and previous foreign travel. There are three written components: a two-page personal statement, a one-page research and employment experience statement, and a one-page essay on your proposed program of study
The application requires four letters of recommendation from professors in your discipline (e.g. math or physics, for example) with first-hand knowledge of your work. If you've completed research, one letter must be from your supervisor or manager. Finally, you'll be asked to submit transcripts, GRE scores, and MCAT scores, if available.
A committee meets in January and reviews applications. Around twenty finalists are selected and a handful of them are recommended to be Churchill Scholars, with the remaining left as alternates. Finalists are invited to a 20-minute phone interview that plays a minor role in the selection process. The informal phone interview focuses on whether you're a fit for the college and vision of the program.
Mackenzie Simper is a recently named 2016 Churchill Scholar from the University of Utah.
The Churchill puts a large emphasis on research. I think it is important to show how your research experiences have motivated you, as well as connect past research to your future plans.
It is important to really know the program that you are applying for. My program is the MASt in math at Cambridge, which is formatted very differently than an American master's program. In my interview, I was asked questions to make sure I understood the differences and would be able to adapt. I had spoken to many people who had previously completed the MASt at Cambridge, and so I really knew what I was getting in to and was able to articulate that in my interview.
A Word About Letters of Recommendation
In the world of elite scholarships, recommendation letters are a critical part of the process. Think strategically about your choice of recommender. Select people who can tie in examples, observations and comments from your work to the project you're proposing and the mission of the overall scholarship program. For example, if you're applying for a Fulbright, your linguistic preparation and your ability to adapt to a new culture are important.
Ineffective letters tend to be generic or fail to make a real connection to the mission of the program. It's helpful to ensure each of your recommenders understands the scholarship's mission, the academics or project you're proposing, and some specific elements that might be helpful as they're crafting their letters. Create packets for each of your recommenders with information and reference documents to help them quickly craft relevant letters.
Finally, a word about timelines: Professors and academic advisors tend to be inundated with recommendation requests. Create a timeline for your application. Choose recommenders early and provide them with plenty of time to fulfill your request. Ensure all waivers or other documents have been signed, and include submission instructions or stamped envelopes as required. Remove all logistical barriers for the creation of a powerful letter and a timely submission.
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