Schols: Ireland’s most prestigious (and most feared) academic honour

Trinity News speaks with students and faculty about this one-of-a-kind, life changing examination imbued with prestige and intimidation

Every year, on the first Monday in April, the lives of around sixty Trinity students change in an instant. During a tension-filled half hour, hundreds of people gather in Front Square to discover whether they were one of the few to earn free accommodation, an exemption from undergraduate college tuition, three years of postgraduate education, a yearly salary, and free dining hall meals in return for excelling in four essay-based exams. This distinctive award is officially called Trinity’s “Foundation Scholarship”, more commonly known as “Schols”. 

Established in Trinity’s 1592 Foundational Charter, becoming a “Scholar” is considered Ireland’s highest undergraduate academic honour. Taking on this daunting challenge is no easy feat. The Schols examinations are notoriously difficult and require students to become quasi-experts in their subjects. For reference, some notable Scholars include Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett, the first female President of Ireland Mary Robinson, and Oscar-nominated director Lenny Abrahamson. To succeed, students must average a first-class honours across all the exams, and not receive a grade below a 65% on any single paper.

Trinity News interviewed people across multiple academic disciplines, with diverse Schols experiences, to better understand why these voluntary exams are so steeped in both fear and awe. 

“I fell in love with learning… the person I was after Schols, versus before… the way it affected my habits, my discipline… that was the greatest asset, even on top of all the benefits that you get”

Petro Visage, 2023 Global Business Scholar 

Even before she applied to College, Petro was aware of the benefits of Schols. Her decision to go to Trinity was largely based on the encouragement of her secondary school guidance counsellor who believed, as Petro laughingly recalled, she would “absolutely” become a Scholar, given her impressive academic record.

From her first year at Trinity, Petro took her notes with Schols in mind. Despite this, she was unprepared for the discouraging attitude held by her professors and peers towards the exams: “the entire information session just scared people because it was just about how hard it is… there’s this narrative out there that only one business person can get it.”  

Nevertheless, with the encouragement of her professor, Dr. Kenneth Silver, Petro chose to take on the challenge anyway. For her, the financial rewards were an opportunity which couldn’t be passed up, especially after turning away scholarships from other universities to attend Trinity.

Along with studying in the library for up to fifty hours a week over winter break, Petro focused on building daily study habits throughout the semester which improved her understanding of current events, information she later brought into the exams: “a big part was building habits of listening to the news, listening to podcasts, building a business dictionary on top of what we actually did [in lectures].”

To ensure that she entered her exams knowing she had given studying her all, Petro chose not to fly home to her family in Dubai over Christmas and instead spent the break alone in Dublin revising. While this was hard mentally, Schols was her top priority, which even affected the way she viewed her ordinary end-of-term exams: “I remember standing in front of the RDS and we were going in for an exam… and I was physically not even stressed because in my eyes this was a practice run for Schols.” 

Despite such meticulous preparation, when the Scholarship examinations started, the mental strain began to take its toll. It took the encouragement of her friend to convince Petro to finish what she had worked so hard for and return for the other papers after a rocky maths exam. 

When Trinity Monday came following months of anticipation, Petro was not optimistic. Then Linda Doyle read her name. “I just started crying… I think the biggest word to explain the feeling is imposter syndrome, you think you shouldn’t be there.” She added: “it was the most…humbling experience ever… because I couldn’t have done that without the support of my peers, the faculty members that helped me.” 

Ultimately, Petro sacrificed a lot for Schols but for her, the process was worth it because of how it changed her as a person: “I fell in love with learning… the person I was after Schols, versus before… the way it affected my habits, my discipline… that was the greatest asset, even on top of all the benefits that you get.” 

Medicine and Law “Supremacy” 

There is no doubt that while certain courses — like Petro’s — have reputations for producing very few Schols yearly, others are known for being disproportionately successful; namely, medicine and law. 

For context, last year, eight law and six medicine students earned Schols. Two years before, in 2021, twelve law students (six of whom were in Joint Honours programmes) and ten medicine students succeeded. 

Many have speculated that these courses administer comparatively easier exams to other subjects due to their emphasis on memorisation. However, speaking with Trinity News, 2022 Medicine Scholar Frank Crossen stressed that this is not the case: “If you just tell him [the marker] everything there is to know about the topic, he will basically fail you. He wants you to write an interesting essay with fun facts… quirky kind of things, even quotes from music or literature.”  

If this is so, what makes these courses so able to produce a long list of Scholars every year? Trinity News asked Senior Lecturer and Dean of Undergraduate Studies Dr. David Shepherd for his opinion: “The awarding of Schols is based on academic excellence irrespective of discipline. Some might argue that courses which require higher points should be expected to produce more Schols, but it may also be that some courses promote Schols more heavily.” 

With regards to the Law School, 2021 Scholar Cormac Donnelly explained that “The School… promotes involvement early in SF year, and does a good job putting previous scholars in front of the current students to discuss motivation, study tips and the potential benefits of Schols.”  2023 Law Scholar Annie Egan concurred, adding that this promotion does indeed encourage students: “Most people sign up to go for it… about 50 or 60… were going to do it… about 30 did it, which is a vast number for 200 people on a course.” 

Given Petro’s experience in the Business School, increased promotion across courses may just be the solution to fostering a more diverse list of Schols recipients. 

if you’re interested in doing it, do it. And that’s coming from someone who didn’t get it”

Evan Carron-Kee, 2022 PPES Schols Candidate

As bleak as it may sound, the reality is that for the majority of people, Trinity Monday is a day of disappointment. Evan Carron-Kee, a PPES student studying Economics and Sociology, was one of many students on that April Monday who had poured six months of his life into studying for Schols only to find that his name was not on the Provost’s list. 

Evan’s situation was particularly difficult to process, as he later learned that he averaged a first across all of his Schols papers with the exception of his submission for “Mathematical and Statistical Methods”, which came below 65%. This specific exam did not conform with past papers and was a barrier to success for most of Evan’s classmates. 

After the disappointing news in April, applying for different opportunities and eventually being chosen to conduct fully-funded, self-directed research over two summers as a Trinity Laidlaw Scholar really helped Evan move forward. Evan has since spent his summers helping to establish the “research component” of a public health and poverty alleviation programme in Northern Ghana with international charitable organisation, Ghana Medical Help. 

However, the stark difference in treatment between those who get Schols and those who do not—despite the fact that all candidates likely work extremely hard to prepare—really stuck with him. 

“When all the results are announced, all the Scholars are whisked away for a full day of running around places, they have to go buy robes, they’re taken into a big dinner, they go visit the provost in her house. And you’re just like ‘right, well, I guess I’ll go get coffee or something.’ It does leave a big kind of mental baggage in your head for a while.” 

Yet today, after nearly two years since the disappointing news, Evan has no regrets about going for Schols: “… if you’re interested in doing it, do it. And that’s coming from someone who didn’t get it. Because if I had the choice to do it again, knowing I wouldn’t get it… I’d probably tell myself to still do it regardless of the reward at the end, because it changed my outlook on my subject… I just enjoyed doing sociology so much that I wanted to become a sociologist, which is a fairly significant impact.”  

The Alumni

Given the mental toll Schols can take before, during, and after the exams, Trinity News leaves readers with advice from two alumni who earned Schols and have the benefit of substantial hindsight, now that they have graduated and built successful careers.  

Accomplished comedian and journalist Abie Philbin Bowman detailed what he discovered about the psychology of work-life balance when he went for it in 2002, encouraging this year’s candidates not to punish themselves for enjoying free-time: “if there was a party on Friday night, and I decided… to stay in and study, I would feel so virtuous about sacrificing the party, that I would actually kind of give myself permission to end up watching telly until like 10/10:30 and then going, ‘Oh, I don’t really feel like studying at all’… Whereas if I said, ‘I’m going to the party, I’m going to enjoy it’… and then the next morning I go ‘Jesus, I haven’t done any revision for Schols’, I would actually get more done”. 

For those who did not get Schols last April or those nervous about trying this year for fear of disappointment, Irish diplomat and 2015 Scholar Cormac Shine has some parting words: “I think the time Schols matters most, particularly for people who didn’t get it and who are disappointed, is on that Trinity Monday. But that’s a Monday in April, in second year. You’ve got a lot of college left, nevermind going on to be a graduate. So it’s a great benefit if you get it but at least career-wise, at least in the field I was in, it’s not… what I was being graded on in job interviews.”

Ruby Topalian

Ruby Topalian is a Senior Freshman, Dual BA student of Middle Eastern and European Languages and Cultures. She is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, having previously worked as Deputy Societies Editor.