The Case for Leadership

Does leadership--a successful record of guiding others in the realization of common goals, of problem solving, innovative thinking, and resourcefulness--significantly figure into the competition for national and prestigious awards? To this hefty and necessary question, we must answer "yes . . . YES." While it might seem that impressive academic achievement and undergraduate research are the "twin stars" of the national scholarship crown, often they are joined by a third criterion: leadership. Indeed, a student's leadership record can actually be the determining factor in a student's selection for a scholarship--particularly given the consistency with which applicants for these awards excel academically. Indeed, the Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman scholarships each evaluate candidates' records as leaders as a vital part of their selection process. The descriptions that follow--detailing the criteria of leadership for each of these scholarships--offer a compelling case for considering thoughtfully how you might extend your commitment to your chosen academic/extracurricular activities beyond active participation to leadership in these groups.


Marshall Scholarships, established to express British gratitude for the European Recovery Program after World War II, may be used for study at any university in the United Kingdom. Marshall Scholars usually pursue an advanced degree during their two years of British education. The Marshall Commission states that distinction of intellect and character (as evidenced by scholarly attainments and by other activities and interests) are the primary selection criteria, but preference will also be given to candidates who display a potential to make a significant contribution to their own society.

To evaluate candidates, the Marshall employs three criteria: academic merit, ambassadorial potential, and leadership potential. To define leadership potential, the Marshall Commission links a series of outcome-based questions to qualities it associates with this criterion. Readers for the Marshall evaluate the likeliness of candidates' becoming agents of change in their chosen field by examining their applications for these qualities:

(1) Ability to Deliver Results. Can the candidate demonstrate how he or she delivered results from a position of leadership--whether by organizing, mobilizing or inspiring others? This may have been through his/her intellectual or artistic contributions or in other ways. Is there evidence that the candidate initiated something and carried it through to an outcome? Is the candidate likely to attain a position of influence in his/her field of expertise?

(2) Strength of Purpose. Has the applicant demonstrated courage of conviction, persistence, and determination in the pursuit of his or her goals? Do the candidate's extra-curricular activities indicate commitment?

(3) Creativity. Is there evidence of creativity and innovation in the candidate's approach to answering questions or solving problems?

(4) Self-Awareness. Is there evidence of a strong desire to contribute to society? Is the candidate aware of his or her role in particular activities and impact on other people? Can the candidate explain what changed as a result of his or her involvement in something?


The Rhodes Scholarship permits the pursuit of an Oxford University degree. It is awarded only to the very highest qualified students who exemplify scholastic attainment, moral force of character, and leadership. Awards are made on a nationally competitive basis and are regarded by many as the most prestigious scholarships in the world.

The Rhodes Trust employs four criteria by which prospective Rhodes Scholars are selected:

(1) literary and scholastic attainments, (2) energy to use one's talents to the full, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports (3) truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for and protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness and fellowship, and (4) moral force of character and instincts to lead, and to take an interest in one's fellow beings. The Victorian tone of these criteria reflects the nineteenth-century provenance of the scholarship--as it came into being through the will and legacy of an exceptionally successful businessman, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902), who lived in England and South Africa. But as Elliot F. Gerson, American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust, writes, "One of the most remarkable aspects of our history is the endurance of our criteria, which were quite radical at the time. The qualities he [Cecil Rhodes] sought in his will are all valuable today, in all our worldwide constituencies: academic excellence, healthy vigor, care for the weak, and ability to assume leadership."

In a 2003 conference address, Mr. Gerson quotes Cecil Rhodes and notes the emphasis he placed on leadership as one of the four criteria for his legacy, what we know today as the Rhodes Scholarship. Rhodes writes, "Great consideration should be given to those who have shewn during the school days that they have instincts to lead and … which … will be likely in after life to guide them to esteem the performance of public duties as their highest aim."

In a 2013 Q&A, Mr. Gerson explains further,

"Try to remember that all the candidates endorsed are extraordinarily able academically (that being the essential pre-requisite to the award). Thus, the deciding factors are usually the less tangible or objective ones of leadership and character, ambition and service. These things are not always evident in a list of activities or an essay or in professors' letters. Indications of these are often the critical factor at the interview stage. And committees may be skeptical of activities listed that look like resume-padding, and that may reflect marketing (and even selfishness) more than what we look for as indicators of major future leadership.

And as I have said many times, committees do not assume that exotic internships and rare experiences reflect reliable signs for the future as much as they might at times simply reflect the luck of affluence and connections. So letters that help the committee understand what might be remarkable force of personality and commitment and leadership are likely to be very helpful. And what we seek is future leadership. Leadership on say, the student council, or a charity, or a team, might not be a good indicator of anything. Or it could be. Help us understand that."


The Truman Foundation awards merit-based scholarships to college juniors who have impressive leadership potential, who plan to pursue careers in government or elsewhere in public service, and who wish to attend graduate school to help prepare for public service careers. A good candidate for the Truman Scholarship has an extensive record of public and community service; has outstanding leadership potential and communication skills; and is committed to a career in government or elsewhere in public service, as defined by the Foundation.

Tara Yglesias, the Deputy Executive Secretary of the Truman Foundation, has written and spoken at length on the leadership criterion for the Truman. She emphasizes two components of leadership: the degree and duration of students' commitment to the effort/organization in which they are leaders and the outcomes/accomplishments to which they can point as evidence of their involvement. Ms. Yglesias explains that the Truman Foundation wants to know: Does the student's leadership reflect lived experience or merely a collection of leadership titles? Has the student served in leadership roles that have allowed him or her to gain a real sense of how power works? Did the student serve in leadership roles in the public service activities about which he writes in the application? Does the student's leadership record reflect a commitment to the sphere and work of her projected career? Is the student able to articulate his or her particular contributions and impact as a leader--as opposed to the accomplishments of a larger group or team of leaders?


These three scholarships, the Marshall, Rhodes, and Truman, will scrutinize applicants' undergraduate record for examples and experiences of leadership. The descriptions and details above certainly allow one to appreciate the significance of demonstrating one's potential as a leader in the arena of national and prestigious awards.

If you are considering applying for one of these or another national scholarship, it would be wise to make an inventory of your activities at Baylor, in the Waco area, and other communities in terms of the degree and duration of your investment in these groups. Perhaps you will find that your record of leadership coheres to the selection criteria of the Marshall, for example, or perhaps you will find that you cannot make the case for extraordinary leadership potential. This self-knowledge is invaluable and will equip you to choose the scholarship for which you want to apply and perhaps might embolden you to intensify your commitment to and investment in a group that matters much to you.

You might find it instructive to peruse the profiles of recent scholarships winners--whether the Marshall or Truman, Gates Cambridge or Mitchell. The undergraduate record that these student-winners describe will illustrate vividly the caliber of leadership and service that is attractive to the trusts and foundations who award national scholarships.

Office of Engaged Learning

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