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Competition Winning Essays For Gates

Hey guys,

I asked a friend of mine who was recently awarded a Gates Cambridge scholarship to write a blog post with advice on applying for the scholarship. Here’s what he had to say. (For some background, Paul graduated in 2012 from Auburn University and is currently pursuing a Fulbright.) For advice about the interview process and overall experience at Cambridge, here is a post by Gates alumna Dr. Corina Logan.


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.

1.  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.

2. 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 – http://map.cam.ac.uk/colleges).

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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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. 


Paul can be reached at pmb1990@gmail.com for further questions.

Global Classroom’s World Citizen Essay Contest

*The goal of the World Citizen Essay Contest is to promote discussion among students, teachers, families, and community members about the ways that individuals can effect positive change in the global community.*

2018 World Citizen Essay Contest



The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), otherwise known as the Global Goals, were agreed upon by the United Nations in 2015 to address vital global issues by 2030. They are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and work toward peace and prosperity for all. 

Although these ambitious goals are interconnected, each emphasizes a different area of development, including: education, gender equality, health, water and sanitation, environment, poverty, hunger, peace and justice, etc. (To learn more about all 17 goals, please check out the following website https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs)

Overall, the 17 goals represent an opportunity for our local, national, and global communities to improve the living standards of all people in all regions of the world. How do you think you could make difference in achieving one of these goals? Where would you want to work (local or global context) toward achieving this goal and why? How would you make achieving this goal sustainable?

You can also check out these intro videos with Malala and Emma Watson

Essay Prompt:

You have recently received a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to “take action” toward achieving ONE of the 17 Global Goals (SDGs). In 1,000 words or less, explain why you chose this goal, what region (local or global context) of the world you would work to address it (and why), and what steps or actions you would take to make it sustainable.

Note: For “region,” you could discuss a region of the world, specific country context, or a local community.

Suggestion for Elementary Teachers: You may want to choose ONE of the Global Goals that is connected to your curriculum standards and have your entire class focus on that goal.

Suggestion for Secondary Teachers: You may give students the option to choose ONE of the 17 goals or pre-select which goal you would like your students to address in their essay.


2018 WCEC Rule Sheet

2018 WCEC Judging Rubric

2018 WCEC Cover Form

2018 WCEC Cover Form fillable PDF*

*Please download the cover form and fill it out before saving to ensure your information is recorded properly. Always double check that the form you attach to your email has your information clearly and legibly displayed.

Extra materials for educators and students are listed below:

Introduction to the Global Goals (includes lesson plans for all grade levels)

SDG Essay Resource Packet for Educators


We are pleased to announce that this year’s prizes will once again include travel vouchers for the winning essay in each grad bracket, provided by Expedia, Inc.


Please submit essays with your cover form filled in and attached as a separate document to essaycontest@world-affairs.org by the deadline: Friday, March 16th


If you are interested in judging the 2018 Essay Contest, please fill out the 2018 WCEC Judge Contact Form and email it to tosterhaug@world-affairs.org

The World Citizen Essay Contest is made possible by the generous support of Expedia Inc, as part of the Expedia Cares initiative.

Previous Essay Contests 

2017 World Citizen Essay Contest

The United Nations has declared 2017 as the International Year of Sustainable Tourism for Development. Now is your chance to engage as a Sustainable Traveler…

You have won an all-expenses-paid trip to the destination of your choice. In 1,000 words or less, describe where you will go (and why), and explain what steps you will take to make sure that your travels are truly sustainable.

Congratulations to our 18th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest winners!

Students were celebrated at a public awards ceremony on May 2nd with keynote speaker Katherine Cheng, head of the global corporate citizenship and community relations for Expedia, Inc. 

Read all of the winning World Citizen Essays here. 

2016 World Citizen Essay Contest

In the 2015-2016 school year, the World Affairs Council partnered with Water1st International; our prompt asked students to think critically and be engaged as global citizens by addressing one of the most critical issues of our time: The worldwide water crisis.

Congratulations to our 17th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest winners!

The student winners were celebrated at a public awards ceremony on May 5th, with keynote speaker and former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Jeff Raikes, and featuring the founder of Water1st International Marla Smith-Nilson. 

CLICK HERE to watch Jeff Raikes’ keynote at our Essay Contest Awards Ceremony

CLICK HERE to watch the Q & A with Jeff Raikes and Marla Smith-Nilson

Read all of the winning essays here.

2015 World Citizen Essay Contest

The student winners were celebrated at a public awards ceremony on May 26th with keynote speaker Margaret Larson of KING 5 News. Check out video from the eventhere.  

Congratulations to our Winners:


Washington State students in grades 3 through 12 were invited to think like a foreign news correspondent with the following essay prompt: 

In our increasingly interconnected world, it is important to be informed of issues and events around the globe in order to better understand and engage with the people around us. If you were a foreign news correspondent, where would you like to be assigned? What story would you cover and how would you gather the necessary information? Why do you think this is an important story to tell?

Read the winning essays here. 

Zara Rupp, The Water Crisis

Ruby Whorton, Disappearance to ISIS

Katie Wade, The Effects of Boycotting Chocolate: Good or Bad for Child Laborers in Cote d’Ivoire?

2014 World Citizen Essay Contest

On June 5th, Rick Steves joined the World Affairs Council and essay contest winners to speak on the value of thoughtful travel and present students with their certificates and prizes. 

Congratulations to our winners:

Grades 3-5

Grades 6-8

Grades 9-12

First PlaceAryeh Tenbroek, Bryant Elementary, “Freedom for Tibet”Anirudh Prakash, Odle Middle School, “Piracy: A Conspiracy to Shun Ancient Growth”Daaniya Iyaz, STEM HS, “Peering Across the Partition”
Second PlaceRoberto Kannapell, Bryant Elementary, “Guatemalan Coffee”Melinda Day, Tahoma Middle School, “Broadening Perspectives Through Travel”Warisha Soomro, STEM High School, “The ‘Perfect’ Destination”
Third PlaceGilly Wolf, Bryant Elementary, “Ethiopia”Gabrielle Chappell, College Place Middle School, “World Citizen Essay”Marium Raza, Redmond High School, “Hopeless Paradise: Questions about the Future of Swat Valley, Pakistan”

Read about the way these students are thinking about the world beyond our borders! Find excerpts and the full essayshere.

Washington State students in grades 3-12 were asked to respond to the following prompt:

Rick Steves

Through his book, TV and radio shows, guided tours, and public speaking engagements, Rick Steves haintroduced Americans to many parts of the world. His recent book, Travel as a Political Act, suggests that travel may be important for reasons that go beyond a dream vacation. Rick Steves has traveled to Iran, Israel, and Palestine among other places, with the goal of making connections with and understanding the concerns of the people who live there.

If you traveled with the same goal, where would you go and why?  What would you hope to learn? How will traveling to this place and meeting its residents broaden your perspectives – why is this important? 

We received nearly 450 essays this year! Thank you to everyone who participated. And thank you to our volunteer judges!

2013 World Citizen Essay Contest

Nancy Pearl

We celebrated our winners at a special event at the Seattle Asian Art Museum with Nancy Pearl on May 30th. At the ceremony, the winners received their cash prizes, a certificate, and a copy of Nancy Pearl’s book, Book Crush.



Congratulations to our 2013 World Citizen Essay Contest Winners:

Grades 3-5

Grades 6-8

Grades 9-12

First PlaceKayla Lay, View Ridge Elementary School, “The Brave Little Turtle“Quinn Sullivan, Eckstein Middle School, “Be Brave”Emily Geyman, Lakeside School, “Weep Not, Child: The Light of Kenya, a Story of Hope”
Second PlaceGrace Harman, Bryant Elementary School, “A School Life”Anna Galbraith, Eckstein Middle School, “Persevering in the Darkest of Times: Wisdom from Maus”Madeline Bennett, Redmond High School, “Becoming Conscious”
Third PlaceCora Wright, Bryant Elementary,“The Breadwinner”Harriet Wright, Eckstein Middle School, “Breaking Down Walls”Meg Leonard, Redmond High School, “Abby Takes a Stand”

2012 Games Without Borders Youth Challenge 

Congratulations to the winners of our First Annual Games Without Borders Youth Challenge!

In lieu of the World Citizen Essay Contest, Global Classroom encouraged students to apply their knowledge of and passion for gaming while learning about world issues. Since fun, educational games about global topics are hard to find, GC gave Puget Sound students a new challenge: create a game that young people would love eto play and that would raise awareness about a global topic or issue.

The winners were:

Middle School Division:

Children of Change by McKenna Sevruk (7th grade, Tahoma Middle School)Middle School Division:

Microloan Adventures by Luke Johnson, Christo Pamboukas, Joey Peterson, and Reed Stever (7th grade, Tahoma Middle School)

High School Division: 

Animal Rescue: The Video Game by Kaylene Stocking and Sarah Yerrace (9th grade, Timbercrest Junior High)

Let’s Trade! by Alina Amkhavong, Hannah Madani, Cristina Martinez, and Sahar Mohammad (10th grade, Kent-Meridian High School)

Syria at Risk by Sopheaktra Danh and Melody Northcutt (12th grade, Aviation High School)

To learn more about this contest, visit our Games Without Borders Youth Challenge webpage.

13th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest (2011)

Congratulations to our 2011 World Citizen Essay Contest Winners!

On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the World Affairs Council and the upcoming 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair, the World Affairs Council embarked on a two-year partnership with the Seattle Center Foundation.

The question for the 2011 World Citizen Essay Contest was:
“Looking back over the last sixty years, please identify a Puget Sound-based innovation that has left its mark around the world. Explain why and how this innovation had an impact beyond the United States. (This impact can be related to the arts, sports, music, popular culture, technology, civic action, global health, education, manufacturing, etc.)”

Thank you to all of the students who submitted essays and to the outstanding judges who volunteered their time to read them all!

Our special congratulations to the following students who were the top finalists in each category. Click on the links below to read excerpts from our winning essays.

On June 23rd, 2011 World Citizen Essay Contest winners were interviewed about global innovation on Public Exposure SCAN-TV. Watch the 30 minute interview here.


12th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest (2010)

The question for the 2010 World Citizen Essay Contest was:

“Despite the ever increasing importance of understanding the histories, governments, and cultures, of people from all over the world, many news organizations in recent years have had to cut their foreign correspondent staff. If you were a journalist on an international assignment, where would you like to go, what issue would you cover, and why? “

Thank you to the 390 students who submitted essays and the 78 judges who spent time reading them all. Essay Contest winners were being honored at a Global Classroom Celebration on May 17th, 2010.

Our special congratulations to the following students, top finalists in each category.

11th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest (2009)

The question for the 2009 World Citizen Essay Contest was:

“Imagine that you are Hillary Rodham Clinton, the new U.S. Secretary of State and head of the U.S. Department of State, which has a mission to create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community. Describe one international issue you think is important today. Why do you think this issue is important to both the U.S. and the world? Considering the mission of the U.S. Department of State, what would you do about this issue?”

Thank you to the 215 students who submitted essays and the 78 judges who spent time reading them all. Essay Contest winners were being honored at a Global Classroom Celebration on May 27th, 2009.

Our special congratulations to the following students, top finalists in each category.


10th Annual World Citizen Essay Contest (2008)

The question from the 2008 World Citizen Essay Contest was:

“In April, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (1989 Nobel Prize winner for Peace) will journey to Seattle to discuss and celebrate compassion in action with Seattle-area youth, educators, and policy makers. Definition: ‘Compassionate acts are generally considered those which take into account the suffering of others and attempt to alleviate that suffering as if it were one’s own.’ (From Wikipedia – as cited by the organization Seeds of Compassion) A) Considering the definition above, identify an individual who has been moved by compassion to take action on a problem. Describe his or her work. How did he or she demonstrate compassion? B) Now, imagine yourself as an adult. Following in this individual’s footsteps, what international issue would you want to tackle? Why is this issue important? What steps might you take to resolve the issue? Why does this issue awaken compassion in you?”

Thank you to the over 200 students who submitted essays and the 33 judges who spent time reading them all. Essay contest winners were honored at a special reception and award ceremony on June 17, 2008.

Our special congratulations to the following students, top finalists in each category.

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