Is Boise State Too Small to Produce a Rhodes Scholar?

Hola, friends. Today, a small change from the usual talk of late about saving money and such. Stephen is a high-achieving guy from Idaho who’s considering taking a shot at big-time scholarship programs like Rhodes and Fulbright. Has he got what it takes to crack the most prestigious gigs in the world?

Hey. I’ve just finished my third year at Boise State University and I have some fairly pivotal decisions ahead (and I’m hoping you can help). Before I get going I’ll give you a sketch of my academic merit: I’m a triple major in Philosophy, English (writing) and Communication (mass comm/film) with roughly a 3.9 cumulative GPA (we employ a +/- system). My GPA would likely be closer to the 3.95 mark, but I successfully ran for student body president this spring. I’ve also written for the school paper, been a national youth board member for JACL (a Japanese American civil rights group) and been nominally involved with a handful of other campus and community groups.

Very nice indeed — no lack of academic merit there, for sure.

Here’s my dilemma: several faculty and students on campus have recommended that I consider applying for a Rhodes or other prestigious national scholarship. I am interesting in doing so, but would likely be best served by waiting another year so that I could apply with more accomplishments and a higher GPA.

I can see your point, and I agree. I’ll tell you why in a second.

If I did not apply for top scholarships, then I would be able to apply for schools this fall and not take a year off (I plan on attending graduate school either way).

If you’re against taking a year off, then that’s a good point. I don’t think that, for a high achiever like yourself, it’s any big deal to take a year off it you want to — but if you’re not interested in that, then I see your point here as well.

My chances of success would be fairly low coming from a mid-level university like Boise State, or at least it seems that way to me.

You’re right — they’d be low, at least historically speaking. Boise State students have received the Rhodes Scholarship, for example, only two times — once in 1979 and once in 1981. Compare that to over 300 from Harvard, over 200 from Yale, and hundreds more from the Ivies and other top-tier schools. It’s not impossible, but the odds are definitely stacked against you. That’s not to say, of course, that you don’t have all the right stuff to be no. 3, because you very well may — just laying out the statistics for you, though.

Add to that the fact that many of the applicants from those more prestigious schools have four years of work under their belts already, and you’ve just got three. That’s gonna take the already long odds and multiply them further.

Do you think it is worth the wait to try for the best, or should I just focus on other things?

Well, I definitely think that if you’re going to apply for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, you should wait until next year. You’ll need an absolutely loaded resume for your best chance at becoming the third Boise State Bronco to crack the Rhodes list.

I haven’t seen your full resume and I also don’t know what you want to do with your life after school (I know you said grad school, but I mean after that). But if you’ve got the gumption to apply for them, then you might as well do it. If you win one of them, then obviously your options expand exponentially overnight.

And, worst-case scenario — hey, you gave it your best shot, and you’ll probably get a nice grad-school scholarship from wherever you decide to go.


You’re welcome. What about you all — what do YOU think Stephen should do? Let us know in the comments below.

33 thoughts on “Is Boise State Too Small to Produce a Rhodes Scholar?”

  1. I am currently in the process of applying for a Fulbright fellowship and I don’t have near the credentials that you listed. Also, much like you, I attend a less prestigious university than Yale or Harvard, or any Ivy League school. In fact, no student from my university has ever received a Fulbright fellowship, or Rhodes scholarship for that matter.

  2. On of my professors received a Fullbright when he attended Ohio State! Don’t limit yourself based on your perceptions, but also don’t limit the fellowships that you apply for – look at all the fellowships you can apply for and do it!

  3. You seem to have the credits to apply for the scholarships. I do’t think a 3.9 plus the other 8million activities that you have created for yourself limit your chances.

    You only have one chance to apply to the Rhodes, when you are a senior in undergrad. So if you have people telling you to go for it, then by all means go for it. HOWEVER< make sure you go talk to your campus Rhodes ad visor to see if they would even consider your application to be forwarded. If they will, then by all means apply.

    I think your stellar resume outweighs the state school.

  4. APPLY! An English student only a few miles down the road from Boise State at Northwest Nazarene University (equally not prestigious) was a Rhodes scholar only a few years ago.

    If anything, your experience at a middle-of-nowhere school differentiates you from the more “typical” applicant. I also know a head of a larger national bank who rose through the ranks predominantly because he had a unique background and experience and came from a rural area. Good luck! Worst case scenario, you go ahead with your alternative plans.

  5. umer chaudhry

    apply for sure..opportunities are limitless…they might like ur essay..or something on ur resume etc..its a lottery..might as well try now..rather then to regret later

  6. I go to The College of Idaho just down the road, and was also student body president with a 3.99 GPA, among other accomplishments. I was also encouraged to apply for these scholarships but ultimately I ran out of time while acting as president, applying for law school, and doing everything else. I wasn’t really passionate about applying for these scholarships and didn’t prioritize my time to do so. If you really want to, though, why not? The College of Idaho’s student body president for next year is applying, and a student from our school won it just three years ago. If you have what it takes and the time and passion to do it, you should.

  7. You really should apply. If you get denied, you’ll only learn what you can do to improve your chances. Don’t look at your circumstances to weigh your chances, (as cheesy as it sounds) look at your achievements and intellect and it seems that you have it.


  8. If you never take the chance, you’ll never know. Just the process if an incredible experience and will help with graduate school applications as well. I’m also from a small small school, in New York, and never thought I’d be able to be a good competitor in national scholarships, but I applied and it was really successful! I now have a great scholarship and internship!! DO IT!!!

  9. I’d go if I were you. The size of the school or the recognition of a school does not matter. What matters is that you gain a education from that school. Just because there little unrecognized school does not mean they do not offer a education. The most valuable education I have recieved came from unrecognized people on Earth.

  10. My question, perhaps for Judge Josh, is WHY students from elitist schools have an easier time landing fellowships than your Boise State, Memphis, or Indiana University of Pennsylvania -types. Assuming fellowship applicants are identical on all counts except for the “pedigree” of their school, a) How much of an edge is attributable to the elite students’ presumed track record that led to his attending such a prestigious institution (i.e., “Jack Harvard is there for a reason, and although his credentials are identical to Joe Memphis, Jack MUST have worked very hard to get there… he deserves the fellowship over Joe”)? b) How much is attributable to reviewers deciding the elite students should get the awards because they are set up better in terms of resources and faculty (i.e., “Although Jane Boise is very deserving, Jill Princeton deserves this money because she’s at an institution that can help her do top-quality work, thus ultimately resulting in higher chances of a better product.”)? and c) How much of an all-else-equal award decision is attributable to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby reviewers are simply wooed by a sexy university pedigree (i.e., “Holy crap, this applicant is from Yale. We gotta let this one through to the next round”; or in the case that the application is read, but is not as excellent as expected: “Wow, this applicant seems all over the place, but she’s from Yale… We gotta take another look at this application to make sure we’re not missing the brilliance here.”)? Thanks for your feedback.

  11. I’m somewhere between Josh and the rest of you on this one and here’s why. About 7 or 8 years ago I was working at a fairly prestigious think tank as a mid-level researcher/project manager. Every summer we’d be swamped with a cadre of bright, eager young interns from all the prestigious schools (Yale, Harvard, Princeton, etc.). One summer, I had an intern from Yale working for me. She was applying for a Rhodes scholarship and at the end of the summer she asked me for a recommendation. The thing was, this particular intern wasn’t all that bright (in my opinion). I had to explain the (very simple) research tasks I wanted her to complete multiple times and in the end I ended up doing all the work over again anyway. I wasn’t giving her impossible tasks. In fact, I’ve worked with some fantastic interns from lesser known schools who could do all that she was unable to do and more, even with my constant (and reluctant) micro-managing.

    I told her that I didn’t think I was the right person to write a recommendation for her, but she insisted (lesson to all you folks looking for recommendations from profs, internship supervisors, etc: it’s a VERY BAD sign when your potential recommender tells you he/she isn’t the right person to write a letter). I wrote a very bland, generic letter that didn’t exactly say she was a bad candidate but also didn’t speak glowingly of her skills.

    Needless to say, she did not get the scholarship. I understand that she had a very high GPA and lots of extracurricular activities on her resume. I think, however, that she lacked the maturity, vision, and singularity of purpose to really stand out as someone who was worthy of such a prestigious scholarship.

    My point is that I don’t think that what distinguishes a Rhodes scholar from anyone else is where they went to school, their GPA, or how many clubs they belong to on campus. Although I don’t have any first-hand knowledge on this (I’m not a judge on the committee), I think what probably matters most is whether you’ve done something truly extraordinary that few have done before and whether you have the maturity and vision to become someone spectacular in whatever you choose to do in your life. In other words, you really need to be focused on a goal, vision, and some sort of change you wish to see in the world that’s more than “I want world peace and sustainable development.” If you think you’ve got the vision and credentials/experience to back it up, then definitely go for it. Whatever you do, make sure you have some knock-out recommendations from people who are known in your field… the type of recommendations that say, “I’ve never worked with/taught such a talented young person before. He will absolutely make major contributions to this field.”

    Just my 2 cents…


  12. These questions are directed towards anyone: If I apply for a Fulbright fellowship this year and in the end I don’t receive the award, can I submit a revised application the following year(s)? Also, it appears to me that an English Teaching Assistance award would be, for lack of a better word, easier (I mean in terms of submitting an application) than having to create a research proposal to carry out independent research. Maybe it depends on the theoretical and methodological demands of the student’s academic discipline, I’m not sure?

  13. I’m keeping it short and simple:

    You loose absolutely nothing but some time by applying. You NEVER know. And at worst, you can apply next year too 😀

  14. You definitely have the credentials to impress the Fulbright and/or Rhodes scholarship boards. Do not let your school standing in prestige discourage you. Ultimately, it is about who is best qualified, not the school.

  15. Quoting how many people from a particular school got a Fulbright or Rhoades scholarship is misleading. You also have to consider how many people APPLY for those scholarships at the school. I would not be at all surprised if only a handful of students at Boise State have ever applied for a Rhoades, so it doesn’t surprise me that only two have received it. The fact of the matter is that TWO have received it! That means it is not impossible. I really don’t understand what you would gain by not applying, or what you would lose by applying.

  16. I attend an extremely small liberal arts school (400 people) that no one has ever heard of. This year we sent two students (granted, seniors) off with Fulbrights. Don’t let the fact that you’re not at an Ivy keep you from applying. You can always reapply.

  17. I think you ought to apply for this when you are a senior. It is fairly obvious that your grades and activities are numerous and have significantly contributed. Boise State, as a school, is becoming more “popular” because of the success of its football program. One of the schools I graduated from, Florida State, has an enormously successful football program and has used the money made from football to reinvest in garnering students these prestigious scholarships. Florida State has graduated 3 Rhodes Scholars in the last five years. Maybe a student such as yourself would get Boise State to start a program that will aid students in gaining these prestigious scholarships.

  18. ogunyemi olusola ifeoluwa

    u can try it out,since u will attain knowledge there and knowledge they say is power.please no knowledge is wasted.u can go for it

  19. Yes, mdmann. I agree with you that it’s misleading to quote the number of people winning fellowships from such-and-such school as evidence of the chances for other people at that school to land a fellowship, and for the very reason you suggest (i.e., the base-rate fallacy). However, based on the fact that Josh (a scholarship judge) is fairly convinced students from elite schools have an edge, I’m interested in getting to the bottom of why that might be. Of course we all assume Yalies are going to have better credentials than state school kids, but as many have noted on this issue, this is not necessarily the case. Well, assuming James Yale and Joe State are identical in everything except for school pedigree, why might James still hold the edge? And assuming he does, are there valid reasons for this, or is it because the judges are simply “wooed” by the namesake of sexy schools just like the rest of us?

  20. Hi Gordy. I would be interested in knowing those things, too, but I would say that we must first firmly establish that Josh is correct in his belief that students from “high-end” schools have an edge that can be supported by facts. If Josh regularly judges Fulbright and Rhoades scholarship applications (which I somewhat doubt, but could be wrong), and is frequently finding that candidates he and others thought were deserving are being passed over, that would be some bit of justification. But he provides no such justification. If it turns out that students of “lesser credentialed” schools get awarded these scholarships at close to the same rate as but in much smaller numbers than those of Yale, Harvard, etc., then there isn’t an issue to pursue, other than trying to understand why the students of these other schools don’t apply as frequently.

  21. lincoln wachira

    i am currently a student at the Strathmore University taking accounting and would want to go ahead and apply for the scholarship.

  22. Judge Josh, I like that you provided stats to help with the fact finding aspect of this argument. Would you be able to tell us any of the schools for which you have judged the applications? Or maybe the types of scholarships you might typically judge? I read everything you supplied when I originally joined your site. But credibility often grows with more information to give balance and insight.

    To all of you others, I am liking that you have the presence of mind to actually sort through the stats to question more than just the weight of the stats. It becomes as if you are watching each others back to supply questions that (even if we thought of) we may have neglected to ask. Sometimes, each of us just needs a push from others in support of the goal. For each of us that does well, I think that we all feel a bit better knowing we shared a bit of the process here.

    Some days ago, I was astounded at the amount of griping I read about minorities. I really believe that we gain more from this kind of approach where we are challenging possible misconceptions as to what the chances of success according to (once again) being a minority of a sort!

    I think that Stephen, your chances of success are much higher if you apply than if you miss the opportunity to know by merely wondering out loud. I find the process of applying quite enjoyable –it has become a mindset for me. For every letter of acceptance I have received, I have grown a bit stronger in my own confidence as to what I can do with the effort I put forth. With some of the ones I have missed, it is rare that I wonder if I wasted my time by applying in the first place. I wrote a few essays that I wouldn’t have written otherwise and will keep them to use for some other purpose. Sometimes, I surprised myself by the reactions people had to some of the things I wrote in my applications.

    Maybe your own writing is so polished that you no longer need that kind of practice. You could spend a lot of years wondering what might have happened if you don’t at least submit your application.

    May I be one of the many to applaud your achievements thus far?! Good luck!

  23. MM, that was an excellent reminder for me of my own experience. I had an advisor who refused to give me a reference letter, because she felt that the weight of her title would not carry as well as the weight of some of the others I might ask. I was frustrated for a brief moment and felt betrayed. But I took her advice and began to ask a range of various people for recommendations.

    I wanted to know who I could count on for letters and how much time to allow, etc. Some of my instructors were extremely flexible in the information they supplied. They asked me questions. Some had me write the letters and then altered the end result to suit their particular temperament or to add something, I had not included… That kind of thing.

    My program director gives me a sealed letter and I have never read it. She does not include some of the things I would want mentioned (as far as I can tell) because she will only include things she has personally witnessed. That means if I only tell her about things I am doing outside of school, she will not include anything to verify extra-curricular involvement (such as my volunteer fire dept. activities. To her credit, she always has the letter ready within an hour of my request. Some of my instructors appear to disappear off the face of the earth and keep me waiting until the last minute, because they procrastinate as badly as the students; but they are happy to include things I might not have remembered as being significant.

    One instructor wrote out what he wanted said and then I had to actually type it for his signature. He made me cry with the sentiment he had expressed over his estimate of my efforts. I was so touched. He told me that his normal references are not nearly so enthusiastic and asked that I never share that information with my other classmates. He is more difficult for me to stay in touch with. He does not use the internet and for part of the year he does not teach. Most of my instructors have careers in other cities and are available to the school for only segments of the year. I would have to confirm that he will be available to help me because he is trying to retire and likes to travel.

    If my advisor had not pushed me to look further, I would probably have missed asking this man.

  24. Apply, apply, apply! You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

    Yes, the Ivies always do well. But every year, there are large numbers of Rhodes awarded to students from smaller schools or schools that have never had a Rhodes before (let alone one or two).

  25. By the way, as far as the Rhodes is concerned, they want a reference from someone who knows you well. Not a reference from some bigshot who’s met you once or twice in his/her life.

  26. I’ve never applied for a Rhodes myself, having never gotten the chance, so far be it from me to judge Stephen’s decision to apply/not apply.

    What I can say is that while getting in isn’t a “sure thing”, based on my own alma mater’s track record, it hurts more _not_ to give it the good ol’ college try than the other way around. For example, one of our alumni (class of ’04, I think) got a scholarship and went on to Harvard…another ran for Congress in West Virginia. There are so many stories like this that the Poli Sci department has a bulletin board set up in their building just to advertise these facts. Keep in mind the school I went to wasn’t an Ivy…not by a long shot. I’ve known people who’ve gone to good (and by good I mean prestigious) schools and never applied for scholarships such as the Rhodes, much less gotten in.

    I say take the plunge and see what happens. It’s all a big leap of faith, but then again much in life is.

  27. To be honest I don’t know that much about Fulbright Scholarships, however, I have done a little more research on the Rhodes Scholarship Program, and I know that for the Rhodes scholarship they ask you to be physically active. For instance, participating in a sport or intramural activity, using the best of your physical abilities. If you haven’t done any sort of physical activity, I would recommend not wasting your time.

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