Jefferson Scholarship Application Essays

When high school senior Kevin Cao received college acceptance letters from elite universities, such as Princeton, Stanford and Harvard, he thought his decision would be an easy one.

Like many high school students, Harvard was his dream school, and the idea of receiving a shiny Ivy League degree was enticing.

However, upon further deliberation, he decided to make a less obvious choice. Instead of attending the nation's highest ranked institution, according to U.S. News and World Report, he decided to accept a spot in his native state’s University of Virginia.

Cao recently wrote about his decision to reject Harvard in a publicly posted essay titled, “Why I Chose UVA.”

“Most of you must think I’m crazy for turning down Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, etc. to go to UVA, but read this letter I wrote explaining my choice and always remember: It’s not about where you go, it’s about what you do while you’re there... And how happy you are!” the essay reads.

Cao, who attends the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., was recommended by his school to be part of Virginia's very selective Jefferson Scholar program. Scholars receive special perks, including free tuition, a five-week trip abroad and special enrichment events with prominent faculty and alumni.

In his essay, Cao says that he was disenchanted with Harvard after attending an admitted students event where he found the students and alumni to be “somewhat pretentious.” He also said he came to feel that the university put more resources into its graduate students than its undergraduate students. Moreover, after asking himself where he would feel most at home and grow the most as a person, he simply decided that Virginia was a better fit.

“Here at UVA I feel like I really have the opportunity to change the world, or at least try to. I will be able to discover and invest in myself and grow the most as a person,” Cao wrote.

Cao ended his essay by saying that “Turning down Harvard was extremely liberating.”

Students and teachers at Cao’s high school appear to be proud of his decision, according to the Fairfax Times.

“My first reaction to when I heard that Kevin chose UVA over all the other schools he got into was pretty much disbelief. Then probably jealousy…,” Somya Shankar, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School, told the paper. “However, after reading Kevin’s essay, I’m so glad that he decided to go to UVA, not only because he’ll be close and able to visit all the time, but also because he stayed true to himself.”

“It doesn’t surprise me that he would be strong in his convictions,” Evan Glazer, his principal, said. “It’s not about where you get into but how you can use your own talents and interests… For some students it happens at Harvard and in some cases it happens at UVA. That’s exactly how we want our students to choose a school.

Cao is in a minority of students who decline the opportunity to enroll at Harvard University. The university recently revealed that the incoming class will have its highest yield rate since 1973, with 82 percent of those accepted attending the school, according to the Harvard Gazette.

In 2012, the University of Virginia’s yield rate was 42.5 percent for the incoming class.

The Jefferson Scholarship selection process is designed to give students an opportunity to showcase their excellence in leadership, citizenship, and scholarship.  For the 2016-2017 competition, the Foundation received 2,005 nominations from secondary schools participating in the regional competitions. 


No one may apply for a Jefferson Scholarship. Participating schools are asked to nominate the student in the senior class who best exemplifies excellence in the Jeffersonian ideals of leadership, scholarship, and citizenship.

  • An eligible school’s nominating committee is asked to nominate one student. 
  • Successful candidates have demonstrated uncommon academic abilities, exceptional leadership talents, and an understanding of the broader community around them.
  • Prior interest in the University of Virginia and financial need should not be factors in selecting a nominee.
  • Nominations are completed by both school officials and students and include a scholastic report, extracurricular activities, recommendation letters and two essays. 
  • The Jefferson Scholars Foundation seeks to identify the most highly talented students in the world, and all that is asked of these students is a willingness to participate fully in the selection process.
  • All counselors and Jefferson Scholar nominees must submit a completed nomination form by December 1.

*Schools will be allowed to nominate a second candidate if and only if they feel they have two equally qualified candidates between whom they are unable to distinguish.

Admissions At-Large Nomination

A separate competition permits a review of all:

  • U.Va. Early Action applicants attending secondary schools not eligible to participate in the regional competitions
  • Nursing School applicants
  • School of Architecture applicants

Students who wish to be considered for a Jefferson Scholarship nomination but do not attend an eligible school must apply using the Early Action admission process to the University of Virginia, a November 1 deadline. Due to the volume of students in the Admissions At-Large competition, only those students receiving a nomination will be notified of their status.

Regional Selection

Each year the Foundation identifies finalists through 62 regional competitions around the country and 2 international competitions. Regional selection committees—comprised of alumni and friends of the University—review transcripts, extracurricular activities, essays, and teacher recommendations before conducting one or more rounds of interviews. Of these regional nominees, 120 finalists are invited to Charlottesville to compete at the Jefferson Scholars Selection Weekend in March.

Selection Weekend

In March, all 120 finalists arrive on Grounds for the Jefferson Scholars Selection Weekend, a four-day opportunity to explore the University of Virginia and complete the Jefferson Scholarship competition. Activities included participation in seminars led by University professors, a written exercise, a math/logic exam, and a personal interview. At the competition’s conclusion, the Selection Committee selects the recipients of the Jefferson Scholarship, who must then decide whether to accept the scholarship offer by April 16th.

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