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The Secret Your Neighborhood Rhodes Scholar Doesn’t Want You To Know

The Rhodes Scholar FactorThe Secret

Here’s a non-controversial statement: Rhodes Scholars are pretty damn impressive. Take, for example, Benjamin. I drew his name at random from the 2008 winners of the scholarship. According to the official press release:

Benjamin…is a senior at Yale majoring in philosophy and political science. Elected as a junior to Phi Beta Kappa and winner of Yale’s Lyman Prize, he won the North American Parliamentary Debate Championship as well as academic prizes in English, humanities, writing and public health. He has a number of published articles in legal and medical publications, and interned in the Newark Mayor’s office.

Clearly, when you have a bio like this you can more or less write your own ticket after graduation. But how does this help us mere mortals who don’t expect, any time soon, to pull a North American Parliamentary Debate Championship out of our respective asses?

I’ll let you in on a secret. Having worked extensively with Rhodes Scholars for my various writing projects, I’ve noticed: there is a crucial lesson hidden behind their kick-in-the-groin, neck-snapping resumes — a lesson that can help any of us get a leg-up in the post-graduation scramble.

Allow me to elaborate…

The Law of Complementary Accomplishments

Imagine, for a moment, that we can label every line item on your student resume with two scores: impressiveness and effort. The former captures how impressive it is to the average observer and the latter captures how much sweat you invested to get it.

Many Rhodes Scholars take advantage of the following law:

Once you accomplish something of a non-trivial impressiveness and effort score, you can achieve many complementary accomplishments that have similar impressiveness scores but require very little additional effort.

Consider Benjamin, our sample Rhodes Scholar from above. He did something very impressive and that required a lot of effort: being a top student in his class. But that generated for him, with little additional work, many of the complimentary accomplishments which makes his bio seem so full; e.g., Lyman Award, Phi Beta Kappa, “numerous academic prizes in English, humanities, [and] writing.” These were a consequence of being a great student; not separate endeavors requiring comparable amounts of separate work.

How Juice Up Your Own Student Bio

How do you take advantage of the law of complementary accomplishments in your own student life? Consider your resume. If most of the major items on it required a lot of independent effort, then you are probably wasting time. Consider, instead, focusing on just one thing. Push at it until you are as good as possible. Go beyond where most of your lazy friends would normally be satisfied to stop.

Once you begin to be recognized for being good at it, start looking for complementary opportunities that this goodness suddenly makes available. For example:

  1. Scholarships or fellowships that might now be easier to win.
  2. Cool internships in similar fields.
  3. Relevant awards.
  4. Related mini-projects that you can now make happen.

For example, in college I put a lot of work into undergraduate research. This one application of effort yielded the following complementary accomplishments with little extra sweat on my part:

  • My name on several peer-reviewed publications.
  • High honors in my major.
  • Two different research-related scholarships.
  • Induction into a well-known research society.
  • A summer spent on campus being paid to research.

Each of these boasts a high impressiveness score, but required little additional effort. I put a serious amount of time into my undergrad research and these compliments begin to shake loose almost of their own accord. It would have been impossible to build up a list of the same length and impressiveness if each item had to be started from scratch.

It’s All About The Efficiencies

This law is a key component in achieving the Rhodes Scholar Effect — the shake of disbelief where the interviewer or admissions officer thinks: “How the hell did she do all of this?”

By leveraging the law of complementary accomplishments, you are achieving this effect without killing yourself. The effort required to do one thing really well (and then reap all the freebie complementary accomplishments) is less than what’s require to do two or three mildly impressive things. The latter route, of course, being the one followed by must students who are trying (but failing) to stand out from the crowd.

So stop working hard on so many things. Focus. Then make sure you take advantage of everything this focused accomplishment grants you for free.

Also, if you get a chance, win a National Debate Championship. That helps, too.

21 thoughts on “The Secret Your Neighborhood Rhodes Scholar Doesn’t Want You To Know”

  1. Hi Cal!
    I’ve been an avid reader of study hacks ever since i got my hands on Straight As. I’d like to say i spent a very sobering morning looking at the bios of the Rhodes Scholars.

    Like you said, FOCUS is the most impt thread i saw running thru all the students. They also had this other thing: a passion for what they were doin. They have extracurricular activities that are closely what they were majoring in. It’s like, since they are doing something they love, studying almost seems like a secondary and most natural thing to do, hence the exemplary grades :).

    it’s now time for me to hit the proverbial books and atleast get a 3.0 average for this sem [wid the Quiz and Recall method, of course :)]. I’m a computer engin first year in singapore btw. Ciao!

  2. This hardly seems like a random selection. If it really was, perhaps you should make sure this candidate is representative of the group. The more typical winner appears to be more along the lines of:

    Sarah H. Miller, Dallas, is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, where she majors in physics and astronomy. She is a composer of rock, jazz and classical string compositions, and a recorded singer and instrumentalist. She is also a prize-winning graphic artist and painter. She has many published papers, including several relating to the evolution of galaxies. She has also studied theology during summers at Oxford. Sarah plans to pursue a doctorate in astrophysics at Oxford.

    That’s physics, astronomy, composer in three genres, singer, instrumentalist, graphic artist, painter, published author, and theologian. Seems like at least four different fields, to me.

  3. complimentary = favorable, flattering
    complementary = mutually supportive, a part of a pair

    I think you mean complEmentary, not complImentary accomplishments. If so, just correct your spelling and delete my post. It is a common mistake among native speakers 🙂

  4. @Siva:

    Good observation. If you look deeper — for example read interviews with the new scholars — you find that many of them arrived at college with that deep interest already in place.


    That’s physics, astronomy, composer in three genres, singer, instrumentalist, graphic artist, painter, published author, and theologian. Seems like at least four different fields, to me.

    Rhodes Scholars definitely have a lot going on. But let’s take a closer look at Ms. Miller. At first, she seems inexplicable. But dig a little deeper and we find, in essence, two main points of focus:

    1. Undergraduate research in astronomy.
    2. An interest in music.

    Read the press releases at her school and you discover that she did an undergraduate research program in the astrophysics department. One of the benefits you get from these programs, typically, is your name on some of the papers you were assisting on.

    Add into this an interest in music. She composes and writes songs in different genres. Very cool. Notice, however, you don’t read that she’s an award-winning musician; or her compositions are performed by major orchestras. She’s just a creative person, who loves music, and does compositions for fun. Cool stuff. Not magic.

    Finally, we have to edit out the “add-ons” that come for free. The painting and “award-winning” graphic design? We don’t know what that means. What award? What painting? Again, this is probably a complementary accomplishment attached to her creative endeavors in music.

    And “theologian?” Probably a little generous. She did a summer program for students on theology. Many students do summer programs. Again, this shows an interesting, curious person, but not necessarily a inexplicable renaissance woman doing professional-level work in four or five different fields.

    In the end, this is what the Rhodes is looking for: interesting, talented people with the capacity to do big things in life. I think the press department, however, tries too hard to build up the “cattle call” of accomplishments, often promoting small things to the level of major, in an attempt to make them look like super humans — a disservice for the rest of us looking for inspiration, not disillusionment or self-reproach.

  5. Yes, for years I knew that this had to be true, although I could never find anyone who would testify to this until now!!! I have a very interesting observation that relates to this:

    When I was in high school, I took Gen Chem at community college with a math major friend who was able to achieve the class high on every exam while taking advanced calculus, all while still in high school!!! When I moved on to college and to Organic Chemistry, another one of my math major friend studying theoretical math proceeded to get a class high on an exam. Obviously one can claim that fields like chemistry/physics involve math, but could they also involve a “certain kind of thinking” that enables one to be good at other relates areas and if so what?? And it may not just manifest itself in the sciences. I’ve read psychologist Howard Gardner of multiple intellegences fame claim that those with strong logical-mathematical intellenge have strong musical intellegence as well. It’s a question that I’ve noticed subconsciously for years so I’d be most curious to hear what people think.

  6. I intend to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. What are my chances? A double major of Psychology and Philosophy, and a double minor in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. A Certificate in Behavioral Pharmacology, and an editor of the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. Honors in Psychology and Philosophy thanks to an interdisciplinary honors thesis. Focused on both psychopharmacological and philosophy of mind research.

  7. I intend to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. What are my chances? A double major of Psychology and Philosophy, and a double minor in Cognitive Science and Linguistics. A Certificate in Behavioral Pharmacology, and an editor of the Undergraduate Philosophy Journal. Honors in Psychology and Philosophy thanks to an interdisciplinary honors thesis. Focused on both psychopharmacological and philosophy of mind research.

    It would depend on the research. And where you go to school. Your college should have a scholarship committee that’s in charge of finding candidates for these major awards. It’s often run out of one of the dean’s offices. Find this and setup a meeting to see what’s going on. At many Ivy League schools, Rhodes applicants are hand-picked. At Dartmouth, one of the deans told me that the process they walk the applicant through takes around 100 hours.

  8. Jesus, Maria y Jose.

    Awesome! Where were you when I was in college? Man, I’m 36 now and I could’ve accomplished SOOOOOOO much more.

    You make me want to do it all over again. Maybe I should.

    Please keep up the good, nay, great work!

  9. There are four parts to the Rhodes selection criteria:
    (1) literary and scholastic attainments;
    (2) energy to use one’s talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports;
    (3) truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness,
    unselfishness and fellowship;
    (4) moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one’s fellow beings.

    So you are required to spread your achievements out rather than concentrating on multiple academic awards.

  10. While I totally agree with everything that you have just proposed, I am still amazed at how people like these have so much time that they can still achieve a Rhodes Scholarship:

    (from 2010 winners bios from the Rhodes Trust)

    Monica L. Marks, Rush, graduated from the University of Louisville with a triple major and high honors in philosophy, political science, and women’s and gender studies. She is now on a Fulbright Scholarship in Turkey. where she is studying how Turkey secularized its formerly sharia-based civil code. She has also studied at the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, and is proficient in Turkish, Arabic and Swahili. At Oxford, she plans to do a doctorate in modern middle eastern studies.

    (from the university site)

    At UofL, Marks blazed new trails. While pursuing her undergraduate degree, she traveled the world, mastered new languages, founded and coached the university’s Intercollegiate Quiz Bowl Team and won highly-coveted awards and scholarships, including a Fulbright Award, a Critical Language Scholarship from the State Department and the Mary Churchill Humphrey Scholarship from the UofL College of Arts and Sciences. She graduated with a combined major in political science, women’s and gender studies and philosophy.

    Just reading this I know that Monica’s bio is truly representative of the Law of Complementary Accomplishments. But (this is my own analysis) I noticed that her three majors seemed really interconnected and that she really had to be passionate about what she was studying and aiming for to receive high honors for them. If this is true and is possible, then would that mean that there can be circumstances when an overloaded courseload (in this case, a triple major) can be justified?

  11. Oh, and I also noticed that if the law of complementary accomplishments holds true that one major focus can result in consequent accomplishments, then most of Monica’s accomplshments could have been done with only a Political Science major. (and maybe a Philosophy Minor)


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