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How do you become a Rhodes scholar?

Posted on 11 January 2017 by admin

Becoming a Rhodes Scholar wasn’t something Matthew Jordan ever gave much thought.

In fact, the 22-year-old student from Thornhill Ont., only applied to the prestigious all-expenses-paid scholarship to Oxford University in the U.K. after a friend encouraged him to.

It was a surprise, said Jordan, humbly adding that when he turned up to his interview he wasn’t as polished and groomed for it as his peers.

“I spent most of my undergrad life doing very few formal organized activities,” he said. “I haven’t been a part of that many clubs or organizations or won many scholarships or owned a yacht etcetera.”

It turns out though, that the path to becoming a Rhodes Scholar isn’t so clear cut — as long as you are academically brilliant and show a strong sense of community and leadership.

“There’s no checklist to become a Rhodes Scholar,” said Brian Rolfes, a Rhodes Scholar himself and the secretary of the Ontario Rhodes Scholarship selection committee.

“There’s not a formula that will allow one to receive the scholarship. We look for a couple of things, first of all, high academic achievement. So truly top of the class performance in one’s undergraduate post secondary institutions, but it can be from any field, so it’s truly being able to do well scholastically. But then I would say the second piece broadly speaking is around leadership capabilities.”

Applicants also have to be between 18 to 28 years old depending on where they’re applying from and should be set to finish their undergrad.

Jordan, who has been on the Dean’s Honour list throughout his undergraduate degree and received the Harry Lyman Hooker Scholarship for being in the top 10 per cent of his program three times, also earned two Undergraduate Student Research Awards (USRA) to do math projects over the summer.

In his spare time, he wrote a calculus textbook to help make math more relatable to people around his age, plays the piano, guitar, drums and enjoys jamming with his friends and busking on the street.

“I think what probably stood out to the committee was my huge range of interests and things that I’m comfortable speaking about,” said Jordan.

“Most of my pursuits are kind of intellectual and academic, but on the flip side I’m perfectly comfortable talking about what are the last four words in Gilmore Girls or talking about the new Kendrick Lamar album, so I’m versatile in that way.”

Rolfes received the scholarship in 1989 and found living and studying abroad with peers from around the world transformative.

“For me, as a kid from Saskatoon, who had lived and studied only in Canada at that point, it really did open the world to me. I was there with 90 or so other scholars from around the world. You immediately have that collection of friends that sort of challenge you, that have different world views.”

Andrew Wilkinson, the national secretary for Rhodes Scholarships in Canada and a 1980s Rhodes Scholar from Alberta, said the scholarship isn’t interested in “trophy hunters.”

“There’s a phenomenon now amongst teenagers that they feel obliged now to start building up a resume from about age 12 onward and this is something we can see straight through. So the committees are very careful to examine resumes to make sure that they are substantive and don’t reflect the desire to build up a dossier.”

What they are looking for, said Wilkinson, are “people who have deep thinking abilities, who have thought about what to do with their abilities — not just to have a job or make a lot of money, but rather how they can contribute to making Canada a better place.”

“We’re looking for rocket fuel because we have a match.”

Jordan, who plans to get a PhD in mathematical physics at Oxford, credits much of his success to his friends and family.

“It’s hard to do anything, let alone win a big scholarship, without an extremely supportive family.”

He hopes to combine his passion for teaching and science and specifically teach people why they should care and trust scientific experts.

“The moral of the story is apply for stuff,” said Jordan. “Because you never know what’s going to happen.”

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