Advice for the Gates Cambridge application - IIWritten by Corina Logan on April 27, 2013
I was a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the University of Cambridge in the Department of Experimental Psychology from 2008-2011. I pursued a PhD in animal behavior in Professor Nicky Clayton’s comparative cognition lab. I met Nicky at a conference before I applied to Cambridge to see whether we were a good match. After discovering that we would work well together (we’re both tango dancers - hobbies can help get into grad school!), she suggested I apply for the Gates Cambridge Scholarship. This was the first I had heard of it and after I checked it out online, I decided to apply. I highly recommend crafting the application with your potential supervisor; that way you know they have approved the project and are interested in it and they will be willing to support your application through the departmental process. This is key! Otherwise you are just a random applicant. The one thing that really stands out in my mind about how Gates Scholars are chosen came from a Q&A with Bill and Melinda Gates in Cambridge. They said that scholars are chosen based on what they have achieved with the opportunities they have been given. This levels the playing field for people coming from different backgrounds.
My experience at Cambridge as a Gates Scholar was even more amazing than I had imagined! The Gates Cambridge community is full of brilliant, proactive people that make things happen in this world. It is fun to attend and organize events with this group. And it is rewarding in terms of the conversations that opened my mind to new avenues and new collaborators I found throughout my time in Cambridge. So many doors opened because of this opportunity and I met some very influential people as a result. It was a bit deflating to leave the Gates Scholar community after I graduated and moved back to the U.S. - that kind of vibrant community is unrivaled and I dearly miss it.
Below I list interview advice I have given over the years to people who are about to undergo the Gates interview. Good luck!
Do the interviewers ask the regular interview questions such as introduce yourself or why do you want to study at Cambridge, or are their questions intellectually challenging and mostly related to the proposed research at Cambridge? I was surprised that the panel didn’t ask most of the questions I was expecting. I was expecting questions like: Why do you want a PhD? Why Cambridge? Why this professor? What contribution will you make in the world after you graduate? But I didn’t get any of those. Instead I got VERY specific questions about my background that they had read about from my CV, my application, and my undergraduate transcripts. They asked me how my AmeriCorps experience shaped me and how I will use those skills in the future, about a specific line I had written in my transcripts and how it applied to what I am doing now, what were the benefits of going to a non-traditional undergraduate institution, and why study the specific species I am going to study.
How did you feel immediately before your interview? Nervous, scared, nervous, and a whole lot more nervous. I got there early so I waited for about a half hour. Once I went into the room, though, I was able to turn my nervous energy into productive energy and I was very surprised at how eloquently I was speaking and how easy it was.
How did you prepare for your interview? I consulted with my Cambridge supervisor, Prof. Nicky Clayton, about how to pitch my project with her and the best points to cover in terms of what they may be interested in (the medical field and humans). I also learned about the collegiate system at Cambridge since I had no clue what it was, as well as about the professors in my department and which professors were at the colleges I applied to. I wrote out what makes each of the colleges I applied to different and why I wanted to attend them. I learned a bit about the University of Cambridge. And I went through the Cambridge website looking for ways I could spin my research and pitch it well – specifically, I gathered information about conservation research that happens there and how I might be able to forge collaborations. I consulted with a Gates Scholar at the time, Molly Crockett, who have me a list of questions to consider. I wrote out how I would respond to these questions, and gathered more information when I needed it. I also brushed up on some current topics in my field on the internet.
In retrospect, could you have prepared differently/more effectively? Well in retrospect, I would have been much better prepared for the interview after my first term at Cambridge when I did my literature review, saw for the first time and learned about the bird species I worked with (I ended up studying different species than I proposed to study), attended Nicky’s lectures and assisted sometimes, and learned what the key readings are and why specifically we study these species. But since I wasn’t able to attend Cambridge and then interview for the Gates, I feel like I was as prepared as I could have been.
Were you asked any of “off-the-wall” questions? I was not asked any off-the-wall questions, but the one that threw me was at the very end when they asked if I had any questions for them. I wasn’t prepared for that one and at first I said no, but then a question came to me and I asked why they decided to devote a whole weekend and a lot of work to interview Gates applicants. Their answers were really inspiring. They all said they felt honored to be able to interact with such amazing people (Gates interviewees) and that they were so impressed by all of the work we do and the high quality of the applications. Their demeanor completely changed when they responded to this question. Their faces lit up and they were more open and it became more like a regular conversation than an interview.
Did you prepare a thank you-note to leave behind? No, but I think it would be ok for you to do so if you wish.
How were you seated relative to the panel - was it like a round-table discussion or were you seated in front of them? There were four large tables arranged into a square (with a lot of space in the middle so those across from me were about 20 feet away). I had one side of the square, a woman sat on the left side of the square, two men across from me, and two men to my right.
Was there the opportunity to shake everyone’s hand before sitting down and/or before leaving? One man met me at the door and I shook his hand, but I think the rest remained seated through the introductions (though I could be mistaken about this as I have a vague memory of the others standing up to greet me and shake my hand as well). I was offered water when I entered as well. At the end, the same man let me out and I believe I shook his hand again.
When did you hear from the Gates that you had won the scholarship and how long did you have before you had to let them know you accepted? I interviewed on a Saturday (interviews were held on one weekend: Friday and Saturday, 8-9 February 2008) and I had an email in my inbox that I had won on Monday! They are amazingly fast! The deal is that the interviewers invest one weekend in this thing: they interview everyone in two days and at the end of the two days they all get together and make their end of the decisions (ranking people). Then the Gates Cambridge Trust puts interviewer scores together with the rest of the application ratings and the winners are determined. I don’t remember how long I had before needing to notify them of my acceptance of the award. I remember that I did it right away though.
Once you had been formally accepted, how long did it take to get your visa sorted out and your housing taken care of at your college? Here’s a great lesson to learn via others’ experiences: you CAN’T apply for your visa until you are WITHIN three months of leaving for the U.K. I tried to apply in May (my flight was scheduled for 15 Sept) and my application was returned to me because it was too early. The visa application and acceptance is super easy. Don’t worry about it; I think it’s more a formality.
My Cambridge online application status changed from Applicant to Offer Set around 7 February (this was a conditional offer based on my acquiring funding). I officially accepted the offer online. I was offered a place at New Hall College (now called Murray Edwards College) on 11 February (as long as I met the conditions of my offer) and I accepted on 13 February. My college acceptance form didn’t say anything about a timeline, and this may vary from college to college so you may want to inquire at your top choice about their lag time. It was later that my college sent me a message asking me to confirm if I wanted to live in or out of college and then they assigned me a room. They are a bit relaxed when it comes to giving you details about what your life will be like here, but trust that you will be happy when you get here and don’t worry about the rest.
General comment The Gates interview process is a bit nerve-wracking, but let yourself shine. They want to know that you are outgoing, motivating, excitable and will carry these leadership skills forward in your life. So relax when it comes time to interview because there will be nothing more you can do, enjoy talking to four or five interesting people, and let the rest unfold.
One thing to keep in mind is that Gates Scholars and the Gates Cambridge Trust are extremely nice, friendly, outgoing, interesting, and energetic. Once you get there, you realize there isn’t anything intimidating about these people and they become your good friends. So when you’re being interviewed, that is really the place they are coming from and they feel inspired by conducting the interview process so you are actually doing them a favor!