National Association of Fellowships Advisors

The NAFA Newsletter

March 2002      ( NAFA Home)

Unofficial Notes on the Gates Cambridge Scholarships
The Art of Advising
Portland Regional Workshop
NSEP Grants
NAFA United Kingdom Tour 2002 Update

Unofficial Notes on the Gates Cambridge Scholarship
     The Gates Cambridge Scholarship is a recent example of a longstanding tradition: the world’s richest man endows a scholarship at one of the world’s oldest universities. Inevitably, similarities between the benefactors and rivalries between the universities have resulted in comparisons between the Gates Cambridge Scholarships and the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford. No doubt more than one fellowship advisor has in desperation described the Gates to potential applicants as “like the Rhodes but at Cambridge.” While this contains a grain of truth, the scholarships are really very different.
     These “unofficial notes” attempt to identify the salient features of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship .They are based in part on presentations by Gordon Johnson, President of the Gates Cambridge Trust, to the NAFA conference in Tulsa and to a group of fellowship advisors in Boston. The Boston presentation was part of a tour to promote a better understanding of Cambridge and the scholarship. These notes reflect my interpretation of Johnson’s comments as well as my own comparison between the Gates and the Rhodes and suggested advice to students.

Gates Cambridge Scholars

     The Gates Cambridge Scholarship has two distinctive features: 1) it is tenable only at Cambridge, and 2) the substantive decision on the award is made by the University. Students apply for admission to Cambridge by the normal route and the Gates Cambridge Trust only considers the award of a scholarship if they are admitted. The Trust does not give access to Cambridge on its own (unlike the Rhodes or Marshall Scholarships, which arrange admission for students after they have been selected as scholars). Students should first decide if they want to go to Cambridge for graduate study, and then consider the Gates Cambridge Scholarship as a means to go there if they get in. 
     Gates Cambridge Scholars are expected to be outstanding scholars who have leadership potential and a commitment to serve their communities. These criteria are interpreted broadly. A letter from the Trust to fellowship advisors elaborates that scholarly achievement and potential should be “coupled with a commitment to use the benefits of higher education for the common good.” Applicants should also have a sound academic reason for wanting to study at Cambridge, and be realistic about whether they are prepared to begin a specialized graduate course. 
     Students from any country outside the UK are eligible for Gates Cambridge Scholarships. Applicants should normally be under 30 years old. About 150 awards are made annually, with one-third from the US (about 40-50 per year). In its first year, about 150 Gates Scholars came from 48 countries, and were selected from over 2300 applications worldwide. In future years, the number of applications is expected to be much higher as the application process becomes better known. Since the University plays an important role in the wider world, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship attempts to make access to Cambridge as open and wide as possible. 
     In several presentations, Gordon Johnson has said that the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is for people who have a very good academic reason for graduate study at Cambridge in something that Cambridge is good at. They are looking for intellectually curious students with a very strong scholarly record. Potential Gates Scholars should be deadly serious about study, though not necessarily in order to be an academic. They are also looking for scholars who are emotionally mature, intellectually robust, and possess a willingness to take risks, to argue, to challenge, and to reflect on the wider implications of their subject. 
     In addition, Cambridge has a tradition of finding quirky and unusual students who turn out to make a contribution. They are not looking necessarily for those who have done the best so far. According to Johnson, they are looking for a few “Bolshy-types” who have cut against the grain because they may be the most creative and original. This is often demonstrated in a willingness to take risks. In this time and at this place, how well have they taken risks? How successfully have they used the opportunities available to them so far? They do not necessarily want people with conventional polish. They do want people who will go into all walks of life. 
     Gates Scholars are likely to gain privilege as result of taking a course of study. Thus, they are also looking for people who recognize that with privilege comes responsibility and a duty to the wider community. 
Johnson remarked that, unlike some other schemes, the Gates Cambridge Trust is not going to do a lot for the scholars by getting them together for parties. The Gates Cambridge program will support them in what they want to do, and may provide additional funds for academic activities. The Scholars will be thoroughly embedded in the life of their College and Department, and they are encouraged to pursue cultural activities such as music or theatre that will include others as well as themselves. They are looking for people who will make a difference to Cambridge and to the community at large. This is the sense in which the Gates Scholars will be leaders—to make a difference in the world. 
The Un-Rhodes
     The personal qualities of Gates Scholars broadly resemble those sought by other scholarships. Yet the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is not modeled in cookie-cutter fashion on them. On the contrary, the Gates partly defines itself in contrast to the Rhodes. The students selected might be distinct opposites. Gates Scholars do not need to be athletes or to meet a list of specific criteria. Students should apply for the Gates Scholarships based on their academic potential for a graduate program at Cambridge. 
     The active encouragement of quirky and unusual Bolshy-types without conventional polish is somewhat unusual. These qualities reflect something of the self-image of Cambridge and perhaps even of Bill Gates. To be sure, students with conventional polish who are applying for other fellowships also may apply for the Gates. The important point is that many students who may not have applied for the Rhodes (for whatever reason) might be excellent candidates for the Gates if graduate study at Cambridge is right for them. 
     I would suggest that potential applicants ask themselves, “Do I have a very strong academic record and a very good academic reason to study at Cambridge?” If the answer is yes, they should apply to Cambridge and for the Gates. This is a fundamentally different from asking, “Am I a potential Rhodes Scholar?” and only then “Is there anything I want to study at Oxford?” While that thought process would surely be anathema to NAFA members, this is, if truth be told, the sequence followed by many applicants for prestigious fellowships. For the Gates, ask not “do I meet the criteria,” but rather “is this the right graduate program for me?” 
     Clearly, someone who has decided to apply for graduate study at Cambridge with a Marshall Scholarship or Fulbright Scholarship should also apply for admission to Cambridge and for the Gates Scholarship. It is less clear that there necessarily will be extensive overlap with applications for a Rhodes Scholarship. The issue should not be how to apply for as many fellowships as possible, but rather how to apply for those fellowships that make sense for your educational plans and personal priorities. 
     Students would be poorly advised to substitute Cambridge for Oxford in a recycled Rhodes scholarship essay. The choice is not so much between Cambridge or Oxford, as it is also, simultaneously, between either of these schools and Chicago or Calcutta, Harvard or Heidelberg, MIT or Michigan, Paris or Princeton, Toronto or Texas, and so on .Forty years ago, Cambridge was happy to take its own undergraduates as graduate students, but this has changed. Today, Cambridge sees the market for graduate students as international, and has shrewdly used the Gates benefaction to attract some of the world’s best students to Cambridge. Potential graduate students would do well to see the market for graduate schools in the same terms, and to look well beyond the ancient British universities. 

Find out about Cambridge

     Since Gates Scholars are admitted to Cambridge through the regular route and need to show a very good academic reason for coming, the best advice to potential applicants is to find out about Cambridge and find out if it is the right place for what they want to do. How? The Gates Cambridge Scholarship website, the Graduate Study Prospectus, the CUSU Alternative Prospectus (primarily for undergraduates) and the Graduate Union Alternative Prospectus all offer good sources of information. 
     The Gates Cambridge Trust wants people to apply for positive reasons. As Johnson remarked, “There are lots of poor courses at Cambridge;” and not all of them are right for everyone. Cambridge is pretty good, but do not be dazzled by reputation or propaganda that something old must be good. Look at the new Cambridge, not old buildings or the river. Applicants need to have a very strong academic reason to go to Cambridge. They also need to be realistic about themselves and Cambridge. Is it right for you? Are you really qualified to undertake the course on offer? 
     The Gates Cambridge Scholarships are aimed at graduate students. Most graduate students pursue masters programs, usually one-year MPhil degrees, with research students working toward a PhD. A common scenario is for someone to do an MPhil and then stay to do a PhD. In some programs you are required to do the MPhil before enrolling for the PhD. Gates Scholarships may be used for one to four years. 
     For a PhD, the important question is can this work be done in Cambridge? Will there be resources there to do the work? In the sciences, this question is easier to answer, since a student needs to be going to a group that has resources. It is helpful to approach faculty at Cambridge if you plan a PhD program, and preliminary inquiries are welcome. The Graduate Study Prospectus provides contact information for each department. 
     While the focus in Cambridge once had been on undergraduates, in the last forty years the emphasis has shifted to research and graduate study. Graduate programs are the most vigorous and expanding part of the university. The undergraduate program is stable and is still very good, but it has not grown in the same way. The first group of Gates Cambridge Scholars included only a very small number of “affiliated students” who planned to study for a second BA. 
     In the distant past, the second BA was popular for American liberal arts graduates. In recent years, the number of Americans doing that has declined significantly. For the second BA, applicants apply directly to a College, and they should demonstrate that they have made a critical appraisal of what is going on in Cambridge. For example, the English BA course is not like others elsewhere. What is it about that course that would make it appropriate for a particular applicant? 
     Among the Cambridge colleges, there are vast differences in wealth, ranging from Trinity, which is wealthier than many universities, to Wolfson, which is modestly endowed. The colleges are gradually being forced to be more open and comprehensible to the outside world. For example, the Graduate Study Prospectus includes information on amounts charged for rent by each college. Since they are listed by week, quarter, or term, they are difficult to compare. Graduates often live off campus, but rents are very expensive in Cambridge so it may be advantageous to live on campus at least in the first year. 
     The teaching at Cambridge and other universities in the UK is less structured than teaching in the US. At Cambridge, students enjoy benign neglect, and will not be closely monitored the way they are in the US. In History, for example, students write a weekly essay without being given a detailed list of reading assignments. Masters courses include a sustained piece of writing based on research that should exhibit originality, creativity and the ability to deal with difficult intellectual problems. There is often lots of time with just you and your subject. This can be a culture shock for some students. The Marshall Scholarship website and NAFA Newsletter provide more information on the UK educational system. 


     Students apply simultaneously to Cambridge and to the Gates Cambridge Trust. The application deadlines and procedures are different for applications to a graduate program or to do a second BA. The deadlines are also different for different parts of the world. Check the Gates Cambridge Scholarship website for the official application deadlines. 
     For admission to Masters and PhD programs, the decision on admission is made by departments and academic programs. Applicants may indicate a preference for a college but there is no guarantee that they will be assigned there. Applicants for graduate programs are also allowed to put down no college at all. In educational terms, the experience is the same no matter the college; but there are huge differences in social life and facilities. Many applicants indicate Trinity, St. John’s or King’s as their preferences; it is worth looking beyond these, especially to the graduate-only colleges. 
     For admission to a second BA, students apply to a specific college and the decision on admission is made by the college itself. Undergraduate instruction takes place primarily within the college, and applicants need to look at the profile of each. If a college says it does not accept “affiliated students,” do not apply there for a second BA. The application for admission for the BA is usually earlier than the deadline for graduate programs. 
     All students in higher education in the US are in the same applicant pool. International students in the US apply according to the US deadlines. Although there are not quotas by country, there is a bias towards the US because of the nature of the benefaction. The distribution by nationality and by subject tends to mirror the distribution of the graduate student body as a whole. 
     Application forms should be available for download on the web. All application materials are combined into one file in Cambridge and are reviewed together at the department or college level as well as by the Gates Cambridge Trust. The Gates application requires a 500-word essay, and all the usual advice about personal statements for graduate schools or fellowship applications applies to this essay. 
     Three letters of recommendation are required, two letters with the university admission form and one with the Gates application. The two letters for admission must be from people who have taught the student and are able to speak about academic ability. They should be honest and speak to weaknesses as well as strengths. An over-written reference without substance does not impress. Since it is often difficult for people at Cambridge to interpret academic transcripts from the US, letters of recommendation that put a student’s program into context are helpful. Did a student take a mishmash of courses versus someone who has mastered languages and taken math beyond the elementary level? 
     The third letter of reference for the Gates application should be a more personal reference. It would be a waste to use a high-powered academic reference for this letter. Although the Gates application does not have a section for an institutional endorsement, this letter is the place where the institutional perspective can come through. So long as the person writing this letter knows the student well, the letter might serve a purpose similar to that which is obtained through an institutional letter for other fellowships. In addition, anything in a letter of recommendation to signal that a particular student is different, unusual, or has taken risks is also considered helpful. 
     The Gates Trust emphatically does not want institutional competitions that result in only one or two nominations from that university. They want as wide a range of applications as possible, and they would like to encourage applications from beyond the elite group of schools. However, they do not want inappropriate applicants.  Students need to be realistic about whether they are prepared for the academic program they propose. 
     Once again, the Gates Cambridge Scholarship is for people who have a very good reason for graduate study at Cambridge in something that Cambridge is good at. The last part bears emphasis: it helps if the proposed subject of study is one for which Cambridge is well-known, not just internationally, but also well-respected within Cambridge. After departments have reviewed and admitted a student, the Gates Cambridge Trust reviews applications to invite candidates for interviews. This is where the relative standing of the program to which they have applied may become relevant. It is easier to believe that a student has a good academic reason for coming to Cambridge if the program to which they have applied is recognized at Cambridge as a good one.

Interviews and Awards

     The Gates Cambridge interviews focus on the 500-word statement written by the student and the issues related to their proposed field of study. It is really helpful if they can respond to difficult questions, even if kindly put. Invariably, they ask the usual questions: What areas of work are going to interest you? Can you relate the education you have had so far to that which you plan to undertake? The answer to that question is very revealing. Some are lucid; others flounder. The interviews will demonstrate whether this person will make use of Cambridge and make a contribution during their career. 
     The Scholars selected in the first year shared this characteristic in their interviews: they all spoke in lively terms about their academic interests. Assume that interviewers will ask penetrating questions: Why do you like your subject? Where is it leading to? What excites you about your subject? Why would Cambridge be a good place to do this? You are a privileged person with a lot of education–What will you do with this education? After getting the usual social conscience answers, then they will probe deeper.
     The candidates themselves set the limits of discussion. For example, Johnson mentioned a (possibly hypothetical) candidate who wanted to do Vietnamese history at Cambridge, a subject that Cambridge is not known for. She also used anthropological jargon in her essay. However, she had been in touch with someone working on Malaysia at Cambridge using a similar theoretical approach, and she was able to say what she liked about his work. She was pressed hard in the interview but did not concede an inch and defended her ground. This made her appear an excellent student who could hold her own in debate. She set the boundaries for discussion by saying what she wanted to study and why.
     They are looking for people who are robust enough to take advantage of going abroad and doing work. However, Johnson also said that interviews can be very misleading, and they are not admitting people only because they can do interviews well.
     Three interview panels run concurrently in the fields of science/technology, social sciences, and humanities. Each interview lasts about 25 minutes. There is a mixture of panelists: about six people from Cambridge and six people from the US. In the first year, they used people experienced in the Marshall/Rhodes interviews and others familiar with similar interview formats. 
     The Gates Cambridge Trust does not have a set calendar for notification. Once the scholar has been notified officially, then they and their institution may announce it. No official announcement of the list of scholars as a whole occurs until October, when matriculation takes place. Interviews on the model used in the US also take place in other parts of the world, which results in a delay in making the announcement of the worldwide list of scholars. The awards are full funded with a maintenance allowance and an amount for discretionary expenses. Additional resources are available for going to conferences, research expenses and so forth. 

Cambridge, America and the World

     The Gates Cambridge Trust wants to build up better understanding of Cambridge in the United States (and in other parts of the world), and to encourage Cambridge colleagues to get to know American colleagues better. In the future, it is possible that Cambridge alumni in the US may start looking for good graduate students here. Cambridge alumni on your faculty or in your area could be a good resource for finding out more about Cambridge.

Good luck to all!

Peter H. Hansen, Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The Art of Advising

How many times in our professional lives have we competed against thousands of our peers around the country for an award, prize, or scholarship that is only given to a highly select few?We know that such competitions demand an enormous sacrifice that will demand a psychological if not physical toll.Trying to “win” inevitably means that we are setting ourselves up to “lose” and along with that, we are putting ourselves on the line.As fellowship advisors, we can use these experiences of our own as the basis for helping our students through the rigors of the scholarship preparation process.We must keep in mind that they are putting themselves on the line each and every time they apply for a scholarship, and in the process, are willing to take the risk of not achieving their desired outcome.Unlike us, however, these students are entering the process at a time in their lives when they are perhaps most vulnerable to feedback about who they are as intellectual, social, and emotional creatures.I feel tremendous respect for the brave undergraduates who are willing to subject themselves to the judgment of a scholarship selection committee.

As we also know from our own experiences, the application process can be a tremendous learning opportunity, a point that has been stressed on numerous occasions by speakers at NAFA conferences.For our students, the fact that the application process may span much of their undergraduate career means that the learning goes on at a time when they are undergoing the developmental process of shaping their identities.We may first meet these students in their first or second semester, and work with them until they graduate.It is fascinating to see the emergence of their sense of self during this time, and to me, it is exciting to be a part of the shaping process.It is true that others play a role in the advising process as well!However, in our role as fellowship advisors, we have the unique opportunity to work with the student in a way that integrates many facets of the student’s developing identity. As such, we are helping our students prepare for a scholarship application but more importantly, we are helping them gain a sense of who they are and where they will be going with their lives.

Our job in working with students through this developmental process has a number of additional features that are unique to our roles.On the one hand, we have the somewhat selfish motive of trying to help them win a scholarship.This is an obvious fact, but one worth mentioning.Like an athletic coach, we have a mandate to win scholarships, if not games, on behalf of our institution.On the other hand, we have the more altruistic motive of helping these students achieve their goals.In this role, we take on the qualities of a counselor or, potentially, “quasi-therapist”.And on the third hand (there are at least three!), we have our own personal desires to achieve success in our work, and in this work, one measure of success is the number of scholarships our students win in any given year. 

Our motives as scholarship advisors often are complementary, but they are also often potentially in conflict.The most difficult situations occurs when students make decisions that are good for their personal development but which take them out of the running as scholarship applicants. Consider the first-year student who enters our office full of boundless enthusiasm, fresh out of a set of fantastic high school experiences.Obviously, we are excited by the prospect of working with this student.However, what happens a year later when the student is moving in directions that you know will lead away from a successful scholarship pursuit? One of my students first approached me during her second semester at the University.She was involved in a varsity sports team, had started work with a faculty member on reviving a club within her major that had gone defunct, and was itching to go to Oxford.Some of my more enjoyable afternoons that semester were spent with her in plans for the future as well as some lively debates on issues close to her heart.As her sophomore year went on, I could see her making decisions that were leading her further and further away from Oxford, if not from becoming a viable Rhodes candidate.The path she eventually chose was one that was rewarding to her but not necessarily the one I had envisioned.

Another conflict in our roles as scholarship advisors and coaches is when one of our students fails to make the cut in the campus committee’s endorsement.I had a student who poured her heart into her application for nearly a year.It seemed as though she would stand up well to the competition, but when crunch time came, she failed to make a convincing case to the committee.Fortunately, our students can be quite resilient; in her case, she moved on to another scholarship application and tackled it with verve and enthusiasm.

Yet a third situation might involve a student who we know has great potential, has made the right decisions, but starts to self-destruct as the application time draws nearer.This student starts to miss deadlines and appointments, and eventually drops out of the running.In a case like this, I had a student who, for reasons I will never understand, “forgot” (and then later refused) an appointment to review the feedback from my carefully arranged campus mock interview.Studying for an upcoming midterm proved to be a more compelling way to spend the afternoon rather than revisiting his answers to his interview questions.I knew he was shooting himself in the foot, but all I could do was stand back and let it happen.As much as we would like to give this student a good push from behind, we know that ultimately, the push has to come from inside.

This last point is one that I have come to appreciate more and more in my work as fellowship advisor.Although I somewhat jokingly referred above to the quasi-therapist role we have, it is not that far-fetched to think of ourselves as having this function in the lives of our students.We cannot force them to become involved in leadership activities or service roles that we believe will help them.We cannot write their applications for them.We cannot go to their interviews.We cannot even drag them physically back into our offices when feedback time comes. The developmental process that we are hoping to nurture requires that the choice of direction emerge from within the student.As frustrating as this may be, we have to sit back and watch decisions as they unfold through natural evolution within the student’s life.This does not mean that we need be completely passive.When students wish to have answers to their questions, they will ask.I think that the better students are the ones who ask the most questions, but even then, we should not expect them blindly to follow our advice.If there is an “art” to advising (and I am definitely still learning it!), it is that we are the advisors and they are the applicants.They are the ones who will enter the fray of competition, and ultimately their identities are on the line. 

Fortunately, the chances we have to intervene in a positive sense tend to outnumber the situations that test our own identities as advisors.How rewarding it is to work with a student for two or three years, from those first trembling freshman moments to the secure confidence of the accomplished senior scholar and leader!To know that we were part of that process is usually enough to keep us going through the rougher times when our interventions take on a more frustrating quality.Ultimately, we know that although winning is fun (and satisfies at least two of our motives), there are many ways to define success.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

Professor of Psychology and Coordinator, Office of National Scholarship Advisement

University of Massachusetts Amherst

Portland Regional Workshop

We invite you to join us at a regional workshop hosted by Willamette University and the National Association of Fellowships Advisors (NAFA), June 28 & 29 in Portland, Oregon.  Workshop sessions will focus on identifying, recruiting and preparing applicants for prestigious scholarships such as the Rhodes, Truman and Udall, and on the “nuts and bolts” of scholarships advising—personal statements, letters of recommendation, and interviews.  An evening “round table” session will provide opportunities to chat informally with foundation representatives.  Through exchanging materials, information and strategies, we hope to support and encourage each other, both new and veteran advisors. 

Space will be limited to seventy-five participants, so we encourage you to register soon.  Members of NAFA will receive a conference discount (for more information on NAFA and membership benefits, see 

Registration materials are available at in PDF format (unfortunately, we're not high-tech enough for email registration; you'll have to print and mail it the old-fashioned way).

Hope to see you in Portland in June!

NSEP Grants

The National Security Education Program (NSEP) announces release of the 2002 Solicitation Application for Grants to Institutions of Higher Education (available at or by
requesting a printed copy through the contact below).  Proposals should focus on projects that support the study of less-commonly studied regions, languages, and cultures in the context of fields of study critical to U.S. national security (up to 4 years and $450,000).  Preliminary proposals are
due April 8, 2002.  New for this year is a request for research proposals in the field of International Education with the same focus as the projects (up to 2 years and $75,000).

Contact Information:
Kevin J. Gormley
Director of Institutional Grants
National Security Education Program
(703) 696-1991

NAFA United Kingdom Tour 2002

     Hi everyone! All systems are “go!” for the NAFA pilot trip to the United Kingdom. Thirty of us, along with some friends and family, will leave on Saturday, May 25 for London. The first week of the tour focuses on in-depth conversations with the British Council, on meetings with university administrators and faculty in London, Cambridge, and Oxford, and on interviews with US students studying in the United Kingdom. Special meetings with representatives from the Rhodes, Marshall, Gates, and Fulbright foundations are being sought as well.
     Those members of our tour who are continuing for the second week will be heading north to Lincoln, York, Edinburgh, and St. Andrews. We will meet with the British Council/Scotland as well as with university officials and US students attending schools in various northern England and Scottish cities. The NAFA committee members (Suzanne McCray, Mary Tolar, Ann Brown, and Betsy Vardaman), in concert with the British Council, are working to provide an extraordinary opportunity. We will 1) meet experts at both the local and the national level of higher education who will help us better serve our own students, (2) hear from American students who are studying in the United Kingdom, (3) obtain a clear sense of the differences among the schools (English vs. Scottish; Oxbridge vs. non-Oxbridge; classical university vs. “new” university), (4) visit and experience key strengths at various British universities, and (5) garner invaluable resources for being able to help our students discriminate among British colleges and universities when they prepare bids for future scholarship competitions. The trip concludes on Friday, June 7, 2002.
     (The program is still being confirmed with universities. The plan stated above must always be viewed with the understanding that some aspects are subject to change.)