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What’s the easiest way for a college student to get a Rhodes Scholarship? Attend Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.

Between 1904 and 2020, Harvard students received 369 Rhodes scholarship, Yale, 252, Princeton, 215, and Stanford, 102. Compare that to Berkeley, 24, City College, 3, Michigan, 27, or UCLA, 11.

Certainly, you might say, that pattern has changed since 2020, with the growing concern with equity, diversity and inclusion. Not really. Sure, funders want to diversify the applicant pool, but the outcomes suggest little change. In 2024, Harvard undergrads received 9 of 32 Rhodes awards. In 2023, 6 (Yalies received 5). In 2022, 4. In 2021, 6.

The recipients of Rhodes scholarships may be more diverse than in the past. Their institutions: not so much.

You can find a similar pattern among other prestigious scholarships. Of 51 Marshall scholars in 2024, 5 graduated from Harvard and 5 from Yale. Among the Schwarzman recipients: 13 from Harvard, 7 from Yale.

Publicly funded scholarships aren’t much different. Among Truman scholars since 1977: 70 from Harvard, 70 from Yale—and 16 from Berkeley and 19 from Michigan.

All I can conclude is that privilege begets privilege.

However, a growing range of broader access institutions have begun to compete for highly competitive national merit-based scholarships and fellowships, and offer similar levels of support as the elites. Among the pioneers is the City University of New York’s Hunter College, which, since 2016, has been awarded 5 Schwarzman scholarships, 2 Rhodes, 2 Marshall, 5 Luce, 2 Beinecke, and a Gates Cambridge scholarship.

That college’s director of prestigious fellowships, Stephen Lassonde (himself a noted historian of childhood and youth and, previously, dean of student life at Harvard, deputy dean at Brown, and assistant dean at Yale), has just published an exceedingly valuable handbook for helping undergraduates frame the well-executed personal narratives that are central to any successful scholarship application.

But the book, Helping Your Students Write Personal Statements: Framing the Narrative for Fellowships and Other Opportunities, is much more than that. It is, first and foremost, an essential guide to mentoring students who do not come from privileged backgrounds. As much a sociological and psychological document as a book of advice, it identifies students by name and lets them tell their own stories about their lives, challenges and aspirations.

In an earlier life, Lassonde wrote a pathbreaking study of the complex relations between home and school in the working-class immigrant Italian community of New Haven, Connecticut, between 1870 and 1940. Learning to Forget: Schooling and Family Life in New Haven’s Working Class chronicled an older generation’s suspicions toward public education and a younger generation’s desire to assimilate. It also showed how the values that the children encountered in school ran counter to their parents’ values.

Somewhat similar challenges face the students that Lassonde advises today. The biggest barriers to their success are attitudinal. They suffer from self-doubt, internalized family pressures, and ignorance of the opportunities that are potentially available.

Few students at schools like Hunter know what every student at Harvard does: That there are funds out there awaiting those who want to pursue a project, travel overseas, present at a conference, or enroll in a special summer program. His job is to bolster students’ self-confidence, instill a sense of self-efficacy, provide encouragement, listen to students’ concerns, and provide a supportive and empathetic ear—and introduce them to the secrets of writing a compelling scholarship application.

Rather than offering a “how-to” approach, Lassonde’s alternative is developmental. Turning their life experiences into a compelling personal statement requires the students to ponder their college experience, personal philosophy, growth, values, goals, and future plans. His focus is not on “winning” a prestigious scholarship, but on self-reflection.

His approach’s success is quantifiable: fully 80 percent of the hundreds of students he has mentored subsequently won a fellowship or were admitted to a top graduate school, law school, or medical school.

Writing a compelling personal statement is extraordinarily important, and exceedingly difficult, says Lassonde. It’s essential to avoid clichés and pat narratives. It must be authentic, not generic, reflecting the student’s values, passions, experiences, challenges, and aspirations. It can’t simply narrate the student’s résumé.

Lassonde not only offers genuinely helpful advice about how to create a personal narrative that is engaging, authentic and compelling, and that makes a strong case for why a student is a deserving candidate for a fellowship, but also shows how the writing process can result in the kind of critical self-reflection that can drive growth and maturation.

He encourages students to examine their strengths and weaknesses, learn from past experiences, celebrate their successes, but also to extract lessons from failures. He also helps them reflect on their interactions with other people, examine their emotional responses to various challenges they’ve faced, and clarify their goals and priorities. This is a process that enhances self-awareness, contributes to the students’ emotional intelligence, and builds their goal-setting abilities.

Crafting a successful personal statement, of course, requires students to grasp the fellowship’s goals, values and criteria and show how their background makes them a strong fit for the scholarship. Their personal statement must start with a compelling introduction—an anecdote, thought-providing question, a challenge the student encountered, a key turning point in their life, or an event that sparked their passion.

They must emphasize what makes them unique in terms of background, skills and experience, and highlight instances when they made a significant impact or contribution.

Such a statement must also demonstrate growth, for instance, by discussing failures and setbacks and how these were overcome and what lessons these taught. Such statements must also clearly connect past experiences with future aspirations, and explain how the fellowship will help applicants achieve their goals.

The most effective statements have a narrative arc that builds toward a climax and resolution and points toward the future. These narratives can take various forms.

  • Overcoming adversity or a series of obstacles and challenges and describing what you learned from this experience.
  • Discussing how you found your passion or calling.
  • Assessing the impact of a mentor or role model and explaining how this person influenced your personal development and goals.
  • Describing how you engaged in community service and how this experience shaped your values and aspirations.
  • Discussing a moment when you assumed a leadership role and the lessons you drew from this opportunity.
  • Exploring your background or identity and how this has influenced your perspective, ambitions and the challenges you have faced.
  • Analyzing a transformative experience that broadened your worldview, motivated your studies and shaped your aspirations.
  • Describing your personal journey of growth and self-discovery, focusing on how this contributed to the development of your self-awareness, resilience and the formation of a new perspective.
  • Detailing a creative project or innovative idea you developed, emphasizing the process, challenges and impact.

One big takeaway for students is that such a statement is inevitably the product of an iterative process. A polished, compelling and effective piece of writing requires repeated revision to enhance clarity and coherence, weed out irrelevant information, add essential detail, strengthen arguments and write with style and flair.

An office of prestigious scholarships offers a powerful example of how colleges can provide meaningful mentoring at scale. By assisting students in writing personal statements, mentors help students engage in deep self-reflection, develop a compelling narrative and build confidence.

These offices offer one-on-one sessions with advisers who provide personalized feedback and guidance and help students articulate their unique stories and strengths and identify their core values, significant experiences and long-term goals. This tailored support ensures that each personal statement is authentic and reflective of the student’s true self.

In addition to encouraging self-reflection, such offices assist with skills development. Through an iterative process of drafting and revising their personal statements, the students learn to write clearly, persuasively and authentically. Students also learn to reflect on their experiences, set meaningful goals and communicate effectively—skills that will serve them well beyond their college years.

If campuses truly want to cultivate a culture of mentorship, they need to create environments where high-touch mentorship is more feasible and valued. An office of prestigious fellowships can provide one such space. But consider others:

  • Learning communities aligned with a particular theme or subject that feature faculty involvement, academic and social support from peers, staff and faculty, and shared academic, interdisciplinary and integrated learning experiences.
  • Pre-career support centers in the arts, engineering, law, medicine and nursing, and technology, where students can receive career advising and counseling, internship placement support, professional development training, networking opportunities, scholarship and job application assistance, and experiential learning experiences (for example, through maker spaces, moot courts, mock trials, clinicals and practicums).
  • Learning centers that, rather than simply offering tutoring in foreign languages, math, science or writing, serve as communities of practice, communities of care and solver communities.
  • Collaborative research projects that emphasize group work, peer mentoring and enhanced learning through interaction and shared experiences.

Mentorship matters. It can be a catalyst for academic and personal growth. If we want to unlock students’ potential and bring their dreams to fruition, then faculty and staff must provide the kinds of high touch mentorship that I fear are far too rare.

A trusted adviser, advocate, coach, confidante, connector, guide, role model, and yes, paternal figure, a mentor is named after a character in The Odyssey (who is actually the goddess Minerva in disguise), to whom Odysseus has entrusted the care of his household and his son’s education, during his absence in the Trojan War. The term was popularized by the 17th century French writer François Fénelon in his Les Aventures de Télémaque, a critique of absolute monarchy, which depicted Mentor as a fount of wisdom, a source of compassion and symbol of moral integrity.

Almost everyone who has become a professor benefited from having an academic mentor. Someone who recognized their talents, helped build their self-confidence, offered emotional support and guidance, and contributed to their development and self-awareness. But far too few undergraduates receive that kind of mentoring for reasons that are obvious. Too high student-to-faculty ratios. A faculty untrained in mentorship and focused on research. An institutional failure to prioritize, incentivize or invest in mentoring.

Every campus—and accreditor—needs to recognize that it is hands-on mentoring that makes college worth the cost. Without intensive mentoring, college is nothing more than credentialing or vocational training. It’s unworthy of the name higher education.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational, and Equitable Experience.

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