Congratulations! Your written Rhodes Scholar application has done the trick and you have reached the next step in the application process. What can you expect and how do you prepare?
Read Part 1: Becoming Rhodes Scholars: preparing the application
Can you describe the interview process?
Constance: Twelve candidates are invited to take part in the two-part interview process. The first part is an hour-long cocktail, which usually takes place on a Thursday in late November. Candidates get to meet each other, the eight members of the selection committee, and some of their spouses. It is rather pressure-filled but also a very stimulating evening of conversation and mingling. The committee members make an effort to get around and meet all the candidates. This is followed by a 45-minute individual interview, with six candidates interviewed on the Friday afternoon and the other six on the Saturday morning. During individual interviews, committee members each take turns asking one or two questions, in French and/or English depending on the candidate’s fluency. The committee’s goal is to challenge candidates – their knowledge, beliefs, positions, rationales, values, awareness, leadership, etc. – so I think most everyone comes out thinking they did terribly. To balance that out, our cohort of candidates went out for dinner between the two interview days, which made the process so much more fun and enriching and so much less nerve-wracking! The committee then takes the Saturday afternoon to deliberate and notifies all candidates by phone, starting with the winners, sometime on Saturday night.
Virginie: For francophones applying for the Québec constituency, the interview is bilingual, which I found very stressful. I was asked one or two questions in French, then a couple of questions in English, then other questions in French, and so on, for 45 minutes. It was a great challenge for me because I had never completed full-time studies in English before moving to Oxford. During the interview, I kept having the impression that I was constantly in a mindset of translation, where I was thinking in French and answering in “very French” English.
How long did it take for you to prepare for the interview?
Constance: After I got an email saying I had qualified for an interview in November, I did a practice interview and a practice cocktail, both arranged by my university for a group of finalists from different scholarships. I also spent some time preparing answers to questions I thought were likely to come up and listed some points I wanted to get across, with the help of interview reports from previous finalists. Again, this speaks to the uneven resources available to candidates from different universities. To be honest, one of the biggest chunks of time I spent on preparation was figuring out what to wear to the interviews! I went to class fairly regularly in the clothes I slept in, so I didn’t exactly have much in the way of a professional wardrobe, and it was hard to balance what felt authentic to me in terms of gender presentation, class presentation, and personality, with what I felt was expected.
Altogether, it was dozens of hours of preparation. The nice thing is that once you’ve done it for the Rhodes Scholarship, it makes it a lot easier to apply to any other graduate programs, fellowships and jobs. Not only can you repurpose your statement, resume and letters but you’ve done a lot of thinking about your experiences and about what you want to do in the world. Plus, now you probably own a blazer!
Virginie: After submitting my application materials and getting my university’s endorsement, I received an invitation for an interview in November, just like Constance. Unfortunately, I could not count on my university’s resources to do a practice cocktail and interview, so I got in touch with a 2019 Rhodes Scholar that some of my close friends knew pretty well. I was able to obtain a couple of preparation tips and have an overall idea of how the cocktail and interview would go. My interview preparation consisted mainly of reading my CV and reflecting on my social and political commitments. Why did I get involved in this specific project? How did it make sense to me at that time? What did I learn from it? These are some of the questions I was trying to answer when getting in the mindset for the interview. I also prepared possible questions with sample responses, though once at the interview, you will always get asked surprising and challenging questions that you would not have expected!
In summary, the application process required days of preparation, but afterwards, you definitely feel proud. The cocktail and interview are aimed at deeply challenging you and getting you out of your comfort zone, so after having survived the application process, you’re pretty happy with yourself.
If you could redo one aspect of your interview, what would it be?
Constance: Oh, at least three of the answers I gave still – 17 months later – make me want to repeatedly smack my forehead! One was a very broad question about Canadian policy on which I floundered, with two equally tragic follow-ups. One was about my favorite book from before the 20th century (I studied literature in undergrad so this was a sensible question) on which I gave a completely impersonal answer. And one was about a solution to a social issue I had worked on, in which I didn’t seize an opportunity to drive home an important point. That being said, I think it is impossible to be prepared for every question and impossible not to be nervous, so best to just accept that, know that the interviewers expect it, and protect our foreheads!
Virginie: Like Constance, I am also not very satisfied with a couple of answers I gave. I often felt like I could have defended or justified my responses a little bit better or avoided with more ease the traps set for me by the committee members. For instance, when asked about my favourite English-speaking author, I mentioned Mary Shelley and Emily Dickinson. Still, I wished I had given a more robust response, supported by a deeper literary analysis. I also wished I had not been so stressed about the bilingual dimension of the interview. I would like to tell my past self to take it easy, to enjoy the experience, and not be so harsh on yourself!
Did you have a favourite part of the interview experience?
Constance: When I arrived for my interview, the committee was still talking to the previous candidate, so I waited for my turn alone in a conference room. I felt like I was going to throw up any second, so I wanted to distract myself. I grabbed the paper and pencil that were on the table and drew a platypus – one of my favorite animals – which turned out really cute and helped me be calm. Unfortunately, neither nausea nor platypuses came up in my interview, so I kept my drawing to myself, but I am still pretty fond of it! More seriously, the highlights of the interviews for me were getting to meet the extraordinary candidates, hearing about their work, and getting to experience a beautiful sense of camaraderie with them. That, in itself, would have made the whole experience worth it. I was also really proud to get the chance to defend the role of teaching and teachers in making the world a better place.
Virginie: One of my favourite parts of the interview experience was the opportunity the committee members gave me to defend the importance of animal protection. It allowed me to highlight the necessity of rethinking our relationship with animals, both for ethical and environmental reasons. These questions, though aimed at challenging me, made me feel grounded. They reminded me of my motivations for choosing animal protection as my primary political commitment. I also enjoyed meeting all the other finalists, who are all very impressive people. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to attend the dinner with them because of a schedule conflict, but I still feel deeply lucky and grateful for having met so many incredible people. I’m convinced they have a very bright future ahead.
The interviews are over and now the agonizing wait for that fateful phone call begins. When your phone finally rings, your heart stops as you hear the life-changing news: you are a Rhodes Scholar! After months of work, you’ve finally achieved your dream… but now what?
What happens between receiving the acceptance phone call and starting at Oxford in the fall?
Constance: Because getting the Rhodes Scholarship doesn’t guarantee you admission into any given program at Oxford, the focus at first is on applying to the course you want to pursue in your first year, and to at least one back-up course. Luckily, by virtue of having applied for the Rhodes, the bulk of that work is often already done. After that, I mostly remember a lot of introductions! Via email, videocall, chat, or face-to-face gatherings, you are introduced to the team of Rhodes Canada and of Rhodes House in Oxford, as well as to dozens of scholars across years and constituencies with whom you have something in common. In parallel, you are also meeting other people from your course and from your college once you know what these will be. All in all, if you’re bad with names, I’d purchase a notebook in preparation! After you are admitted into a course, you then need to apply for a U.K. visa and plan your move. It all leads up to the “sailing away” weekend, where – barring a pandemic – Canadian scholars meet up in Ottawa or Toronto to get to know each other better and fly out to Oxford together.
Virginie: Because of the pandemic, everything was held online, including the sailing dinner and most meetings with people with whom you share a constituency or common interests. That being said, I had the chance this fall to do some rowing on the Thames River with other college members and to go to a socially distanced welcome dinner organized for my course. I am glad I was able to have a short glimpse of what the academic and college life is like in Oxford, just before the second lockdown.
What is it like to be a Rhodes Scholar?
Virginie: I went to Rhodes House in Oxford a couple of times to study, but otherwise, all the events organized by the Rhodes Trust have been held on Zoom, like the sailing dinner. More broadly, I would say that being a Rhodes Scholar is being part of an incredibly large and caring community. I felt deeply supported by people working at Rhodes House when I arrived in Oxford and when I decided to reapply for the DPhil. I feel so lucky and grateful to have this amazing group of people in my life.
How has your first year of graduate studies gone?
Constance: Pretty much like riding Le Monstre at La Ronde: I got rattled pretty hard and spent most of the time expecting the whole thing to come crashing down on my head, but somehow it was still pretty exciting. I decided not to go to Oxford in person for health reasons and to be closer to family, so the year has been nothing like I expected. Nevertheless, I have met some wonderful peers and learned a lot from various teachers, courses and projects.
Virginie: Pretty much like a rollercoaster as well! I had an awful time in the fall, and I really struggled to see any meaning in doing my BA(Hons) in philosophy, politics, and economics. I kept having deep doubts about my academic choice and my worth. Furthermore, living in a new country, in lockdown and away from my family and friends, was definitely a challenge. However, now that I received the good news that I will be starting a DPhil in October, I feel more joyful and motivated. I can focus on philosophical issues that interest me. In fact, I am already attending graduate seminars in philosophy! I also feel like experiencing such a hard academic failure last year made me grow as a person.