Kurt Mitman | Roads to Rhodes

Sorry To Be Kurt | CURF alone can’t be expected to produce more Rhodes or Marshall Scholars

· December 10, 2013, 5:27 pm   ·  Updated December 11, 2013, 12:47 am

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Kurt Mitman
Sorry to be Kurt

Another year and another drought of Rhodes and Marshall scholars for Penn.

Finger pointing has ensued, and there are “no clear answers” as to what gives. But, from talking to students and perusing the comments section of theDP.com, there seems to be a fair amount of vitriol pointed at Cheryl Shipman and the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

This assignment of blame is most certainly misplaced.

In 2003, I won a Marshall Scholarship and was a finalist for the Rhodes Scholarship. I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia at the time and went through the Center for Undergraduate Excellence there to apply for the two fellowships.

After talking to Shipman, I have gleaned that the preparation offered by CURF is on par with what I received at Virginia — and Virginia has produced more than two and a half times the number of Rhodes Scholars than Penn has. CURF helps its nominees on their personal statements and to prepare for interviews.

The reason why schools like Virginia or Duke have more scholars than Penn could be attributed to the fact that they offer full-ride merit scholarships, which helps them grab top students. Through these scholarship programs, they can then offer more focused advising. But we can’t expect CURF to do this by itself — Penn would have to change its admissions policy from the start.

By the time students come to CURF, academics and extracurriculars are already determined. All that can really be done is polishing — helping the candidate tell a coherent story of their experiences and why they should win.

But it takes four years to actually build a compelling story. Throughout their four years, Shipman said, students need “lots of time to think, lots of guidance as to what their purpose is. That builds magnificent candidates.”

I knew I wanted to win a Rhodes even before I got to college. I investigated the process early on. I reached out to faculty and CUE. I spoke with past winners from Virginia about the process. Their guidance helped me understand that I needed to have both a compelling story and one with which two years of graduate study at Oxford was compatible.

Yes, along the way I received guidance and support, but I drove everything. I wasn’t drafted by Virginia to apply, nor would I have succeeded on my own. In that sense, the students themselves may bear some of the blame for the lack of success. College is what you make of it — the more you put in, the more you get out.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe that Penn has excellent candidates. And Shipman was correct when she said “not winning is not a sign of not meriting” one of the fellowships. Committees can be quirky. The girl in the room next door to me at Oxford and I were interviewed by the same Marshall and Rhodes committees. I was selected for a Marshall and she wasn’t. She was selected for Rhodes and I wasn’t.

Also, some Penn students who would make excellent candidates for Rhodes simply aren’t interested in spending two years at Oxford, despite the prestige, because it may not fit in with their career ambitions.

I would expect to see a Rhodes Scholar from Penn about every other year on average. But because it’s a random process, we shouldn’t be surprised to see multi-year droughts every now and then — or years with multiple winners.

Finally, stop comparing Penn to Harvard. As much as you don’t want to hear it, the quality of students is different. I won’t go so far as to say that Penn is the residual claimant of Harvard/Yale rejects from the Northeast, but the truth is that Harvard oversamples the far right tail (while the median Harvard student and the median Penn one may be about on par).

So don’t fret and don’t point fingers. But for you underclassmen — start thinking early about your story. The time to act is now.

Kurt Mitman is a seventh-year doctoral student from McLean, Va. His email address is kurt.mitman@gmail.com Follow him ?@SorryToBeKurt. “Sorry To Be Kurt” usually appears every Friday.

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