Top Scholars Talk with Jacob Calvert on being a Marshall Scholar

What was the application process like for the Marshall Scholarship?

I remember feeling elevated by the investment of the campus community; the dozens of hours the two of you spent fielding my thoughts and encouraging my effort, the faculty that critically reviewed my writings and rallied for mock interviews, the advisors that carefully distilled four-year relationships into 1,000 words or fewer. I also remember the struggle against feelings of inadequacy and the imposter syndrome, and weathering the sometimes-cutting-but-always-helpful feedback. After a particularly poor response to a question about UK policy, one campus panelist remarked that my response sounded like it was sampled from The Economist’s table of contents from that week. Bingo. In another mock interview, a panelist baited me into a no-win discussion about public education as precious time ran out. Lesson learned. What about being overruled by a subject-matter expert? I fell for that, too. Were these accidental, teachable moments? No. These failures were engineered by the panelists with my ultimate success in mind. During the final practice interview, just a few days before the real one, I felt more at ease. I had made so many mistakes that there were few left to make. The faculty lining the perimeter of the table seemed at ease, too. Afterwards, the panelists offered smiles and kind words, final pieces of advice and even a book recommendation. I felt like I had just graduated from some extraordinary academy and, in a way, I had. Through the scholarship process, I strengthened critical communication skills, articulated my goals, and found fulfillment in unifying my experiences with a narrative. The campus scholarship process was a formative experience unlike any other I had at Illinois.


What is your approach to standing out amid stiff competition?

Identify your X factors. Most scholarship applicants will have a strong academic record. Most will have a history of extracurricular involvement that dates back to their election as student body president while still in the zygote stage of development. Some will even know how to fold a fitted sheet. But you have something that they don’t! You saw/visited/heard/made/found/learned/thought/discovered/experienced that one thing that one time, which inspired the thing you do now! Try to be creative about the structure and content of your personal statement — how can you connect your myriad interests and experiences into a coherent and compelling narrative? The people reviewing your application won’t remember you because your GPA was above a 3.5. They’ll remember you because of the way your culinary interests inform your research in cosmology. Or they’ll remember you because your inspiration to pursue international criminal justice came from fishing trips with your grandfather. This is the narrative that you’ll complement with your other essays and further develop during your interview. If you don’t think you have anything interesting to say, go talk to someone at the NISP office — they’re particularly good at inspiring these sorts of narratives.


What has your Marshall Scholar experience been like so far? 

I expected that the scholarship would be most valuable for the course of study that I would pursue. Without a doubt, the most valuable aspect of the scholarship is the intellectual enrichment from the community of scholars. My fellow scholars are some of the most thoughtful, engaged, talented, interesting, and inspiring people I have ever met. Through our discussions, I've learned about social mobility, binary star formation, maritime archaeology, international relations, robotics, educational policy, and much, much more. Living, learning, and traveling with Renaissance transplants such as these is the true value of the scholarship.


What advice would you give to students applying to the Marshall Scholarship?

The most valuable resources you have are time, the NISP office, and your advisors. Start writing as early as possible and submit an application for the priority deadline. Every opportunity for feedback that you spurn is a loss! For reference, I started drafting a personal statement 2 weeks before the first priority deadline. Write as many high-quality drafts as possible, send them to the NISP office, and schedule a meeting for feedback. Meet with your research advisors. Ask them to review your applications and write strong recommendations. You can ask letter writers to cover complementary aspects of your experiences. For example, if you participated in an outreach program with one professor and conducted research with another, don’t ask both of them to highlight your otherworldly Skee-Ball skills. Instead, suggest that one focus on outreach and the other on research. The NISP office can provide feedback quickly, while research advisors likely can’t/won’t. For reference, my research advisors revised 1 draft for every 3 that the NISP office did. Convey letter submission deadlines clearly or prepare to stakeout a professor’s office (I did this, twice).


What tips do you have for those awarded a scholarship?

If you’ll be living and studying abroad, try to save up money beforehand. There are few times in life when you have the freedom and means — both physical and financial — to explore the world. 

Avoid exclusively spending time with other scholars from the US. At institutions that are hubs for international scholars, there are large communities of US students, and it is convenient to only spend time with them. While you should certainly cultivate these friendships, you’ll be missing out if you don’t make the effort to integrate into the culture of your host country.

Contact those currently on the scholarship and ask for advice. They’ll likely be happy to share some scholarship-specific wisdom. In fact, your scholarship community (like mine) may maintain a compendium of tips for scholars-elect like you!