The Rhodes and
Psychology, sociobiology and silly Monopoly
My impression, when I began the process of applying for the Rhodes, was that it was surely a long shot. But at the same time, I realized that I had nothing to lose by applying. I had read the reflections of other Reedies who applied for the Rhodes (like you’re doing now) and all of them seemed to be positive about the experience even though most of them didn’t go on to get a Rhodes Scholarship. I can confidently say that my experience was great. In the process of applying for a Rhodes, most of the work you will do is before you find out whether you even have an interview at the State level. For this reason, I will give a little bit of background on my pre-interview experience before describing the State finals. I’ll also offer you my reflections on the interviews and the post-announcement phase of the finals. Because of the long odds, it is much more likely that the committee will not announce your name at the end of all that work. It’s important to be prepared for this (you should have some sort of backup plan), but you still need to convince the committee that Oxford is the place that you ‘need to be’ next year.
Firstly, I don’t want to discourage future Scholars from applying during their senior years, but I know I was able to get a lot more out of it by applying after graduation. Having graduated in May of 2002 (and having flexible work), I didn’t have a lot of other pressures and I could focus on my application and preparation for the interview. I’m certain that this would have been a very different experience (far more stressful and less enjoyable) if I would have applied during my senior year. However, I’ve heard that it’s common for individuals to apply again if they don’t succeed the first time around, so that’s an option as well.
I can honestly say that I had fun preparing my application and going through the mock interviews. The resources available at Reed are phenomenal – Ken is amazing. He is so dedicated to aspiring Rhodes Scholars and he does all he can to prepare you and answer any questions you might have. The process of writing a personal statement and making a concise list of personal accomplishments really forced me to think about how to present myself on paper. This was helpful once I sat down to write my graduate school applications. Also, I had never before read the New York Times on a daily basis or the Economist on a weekly basis. It felt really great to be ‘on top’ of the news and I know that from now on I will keep up with current events much more.
The Reed Interviews
Before submitting your application to the Rhodes committee, you must make it through the first filter. This is the Reed level selection and interview. Be sure to take advantage of this opportunity to get feedback from the professors who interviewed you on Reed’s committee. They will likely have diverse backgrounds and they should be able to give you useful advice about your personal statement and interview style. The feedback I got revolved around these topics. I was told by nearly all of them that I had a very good interview style. One person even told me that I was ‘very polished, almost too polished.’ I have heard from a number of people that being too polished can be a disadvantage in the Rhodes interview. I had already developed an ‘academic presentation voice’ and that would often surface in my interviews and might not have been an asset to my application. This seems to be one of the most tricky aspects of the interview- to be comfortable, but not overly relaxed, and to present yourself confidently without seeming arrogant. It’s hard to know how one should try to present oneself, but it seems to me that the best approach is to just try to be natural.
Once I had submitted my application to the Rhodes Committee, the mock interview process began. Once a week I would head over to Reed for an interview with Ken and one or two other people (usually faculty members at Reed). This was my favorite part of the process of applying for the Rhodes. I had the chance to meet and talk to faculty members at Reed that I had known only in passing. The questions were stimulating and fun- it was just like having an intellectual exchange with a few interesting people you ran into and happened to get into a conversation with. I found the interview with the lawyers and Colin Diver to be the most fun because they were really interested in my research and how it related to their own interests.
I was the first to arrive at the dinner that takes place the night before the interviews. I hung up my coat and got myself a glass of water. The next candidate arrived shortly and she was extremely friendly. We started chatting and soon the rest of the candidates came in. We all introduced ourselves to each other and several small groups of people formed. Contrary to what I had heard about the state level interview, everybody there was extremely nice and not one person was trying to be intimidating. If anything, the candidates were too reluctant to talk about the interesting things that they had done. I wanted to get to know everybody, but I felt awkward asking too many questions because I didn’t want to seem like I was trying to interview them or compare myself to them.
The dinner itself was delicious and well-paced. I got to eat enough without having to sacrifice conversation. At the beginning of the dinner I was seated next to Dean Marvin Henberg and I first began talking to him. The previous week I had looked up the committee members on the internet and one of the things I discovered about him was that he shared my interest in game theory and environmentalism. I asked him about the book he had written a while ago called ‘Retribution’ and he told me his main thesis, mentioning that he hadn’t had exposure to this idea for many years. Since I had just recently read an evolutionary psychology book dealing with similar questions I told him about it and agreed with him that nobody had really ‘solved’ the problem of why people take revenge even when it’s not in their current best interests. We talked briefly about the environment and then we both started talking to others at the table.
Over the course of the night dancing came up often (I’m a Salsa instructor and performer). I was asked about why I like Cuban style Salsa, I was asked about leading and following, other candidates talked about their experiences dancing. It seemed to be a relaxed and fun topic. We also discussed bilingual education in great depth, including ESL programs and teaching a second language early in school or at home. Eminem (the white rapper) came up when one of the students mentioned having seen ‘8 Mile’ recently. I was thankful that I had skimmed a few articles about Eminem that were in the New York Times over the past month because I was able to contribute to the discussion, mentioning that Eminem was losing his edge with his teenage rebellious audience because now the parents of those teenagers are starting to listen to him. Even though Eminem has been mostly a pop culture icon, his change from a politically incorrect corruptor of the youth to an actual role model seemed like a serious enough issue for several of the candidates (including me) to talk about for a few minutes. The committee members at our table seemed surprised by what we were saying, but they definitely seemed interested. Another topic we discussed was cultural relativism and drawing the line between cultural traditions and actions that infringe on human rights. Also, Pamela Jacklin talked extensively with one of the other candidates about Madagasgar and they shared stories about traveling through the country.
I left the dinner feeling relaxed and excited at the same time. Since I love controversial conversations with smart people, I had fun talking to the candidates and committee members. If you had asked me then who I thought were the strongest candidates, I would have had a lot of trouble narrowing it down. Many of them were fun, engaging, intelligent and seemed accomplished. It was really hard to know what exactly the candidates had done, especially since everybody seemed so reluctant to talk about their interests, let alone their accomplishments. In some way, that’s good. As I said before nobody seemed intimidating. But I still wanted to know more about these interesting people!
The Interview Day
That night I went home and got a good nights rest. My interview was not until 3pm (the last interview of the day) so I slept in and headed over to Reed around 11, picking up lunch on my way. I got there and chatted with some of the candidates, eating my lunch in the waiting room. I quickly got involved in a very intense game of Monopoly and I almost forgot that I was there for an interview! That Monopoly game was actually the most competitive part of the whole Rhodes process! Nevertheless, we all had a great time and joked with each other quite a bit. On one occasion, we teased one of the candidates (who happened to be an investment banker) about trying to get two other players to accept a deal that he wouldn’t accept, and then I gave him a hard time about being the first to go bankrupt. But his performance in Monopoly certainly wasn’t predictive of his success in the Scholarship competition - he ended up being one of the finalists chosen to go on to the regional level.
My interview was the last interview, and I felt confident and calm as Dean Henberg led me to the interview room. I tried to answer all the questions (I list these questions at the bottom of this document) that I could answer, but I admitted when I didn’t know or wasn’t sure. I made eye contact with the committee members, focusing on the person who asked me the question. Although I was asked a variety of questions, they focused largely on my academic pursuits. I wasn’t asked once about my involvement in the community, but I assumed that they didn’t ask me about that because my community involvement was clear from my application. At the end of the interview I thought I had a really good chance of being chosen. I felt that I had presented myself well and that I was able to just be myself.
When I returned to the waiting room, the other candidates and I started playing a game of Cranium. This was far less competitive and far more silly than our earlier game of Monopoly. At one point I was on all fours on the ground snorting like a pig and saying “I’m fat, I’m really fat!” Needless to say, I got teased about that for several minutes; most of the jokes revolved around the idea of the committee members coming in to call me for my second interview while I was on the floor acting like a big fat pig.
When the committee members did finally come to the room (I was thankfully in a dignified position when they arrived) around 5:30pm, they told us that there would be no second interviews. I was honestly surprised when they announced the regional finalists and my name wasn’t read. At that point the room cleared out quickly and the other candidates barely said goodbye to each other. I managed to get the email address of one of the candidates that I enjoyed talking to and then I found myself being the last person to collect my belongings and get out of the room.
For the first few hours after the interview and during the next day, I wondered why they didn’t choose me. I had a strong academic record, community involvement, publications, and I think I’m a pretty interesting person to talk to. After spending a day or two wondering about this, I would offer this to others who make it to the interview, but don’t get chosen:
First, it’s tempting to think: what could I have done differently? or how could I have been better prepared? But when it comes down to it, it’s impossible to know exactly what they are looking for. If you don’t get chosen, it’s not that you are somehow not good enough, but they might have found somebody else who better fit their idea of what makes a good Rhodes Scholar. They’re not looking for the ‘best’ candidate in some absolute sense, but instead they’re looking for someone who has some set of traits and abilities that they think will make them outstanding Rhodes Scholars.
Secondly, make a convincing case the Oxford is the place where you have to go next year. If it doesn’t look like it’s ‘in the stars’ they’ll probably be less likely to choose you. But at the same time, be sure you have a backup plan. If you know you want to go to graduate school next year, be sure to apply through other means besides the Rhodes. I’ve been told that it’s a good idea to think about applying to Oxford independent of the Rhodes because it shows that you’re really committed to the idea of going there for your studies.
In a sense, I regarded the process of applying for the Rhodes as a success, even though I didn’t end up being chosen as a Rhodes Scholar. If you have the time to invest in preparing your application, having multiple mock interviews and reading the New York Times and the Economist on a regular basis, I can’t imagine this process being anything but positive. I admit it might have been a little different if I were applying for the Rhodes while doing my thesis; I probably would have been more stressed and might not have enjoyed it as much. But if you prepare over the summer and manage your time well I’m sure it can be done during thesis without to much extra stress.
The Interview Questions
These are roughly the questions I was asked during the interview. I left out my responses except were they are relevant to the next question.
Mary King: What do you think is wrong with the way Economists approach human decision making?
Me: I think the assumption that people are purely rational and self-interested is the biggest problem with traditional economic approaches.
Pamela Jacklin: Do you think that people behave rationally in any sense? How would you explain this behavior… (she described people driving many extra miles to save 50 cents on a bridge toll)?
Javed Siddiqi: What do you think of the Electoral College
Javed Siddiqi: Do you think mandatory voting would be a good
idea in the
Marlene Moore: What is your opinion on eugenics/human cloning/genetic modification? Do you think the Sociobiological view and the idea that there is a genetic basis for behavior advocate any particular perspective on those issues?
Javed Siddiqi: Do you believe in destiny?
Me: No. I don’t think things are predestined.
Javed Siddiqi: What do you think brought you here today?
Christ Church, Oxford