A committee member’s view: what it’s like on the other side

Choosing one scholar from hundreds of applications isn’t a simple process. So what happens behind the scenes? What is it really like working on the other side of the Davies-Jackson scholarship? Selection committee member Jon W. Fuller explains here. 

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Serving on the Davies-Jackson selection committee has been a very rewarding and satisfying assignment.   I found the invitation very attractive when I was first asked to join the committee because the purpose and approach of the Davies-Jackson scholarship made great sense to me.  Watching the achievements of the scholars in the subsequent years has steadily increased my enthusiasm for the program.

My career has been in higher education, most of it in positions that allowed me to work with and come to know a large number of colleges and universities across the country, and to follow the major trends that have affected them.  One of those trends has been the system’s increasing efficiency in sorting talent.  The highest achieving and top scoring high school seniors are steered to the top-ranked colleges and universities.  That is particularly true for students whose parents are college graduates, and who generally attend the most affluent and highly ranked secondary schools.

This was not always true of American higher education.  Before the now ubiquitous college rankings, and the flood of college guides,  talent was more evenly spread among colleges and universities across the country.  Even the most promising students tended to choose their college on the basis of local reputation, or church affiliation, or some other personal connection, rather than because of its national ranking.

While the system is now quite efficient, it does have its limits.  It is most likely to overlook talent in the student pool for whom the Davies-Jackson opportunity is designed—those whose parents are not college graduates, and who attend colleges with regional rather than national rankings.  

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Such students, who have lots of talent, but who may not realize just how good they are, are most likely to flourish on the more intimate and supportive campuses of the small liberal arts colleges that are invited each year to nominate candidates of the Davies Jackson award.

The older and better known scholarship programs that send American graduates to British universities—the Rhodes and Marshalls—now rarely select winners from that Davies-Jackson list (although those colleges were once familiar names on the annual list of Rhodes and Marshall scholars).  They instead reflect, and also reinforce, the assumptions about rankings, and make most of their selections from the “top” institutions.

The Davies-Jackson selection committee does face some special challenges in making our decisions.  The scale of the program, offering only one or two scholarships each year, cannot justify the effort and expense of bringing the most promising applicants to meet  with us for an interview.  We make our recommendations without any direct and personal interaction with the candidates.  We know you only on paper until the process is complete and then we are usually able to arrange to meet new scholars in Washington before they leave to begin their studies at St. John’s.

The applicants who reach the stage of review by the full committee all have good grades, have taken challenging courses, and have shown special distinction in one or more areas.  Committee members read the candidate’s statements and their letters of recommendation closely, looking for that special spark that sets one or two or three of the applicants apart from a talented field.  Is there evidence of imagination, aspiration, and determination that promises a level of performance that will make a scholar successful in the demanding academic world of Cambridge University?

All the students whose applications we review have already overcome obstacles and have impressive records of achievement.  The committee’s challenge is to identify those who seem most likely to continue that trajectory of achievement and for whom study at Cambridge seems a particularly appropriate next step in their already distinguished careers.

Having previously served on selection committees for both the Rhodes and Marshall programs, I am aware of how much interviews influence the final choices of those committees.  As we read your applications, we often wish we could ask a follow up or clarifying question, or to see the response when your statements are challenged.  But each year, when we finally meet the winners, and as we now follow your unfolding careers, I find my confidence in our choices, based on reading and discussing those written applications  is reinforced.

It may be that there is a bias in our choices towards those who have a particular ability to communicate about themselves in writing—but that can only make the winners more likely to succeed at Cambridge.  I’m sure other contributions to this newsletter will provide further confirmation of the writing abilities of Davies-Jackson scholars.

Jon W. Fuller, Davies-Jackson Scholarship selection committee

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