Olin's First Gates Cambridge Scholar

By - Ari Chae '15

For a college that is still new and tiny, we celebrate and recognize each accomplishment  for what it is - one step closer to putting Olin 'on the map,' and to being recognized by more people around the world.


Congrats to Senior Ilana Walder-Biesanz, the first Olin student to be named a Gates Cambridge Scholar! It is especially impressive that Ilana is currently only 18 years old, having arrived at Olin at the age of 15.  She'll be studying at the University of Cambridge, England to earn her Masters degree in European Literature and Culture. I had the opportunity to speak with Ilana and glean some of her insights into the fellowship application process.

Ilana submitted applications to seven different prestigious fellowship programs in Europe - the Gates Cambridge, Rhodes, Mitchell, Marshall, Fulbright, DAAD and Erasmus Mundus.   The application process for these fellowships starts early and each one takes A LOT of time.  According to Aarti Chellakere*, Assistant Director of Post Graduate Planning and Admissions , "It was a pleasure to work with Ilana! She met every single internal deadline and was without a doubt the most organized student I have ever worked with."  

Ilana began to prepare herself to apply to these fellowship programs during her freshman year, when she started attending events at Wellesley College. Each fellowship program looks for specific profiles and accomplishments, and knowing early on what each program requires helps build a "strong story for why the fellowship fits in" with an applicant's background.

While Ilana was aware of these fellowship applications throughout college, she started working on them in earnest at the end of her junior year. Over the summer, she worked on her essays, getting feedback from various people and writing multiple drafts. Olin College puts together a panel of faculty and staff to help with the review of these applications, and Ilana was able to shape her essays with their help.

Ilana recalls that in the beginning she was very "cutesy" in her essays, and the panel helped her tell a story in a way that showed her personality but still had a serious, straightforward tone. Ilana also began to gather recommendations from professors, employers and others during the summer after her junior year. Generally, programs accept between seven or eight recommendations and the school's endorsement.

Most of Ilana's applications were due in early October, after which she started to hear back about interviews. Not everyone who applies get an interview - in fact, about less than 10% of applicants do. The interview for Gates Cambridge lasted about 15 minutes, and they asked regular interview questions.  (Bill Gates' parents were in the room, observing her interview!) Interestingly, Ilana felt that her interview with Gates Cambridge felt more natural than some of the others did.

One thing to note about these fellowship programs is that there is a quick turnaround for everything, leaving very little room for weighing options. Ilana heard back within days after her interview, and in turn had only a few days to make her decision! She was more than happy to accept the Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

What advice does Ilana have for Oliners thinking about applying for the Gates Cambridge or other awards?  She firmly believes that "more Oliners are good fits [for such fellowship programs] than they think." Most important to remember, though, is that while it's important to have a compelling story, one should not define their Olin path by a fellowship quest.   Ilana definitely didn't when she pursued her interests, and she did just fine! Ilana is taking another leap by pursuing further studies in a field other than engineering, showing once again how diverse the interests of Oliners can be.

Congratulations to Olin's first Gates Cambridge Scholar!

*Aarti Chellakere assists students with the application process for graduate school and several prestigious scholarships and awards. If you are interested in learning more or in developing a plan for your application or in assessing your eligibility for applying to these scholarships, get in touch with her!

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This page contains a single entry by Post-Graduate Planning published on March 15, 2013 10:44 AM.

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