Colleges driven to take Rhodes

Academy, other schools prepare assiduously for award process


The U.S. Naval Academy's success in landing seven Rhodes scholarships in the past two years - more than in the previous decade - might have surprised some. But it was not for lack of preparation.

Before this year's four winners and another finalist trekked across the country for final interviews last weekend, they had met once a week for two months to read the classics and discuss current events. They had practiced interviews with faculty to hone their talking points and detail how they would use two years at Oxford to "fight the world's fight."

They had dined and held cocktail-party rehearsals with military bigwigs, including the academy's superintendent, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, to prepare for cocktail parties that the Rhodes selection committees hold the night before interviews.

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic published in Thursday's Maryland section incorrectly listed the number of Rhodes scholars winners at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point. There was one winner announced in 2004, and seven total announced from 2001 to 2005.
The Sun regrets the error.

The process is not unusual, with some universities prepping candidates from their freshman year for applications for prestigious fellowships. The academy, along with other elite schools, has been doing it for decades.

But the preparations reflect a growing focus at universities on winning Rhodes scholarships to enhance stature. A national association was formed to help smaller schools level the playing field, and several college presidents have added fellowship wins to strategic growth plans aimed squarely at college rankings in the news media.

Academy officials say they haven't changed their approach, and are not sure why the military college has won more Rhodes awards in two years than in the previous eight years, when the academy received four.

"I gave up a long time ago trying to find out what the Rhodes committees are looking for in any particular year," said Thomas Brennan, one of two history professors who shepherd the midshipmen through the process. "There is a sense of sympathy for the armed services right now, a pride in the armed services. I have to guess that played a role."

`Best and brightest'

Nick Allard, the secretary of the Rhodes committee district that includes Maryland and Washington, said post-9/11 fervor might play a role, but he also said he believes the Naval Academy might be attracting better students than the other service academies.

"The Naval Academy is justifiably attracting the best and the brightest," he said. "They're also offering a top-caliber university experience, not just military training, but a vigorous and challenging intellectual experience."

The Naval Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point are perennial favorites for the Rhodes grants and other fellowships that provide a free ride to elite British universities.

Rhodes interviewers and Brennan, who has been involved in the academy's fellowship preparations for almost 15 years, say that's because the cadets and midshipmen are involved in challenging programs that force them to excel in academics, athletics and leadership, as well as commit to five years in public service after college.

The guidelines for the scholarships - set up when the Rhodes Trust was created more than a century ago by British diamond magnate Cecil Rhodes - call for academic excellence, leadership, integrity, physical vigor and commitment to public service. The grants provide for two or three years of study at Oxford, valued at $40,000 a year.

Most universities that regularly land Rhodes scholars, including the Naval Academy, have a thorough internal process to winnow prospective applicants well before the October application deadline. The academy's U.K. Scholarships Committee, made up of about 10 professors, interviews between 40 and 50 midshipmen to come up with a group of 20 who will apply for several highly competitive grants to study in England, including some sponsored by alumni.

Candidates are picked based on grades, seriousness about graduate school and commitment to a military career. This year, several of the 20 dropped out because they lost interest or didn't want to delay deployments to the Middle East.

West Point, which has had six Rhodes scholars since 2001 and 82 overall, has a similar internal application process. At Harvard University, which has had 19 Rhodes scholars since 2001 and 313 overall, applicants are coached by graduate students assigned to their dorms.

Rhodes applicants have to submit eight letters of recommendation with the application, along with a 1,000-word essay about their career goals - an essay often polished by applicants and faculty mentors.

Allard, the Maryland Rhodes committee member, said the Naval Academy has always sent detailed recommendation letters.

"That makes a difference," he said. "Unfortunately, there are some very fine candidates from some very fine institutions that we just don't get enough data about. The Naval Academy is extremely forthright and honest as well. If a candidate has a blemish, we hear about it. Frankly, having a blemish explained often helps a candidate."

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