What does it take to be a Rhodes Scholar?

I asked this of some Yalies selected for this year’s fellowship — Jane Darby Menton ’14, Matt Townsend ’14, Jordan Konell ’14 and Gabriel Zucker ’12.

My curiosity may have stemmed from my confusion regarding college admission decisions. I’ve never understood the cloak-and-dagger proceedings of highly prestigious institutions, whose prestige surely comes in part from the competitive nature of their selection processes.

6.3 percent of applicants to Yale are accepted, but the Rhodes Scholarship only took 32 out of 877 applicants this year — a 3.6 percent admission rate. This is especially notable given that most applicants are highly successful college students.

In addition to the four Rhodes winners aforementioned, there were six Marshall Scholars selected from Yale this year: Rahul Singh ’15, Miranda Rizzolo ’15, Sarah Norvell ’15, Benjamin Daus-Haberle ’12, Ned Downie ’14 and Katherine McDaniel ’14. Unlike recipients of the Rhodes Scholarship, winners of the Marshall Scholarship can choose from among all universities in the United Kingdom.

This year there were 979 applicants to the Marshall Scholarship, and 34 were accepted — an almost identical admissions statistic.

When I asked what it really takes to be a Rhodes Scholar, two of the Yale winners from this year responded:

“Passion,” said Jordan Konell.

“Vision,” said Matt Townsend.

Confession: I usually don’t believe it when people say things like this. But these two seniors really, really convinced me that they meant — and, more importantly, understood — what they were saying.

“I thought I bombed my first interview,” Konell said. “I called my mom and told her to come early. I left and I felt like I hadn’t done my best, but I also felt like everything I said, I meant from my heart … I don’t think the Rhodes Foundation is just looking for impressive individuals. I think they’re looking for people who want to change the world.”

Konell talked extensively about his field of study: race relations in civic policy. Although I kept trying to steer the conversation away from urban Philadelphia (his hometown, of which he hopes, one day, to be mayor), he tied everything back to race.

“What’s your favorite book?” I ask.

“‘Song of Solomon’ by Toni Morrison,” he says.

Besides being a passionate advocate for racial equality, Konell was a Community Health Educators CoCo (Co-Coordinator) and seems to be a particularly dedicated Pierson FroCo this year — he refers to his freshmen as his children. Konell tells me he grew up in a working-class area in Philadelphia with a single mom. Because of that, he says, his family is very close-knit. (The night he found out about winning the fellowship, he ate a Philly cheesesteak and hung out with his mom.)

He talked about his background: an ethnically diverse neighborhood that made him aware of his privilege as a white male, which has had a great influence on his field of study now.

Townsend grew up in Chappaqua, New York. He plays basketball, which he describes as the activity he’s most devoted to — he was recruited for athletics his junior year of high school, and basketball is the main reason he came to Yale. He leads the varsity team here, and has maintained a perfect academic record across the sciences, economics and Latin. Maybe most importantly, he works for Student Rented Fridges. He proudly says that, yes, if anyone I knew had ordered a fridge for delivery, he was the one who made that happen.

Said Townsend: “I don’t think it’s [so] important what change you want to make in the world, because there are so many ways to make a big difference. I think what’s important is having a clear vision of what exactly you want to do.”

In the long term, Townsend’s vision is to go into academic medicine. He wants to explore socio-cultural determinants of health, particularly the causes of obesity. And, of course, he wants to continue playing basketball; he’s on the Yale varsity team now and has been shooting hoops since he was eight. He might even play at Oxford, though he tells me that someone compared the Oxford team to “like, third-and-a-half division.”

The professors who recommended Townsend and Konell have their own explanations for the students’ success.

Professor Crystal Feimster, who has known Konell since he was in a freshman seminar she taught, says, “Jordan was a real firecracker as a freshman. And such a joy to teach — his enthusiasm was contagious.”

“I think Jordan is interesting,” says his advisor Cynthia Horan, who wrote him a letter of recommendation for the Rhodes and has also taught two of his classes. “That’s not to say other students aren’t interesting.” But she still highlights Konell’s unique qualities: “Jordan has a good sense of himself … He can make a good case without getting nervous, because he actually believes what he’s saying. There’s a lot of networking at Yale, but Jordan doesn’t do that in the same way. He does what he cares about.”

Townsend is the first student professor Peter Aronson has ever recommended for a Rhodes scholarship. Townsend took a class and did rounds in the hospital with him, and the professor is a great admirer of Yale athletics. Despite Aronson’s inexperience recommending students for the fellowship, he says, “It did strike me that Matt would be a good candidate because of his well-rounded array of activities and his excellence in all spheres … I was particularly impressed by his well-defined interest — he’s already done work in the area of obesity. He wanted to continue work he’d already started, not have the Rhodes be an honor for its own sake.”

He too goes on to qualify his praise with recognition of other students. He cites the many impressive students he has, and says he wonders whether too much attention is given to those students who win prestigious awards.

Despite the glowing recommendations from their professors, Konell and Townsend remain humble.

What it really comes down to, they both say in conclusion, is luck.

It’s doubtful that this is the only factor. For the past decade, Yale students have won between two and eight Rhodes scholarships per year on average. Only 32 students are selected from the entire country; a disproportionate number of Yalies snag the prize.

A Yale education certainly fosters success: There is an average endowment of $1,700,000 per student, 75 percent of classes have 20 students or fewer and Yale coordinates hundreds of summer internship programs.

Elliot Gerson LAW ’79, who is in charge of appointing members of the scholarship competition’s committees, cannot pinpoint the reason why Yale has so many winners as opposed to other universities — other than the obvious fact that as a selective institution, Yale admits individuals who are high-achieving and ambitious.

Instead, Gerson lays emphasis on the individual above the institution. “Most years, even after 111 years, we have one or more winners from institutions that have never before had a winner. We give no weight on the scale to such applicants, but we promote them specially to help assure that remarkable students apply from everywhere and anywhere.”

Gerson is quite fixed on the idea that the Rhodes Foundation selects individuals with particular qualities that cannot be gleaned from studying at elite schools.

Gerson says it’s not Yale — so does this bring us back to luck? He does acknowledge that the majority of finalists, even candidates, are highly qualified and deserving. Gerson comments that finalists and other applicants who didn’t win the scholarship go on to be successful people who greatly impact the world and their fields of study. This is in keeping with Konell and Townsend’s observations that they felt all of the students in their applicant pools were incredibly qualified and that they met some of the most interesting people they knew during the application process.

Horan acknowledges the influence of luck, saying, “The Rhodes process really seems to depend on the interaction you have with the committee that interviews you. I definitely think at the very end of this long and difficult process, that committee is the one that decides. And that’s pretty unpredictable.”

Still, Gerson isn’t too keen on considering luck as a major factor. He admits that the selection process is rigorous, but that’s for a good reason: The process, he thinks, is ultimately fair. Still, he says, it would be naïve to say luck is not, at least, a small factor.

Townsend thinks a big part is his likability. And he is likable. (“My favorite book is ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I know, it’s really girly, but I identify with Mr. Darcy. Not because I want to be, like, the main love interest with all the ladies, but because I’m quiet, and some people think I’m aloof.”) But he’s also a superstar varsity basketball player, premed student and volunteer — a host of qualifications he’s too modest to list and, at this point, are probably available on the Internet. Point is, it’s not luck. It’s not Yale. It’s some sort of golden ratio.