Advice for the Gates Cambridge application - I

Written by Paul Bergen on April 25, 2013

[Note: Dr. Bergen has since completed his Ph.D. and is now a Strategy Insights & Planning Consultant at ZS.]

Hello everyone! My name is Paul Bergen and I am a Gates Cambridge Scholar-Elect to begin my PhD in Pathology (Microbiology) at Cambridge this upcoming October. Matt asked me to write this post to give advice on applying for a Gates Cambridge scholarship. Many people are aware of the Rhodes scholarship, allowing you to study at the University of Oxford, but fewer are aware that a similar scholarship exists at the University of Cambridge. Founded by Bill and Melinda Gates (the “Gates” in Gates Cambridge) in 2000, the scholarship allows students to complete a Masters (both one- and two-year programs) or a PhD (three years). More information can be found on the Gates Cambridge Trust’s website.

Below is a list of five key points I feel are essential to a successful application. Bear in mind that this scholarship is extremely competitive (about 5% of applicants receive a scholarship from the U.S. and only about 1% make it from the international competition). There are numerous steps and hurdles that you and your application must overcome before you are named a Gates Cambridge Scholar. But with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work, the application and interview can be conquered.

Research potential advisers and contact them early on.

This is important for research based degrees. I spent about a month researching who I wanted to work for based on their past and present research. I sent emails to three PIs (principal investigators, or the head researcher of the lab. The faculty system is different at Cambridge and Oxford than it is in the US. At Cambridge, PIs can be a “Professor,” “Lecturer,” or research group leader) and received one reply. Turns out, that was the PI I wanted to work with and will be working with. She was indispensable in helping me construct my project proposal for the GC application. All the reason to contact PIs as early as you can.

Alternatively, you may want to apply to a course-based program to use the GC as a gap year to complement or improve your future research or career. For example, a future doctor could do a one-year program in music theory or sociology before entering medical school. If you want to apply to a course-based program, there is less initial work but you still need to research the program and explain in an essay why that program is the perfect fit for you. You may also be required to submit a sample of your writing or music or whatever based on the requirements of the GC Trust, your department, and the university. Finding an adviser or contact early on can be the difference between a successful application and one rejected on a technicality.

Start the application early!

A general piece of advice for any scholarship, but a very important one. The application for the GC scholarship is tied to the application for graduate admissions to the University. That means in addition to your research proposal and GC personal essay, you need to fill out additional information and essays for the university. Part of the application will ask you to pick your top two college choices (see this webpage for more details).

You need to research which college is the best fit for you based on whatever factors you deem important. For example, I wanted a college with guaranteed affordable accommodation for graduate students, a strong and varied scientific community, and something that immediately caught my interest when I researched the college. I chose Churchill College for these reasons. Churchill is sometimes labeled the “MIT of Cambridge” for its strong scientific and engineering community but also maintains a strong classical and liberal arts community and sits on the largest college grounds in Cambridge with plenty to do in respect to sports and outdoor activities. All of this research must be done before the mid October deadline of the Gates Cambridge Trust.

In addition to the application, the Trust requires two academic references and one personal reference. Find these three people early on. They need to be someone who knows you well and knows very well what you are doing in college and the community.

Always keep in mind the four criteria of a Gates Cambridge Scholar.

Are you a good fit for Cambridge?

Why must you complete this research or enroll at this specific program in Cambridge?

Do you have a strong academic background?

Have you done undergraduate research? Excelled in all your classes? What type of research you’ve done is less important than whether you completed an “original” research program. i.e. did you pose a hypothesis not previously posed, built an experimental plan to test said hypothesis, and reached a conclusion. If you washed tubes or pipetted liquids from one flask to another, you can certainly include laboratory experience in your essay, but it helps to have worked on an original research project. Grades are also important here as they get you past the first “weeding out” stage

Have you been a leader in campus or community organizations?

Why those organizations? How does merely writing “I was President of Club A” demonstrate leadership potential?

Can you demonstrate a desire to help others and how your proposed program at Cambridge will benefit this?

Because the scholarship was started with a donation from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, it is important that you can show how your proposed project or program will give you the necessary tools to go out and save the world. That may some lofty or cheesy, but the selection committees want to hear why your work will make a positive impact.

You only have 500 words to express these four criteria to the committees. Use them wisely. Write draft after draft. Have people you trust (friends, family, advisers, mentors) read your essays and correct for both content and grammar. Tell the committees how you fit the four general criteria while weaving a story that connects all aspects of your application. It helps to be as specific as possible when it comes to you and what you have done and how that impacts what you will do.

Remember that luck plays a role.

Of the almost 1000 people (from the U.S.) who apply, less than a hundred are chosen for interviews. To get to that round, your department at Cambridge has to first rank applicants based on academic merit only. The top applicants from that ranking then go to a general committee who evaluate all aspects of the application. This committee recommends their top applicants for an interview.

Once at the interview, almost all applicants are equal on paper. You have one fifteen minute chance to impress upon the committee why you deserve the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. No matter what stage you reach in the competition, realize that luck has certainly played a role in helping you or someone else go further. Maybe they wrote the exact sentence one reviewer wanted to read. Or they have an interesting facet to their application that only they could have. You may have given it all on your application; nevertheless, Lady Luck might have other plans.

Do not be afraid to ask for help.

Help with your applications, help with practice interviews, help with the celebration. You will find that the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” definitely applies to the Gates Cambridge application and interview process. My best friend, who knows virtually nothing of my subject, read my application and found at least a few mistakes I made in my explanation of technical details. My Cambridge adviser helped me compose my project proposal so that it sounded less undergraduate-y. My university set up three practice interviews for me with various professors both in and outside of biology. My friends in the States and my friends in Germany also helped with a practice interview. There are so many people who are invaluable to your success with this application. From academic referees to scholarship advisers at your university to friends who will take time out of their day and read your application. They may have conflicting opinions on changes for you to make but that is the beauty of having so many reviewers. It is up to you to serve as both author and editor of your application. You have the final say on almost every decision and it only helps to ask for outside opinions.

I made sure to pay close attention to tip 3 in my essay. I started my essay on why I chose microbiology. For me, that was a trip I took as a child to Yellowstone. I then moved on to accepting an invitation to conduct undergraduate research in a microbiology lab. I explained how that led me to view biology in a different light. No longer was I memorizing pathways or gene regulation in class; I was actively involved in figuring out how that worked in vivo! I was met with plenty of failure and little success my first year, but that only served to teach me patience and persistence. I revised my definition of research and found renewed interest in microbiology. I connected my (sometimes philosophical) discussion of research to “hot topics” in microbiology I wished to study. I explained those further in my research proposal and how they related to my PhD topic. I suggested in my essay that scientists need not be just researchers, but competent and active members of their general community. I detailed how my extracurricular activities and double major demonstrated my desire to fulfill that goal. How I branched out into the community at my university beyond just journal clubs and seminars. I concluded with my current endeavor and how I felt Cambridge will provide me with the tool set to become a top researcher.

There are many more tips I could give, but I do not want to bore anyone with more anecdotes of my application. I poured blood, sweat, and tears into this application and interview. I believe that is the best advice I can give. Pour your soul into the application. Show your true colors (unless, you know, you are a racist or bigot or something. Then maybe tone down that rhetoric.), but leave something to elaborate on for your interview. The interview committee will be very familiar with your application and the comments from the previous selection committees. They will question you on your opinions and beliefs in your personal statement or project proposal. When I got to the interview I was asked to defend the “definition” of a top researcher that I laid out in my essay and specific examples I could give of how Cambridge would help me reach that definition. Be able to explain clearly why you feel the way you do. Understand that this committee will play devil’s advocate just to judge your reaction.

Applying for a Gates Cambridge scholarship is applying for both graduate school at an extremely prestigious university and for an extremely prestigious scholarship that will pay for you to go there. Stay cool throughout the entire process. Start early enough to give yourself plenty of time to review and review and review. Have confidence in your abilities and your record and go from there. I cannot guarantee that these tips will win you a Gates. No one can guarantee that. But I am confident that if you follow this advice, for whatever it’s worth, you will be satisfied with your application. And that is always the first step toward a successful application.


Written on April 25, 2013