* Updated page for the 2017-2018 award cycle with more and newer examples. If you have questions, please feel free to email me. (09/2017)

Applying for the NSF GRFP

This is an outline on applying for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). The side navigation shows topics I discuss.

My Credentials: I am a NSF GRFP fellow from 2015 (E/E, E/E, E/E) and worked for the University of Notre Dame's Office of Grants and Fellowships for application cycles (2014-2015, 2015-2016), helping other graduate students apply for the NSF GRFP. The following are the list of people I helped win the fellowship:

  • Campbell, Ian, ND: Psychology-Quantitative (2016)

  • Chatwin, Warren, ND: Life Sciences-Genomics (2015)

  • DiPietro, Kelsey, ND: Mathematical Sciences - Applied Mathematics (2016)

  • Fields, Francisco, ND: Life Sciences - Microbial Biology (2016)

  • Flores, Jean Serrano, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: Engineering - Mechanical (2017)

  • Gonzales, Erica, ND: Physics and Astronomy - Astronomy and Astrophysics (2016)

  • Kalchik, Andrea, ND: Psychology-Cognitive (2015)

  • Marra, Amanda, ND: Life Sciences-Developmental Biology (2015)

  • Marshall, Jermaine, ND: Comp/IS/Eng - other (specify) - Social Sensing (2016)

  • Merson, Jacob, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Engineering - Mechanical (2016)

  • Perlman, Michael, ND: Mathematical Sciences - Algebra, Number Theory, and Combinatorics (2016)

  • RichardWebster, Brandon, ND: Comp/IS/Eng - Robotics and Computer Vision (2016)

  • Stephenson, Annie, Harvard: Physics and Astronomy-Condense Matter Physics (2015)

  • Taylor, Angelique, ND: Comp/IS/Eng - Computational Science and Engineering (2016)

This is a VERY competitive fellowship: Here is something to keep in mind throughout the entire application process...the NSF GRFP is a crap shoot. Why? Every year there are lots of people who receive their application results and wonder, "Why not me? I thought my application was great! Why did someone will lower scores than me win?" A large portion on being selected to receive the NSF GRFP really depends on who your reviewers are. Since there are so many applicants (2014 - 2015 had over 16,000 and 2015 - 2016 had over 16,500), you have no idea who will be reviewing your applications. In addition, you will be compared to those in the same stack of applications yours is in. Groups of three reviewers look at 40 - 50 applications. You will be constantly compared with those in the stack.

People who win are either

  • "golden" - people who would only lose by messing up their application

  • people who can "package" themselves well

This resource page is to help "package" or present yourself well. Those who do present themselves well are positioned for the selection of honorable mention and winner.

If this is such a "crap shoot", why should you apply? Learning to write a fellowship application is a good skill to have. Also, the process helps you figure out what you are going to do in graduate school as well as learning to communicate your research to a general audience.

Why are there no example essays? I will quote parts of winning essays to provide additional information, but not whole essays. This is to protect the privacy of those who have given me their winning essays. Some other sites post example essay and/or your university might have a bank. If you cannot locate an essay within your field, try looking up past winners and emailing them.


The 2016-2017, 2017-2018, and 2018-2019 GRFP Solicitation. You should read this at least twice to make sure you understand the criteria.

The NSF GRFP is one of the most prestigious fellowships in the country. It offers:

  • Five Year Award - $138,000 for three years out of the five

    • $34,000 stipend

    • $12,000 education allowance

  • International Research Experience through GROW

  • Domestic Grovernment Research Experience through GRIP

  • Supercomputing access to XSEDE

This all indirectly benefits the recipient by:

  • Prestige & Recognition - Association with:

    • 30 Nobel Laureates

    • 400+ Members of the National Academy of Sciences

    • Founders of corporations to authors of books

  • Research Freedom

    • No TAing

    • No restrictions on your PI's grant

  • Higher PhD Completion Rates

General Eligibility**

** Eligibility has changed for the since the 2016-2017 application cycle, which will continue till the 2018 - 2019 cycle. Graduate students can only apply once. Click here to read the notice. Basically, as a graduate student, you can only apply once (1st or 2nd); not both. If possible, try to apply as a senior and then decided based on reviewer feedback as well as your current status (presumably as a 1st year) to either apply as a 1st year or 2nd year.

This is the basic list of those who are eligible for the award. If you are concerned about your eligibility, double check with the solicitation. When applying, you must self-certify that you meet criteria.

  • U.S. Citizens, National, and Permanent Residents

  • Early-Career Students

    • Undergraduate Senior

    • less than 12 months of graduate course work

    • Master Student going for PhD

  • Pursuing research-based MS or PhD in NSF Fields - accepted fields based on solicitation

  • Enrolled in accredited U.S. institution by Fall 2018


Deadlines vary by discipline. Again, check the solicitation. Typically, the application is due in late October and early November. However, in the last two years, the deadline has been in late October. However, treat the deadline to be around two weeks ahead. Why? You want to be prepared and not scrambling at the last minute. Also, it never hurts to submit your application early. All applications are due at 5:00 p.m. local time, as determined by the applicant’s mailing address.

October 23, 2017 (Monday)

  • Geosciences

  • Life Sciences

October 24, 2017 (Tuesday)

  • Computer and Information Science and Engineering

  • Engineering

  • Materials Research

October 26, 2017 (Thursday)

  • Psychology

  • Social Sciences

  • STEM Education and Learning

October 27, 2017 (Friday)

  • Chemistry

  • Mathematical Sciences

  • Physics and Astronomy

November 2, 2017 (Friday)

Important Dates

→ Late July/Early August - Program Solicitation Released

→ Early August - FastLane Application Opened

→ Late October/Early November - Application Deadlines (determined by discipline)

→ Early April - Awards Announced

→ Early May - Fellows Acceptance Deadline

Audience Analysis

Always perform an audience analysis on any application you apply for! You want the answers to the following:

  1. What is the Agency's Mission?

    Its aim is to promote and advance scientific progress in the United States.

    NSF welcomes proposals on behalf of all qualified scientists and engineers and strongly encourages women, minorities, and people with disabilities to compete fully in its programs.

  2. How does this fellowship function within that mission
    Funding future STEM leaders and supporting minorities. Women, Ethnic Minorities, Disabled, Veterans, and Geographic.

  3. Who is eligible for this fellowship? (i.e. competition)
    All U.S. senior undergraduates and graduate students with less than 12 months of course work.

    A lot of competition!

  4. What profile does a "typical" winner have?

    • STEM Outreach

    • Enthusiasm and Drive

    • Previous research experience

    • Attends conferences and presents research

    • Leadership

    • Mentorship

  5. Who will be reviewing your proposal?
    It is a common misconception that you will have someone who is in your field reviewing your application. Those in the engineering, chemistry, biology, and physics are likely to have reviewers in those fields, but not necessarily in the same subfield. You are guaranteed to have someone who is an intelligent person with a PhD.

Review Process

In addition to the audience analysis, you should know how winners are selected. In any competitive application, reviewers are looking for LOSERS not winners. With over 16,000 applicants in 2015 and 13,0000 applicants in 2016 (new eligibility requirements), the best way to narrow down who will receive the fellowship is to cut out all those who the reviewers believe will not make it. The following is how GRFP narrows down the pool of applicants:

  1. Did the applicant follow guidelines when applying?

    • Missing any part of the application such as a letter of reference or transcript. >Formatting of essays.

    • Exceeding length requirement.

  2. Three Reviewers will review 40 - 50 applications initially independently and assign a numeric score on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts (50pts).

  3. The scores are compiled and cut offs are drawn based on the number of winners and honorable mentions in each category set by the Program Manager.

  4. Reviewers will discuss students who are close to cut offs to either push above or below cut offs.

Application Components

The application breaks down into:

  • Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement - 3 pages

  • Graduate Research Plan Statement - 2 pages

  • Three Recommendation Letters

  • General Fastlane Application

Personal Statement

The most daunting part of the application is the personal statement. When writing it, tell a story. You want your reviewers to become emotionally invested in you. NSF GRFP funds you, the researcher, not the research! Grab your reviews' attention within the first couple of lines. This applies to all fellowship applications. Here are some example intros that vary in their approach to capture people's attention:

  • The defining moments that reeled me into physics were probably the same ones that draw in many students, the confounding explanations of the mysteries of quantum mechanics or the musings on a universe larger than I could imagine. But, while these may have been an initial spark for my interest, they are not why I have stayed. The initial magic tends to disappear on some level once you actually have to grind through the math to solve a problem, but it is replaced with something more significant. Solving problems in research is enjoyable because it is a nonlinear process that can take you in so many directions. To extract some new information out of what seems to be an incomprehensible amount of data has its own sort of magic. This winding process of discovery is what drives me to continue in science.

  • Growing up as an economically-disadvantaged, young Puerto Rican, the idea of pursuing graduate studies at [university] struck me as an unrealistic future. The great recession during the early 2000s introduced socioeconomic challenges in Puerto Rico that rendered many hardships for my family to the extent of almost becoming homeless. Despite financial instability, my parents overcame budgetary barriers to provide my sister and me with the best education available given our limited resources. Witnessing my parents struggle to support us, I value my education as the product of my family’s perseverance and the only everlasting resource capable of securing one’s future aspirations.

  • Scientific processes and mathematical ideas have always fascinated me, but I have also always wanted a career that improves people’s lives. For a while, I worried that this might make selecting a career difficult, but my first statistics class assuaged this concern. I learned that statistics involves not just thinking about mathematical ideas but also leveraging them to better understand and respond to the challenges faced in our world. I plan to earn a Ph.D. in statistics to prepare for a career as a researcher and educator. Through research, I want to help solve impactful problems by connecting theory and application. Through teaching, I want to share the value of the mathematical sciences and encourage students of all backgrounds to consider them a viable career choice.

  • Without the influence of the strong women in my life, my accomplishments as the first in my family to obtain a college degree in one of the lowest graduation rated states and a first generation American pursuing a doctorate in statistics would never have been realized. Soon after the Korean War, my biological grandparents abandoned my mother at a small orphanage in South Korea when she was six years old. With the government recovering from the war, my mother suffered severe malnutrition and neglect. It was not until my grandmother adopted my mother five years later that my mother received the care and support she needed, which allowed her to become a strong and successful woman. In turn, my mother encouraged me to be confident in myself and pursue my own goals. Understanding the hardships my mother endured as a child has inspired me to encourage other children and young women through various leadership and teaching roles.

  • I believe research is the coalescence of intelligence and imagination. The best scientists couple fundamental mathematical and physical knowledge with innovation in order to excel in their fields. My past research experience, coursework, and outreach efforts demonstrate that I have the creative and intellectual potential to ourish in a research career. I thrive during these endeavors - exploring, building, creating, and making connections that transform the unknown into something that is meaningful. My ambition is to become a professor who encompasses both of these ideals, and NSF sponsorship will help me to attain these goals.

Make every sentence count. Good personal statements have thesis sentences, talk about specific experiences, and follow up on what was learned from that experience. For instance, the following two paragraphs are taken from two winning essays (different fields and different universities):

First Essay

  • Thesis Sentence: In the summer of 2014, I conducted research in microbial biophysical systems through the Leadership Alliance Summer REU Program at Princeton University with Prof. Howard Stone (letter writer).

  • Clearly sets up experience: As a part of his research team, I developed a microfluidic approach to measure the rheological properties of bacterial biofilms and probe the influence of structural mechanics on biofilm-microbial behavior.

  • What the applicant accomplished during the experience: During the course of the summer, I designed and characterized a micro-membrane rheometer capable of measuring the elastic modulus of various strains of bacterial biofilms. In the design of the device, stress was imposed on the test specimen by pressurizing a microfluidic channel located directly under a flexible polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) membrane in contact with the biofilm. The elastic deformation resulting from the applied stress was quantified by measuring the deflection with confocal microscopy. In order to obtain the modulus of elasticity of the biofilm from the resulting deformation, I undertook a computational approach and developed a COMSOL software based finite element model, allowing us to characterize the relative contributions of the elastic modulus from the PDMS membrane and the biofilm.

  • Clearly stating broader impact: The research potential of the microfluidic based rheometer lies in its ability to quantify the effectiveness of new drug treatments against biofilm infections by evaluating the detrimental effects of the drug in the mechanical resilience of the biofilm itself.

  • Explained what was learned from the experience and reserach products (in a later paragraph after describing other experiences): Overall, these research experiences have strengthened my scientific proficiency for my proposed graduate research by providing me with a broad set of skills and knowledge in the areas of cell mechanics, tissue engineering, and microfluidics. Additionally, I presented my research findings in numerous conferences, including the Leadership Alliance National Symposium, Biomedical Engineering Society Annual Conference, and American Chemical Society Technical Meeting, which has taught me how to effectively communicate a broad understanding of my research to a diverse community of people.

Second Essay

  • Thesis Sentence: After frequent discussions on climate change during my previous NSF-REU, I wanted to contribute to alleviating our fossil-fuel dependencies by improving solar panel technology.

  • Clearly sets up experience: I collaborated with Dr. Ning Wu in developing a method for constructing extremely thin solar panels for use in automative and aerospace applications. My role in this project was to prepare gold nanorods from seeds and then to apply an AC voltage of particular frequency and strength. We aimed to induce enough internal torque in the nanorods to rotate them vertically and then have them collapse together into a uniform and tightly packed structure.

  • What the applicant accomplished during the experience: There were three major accomplishments from this project. The first was that I successfully created gold nanorods from seed material, which exceeded my mentor's initial expectations for the project. The next achievement was that I designed and built my own apparatus for running AC voltage through gold nanorod samples mounted on conductive glass slides.

  • Products resulting from experience: Lastly, in collaboration with the graduate students in the lab, I wrote a computational program to calculate the degree of alignment due to Brownian motion within a colloidal particle sample. Although this last effort began as a side project, it resulted in a publication [1].

  • Clearly stating broader impact: The broader impacts of this work have been that my efforts, although unsuccessful in validating the initial hypothesis of my project, laid the foundation for others to expand upon my work.

  • Explained what was learned from the experience: Furthermore, this project provided an opportunity for me to work and publish with international graduate students. Our collaborative efforts were successful, and the experience taught me about the beauty of science as a bridge for international relations. The diffculties of experimental work during this NSF-REU provided invaluable experience for my current work, where I will collaborate with engineers and scientists building satellite instruments.

  • Transition sentence for next experience: Although I enjoyed the experimental aspects of this project, I missed the theoretical and computational aspects of upper atmosphere and space weather research.

Intellectual Merit: In the personal statement, show how well qualified you are to complete any project throughout your graduate career by your:

  • Academic Performance

  • Research Skills (programming, lab work experience, etc.)

  • Appropriate Knowledge

  • Transferable Skills (communication, collaboration, etc.)

Broader Impact: In the personal statement, show how you will advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning. Furthermore, to address NSF GRFP's mission statement, how you will broaden the participation of under-represented groups (e.g. gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.). Easiest way to address Broader Impact is participating in STEM Outreach.

Graduate Research Statement

The graduate research statement must be a clear and well organized proposal of your potential research. A common misconception is to make the proposal like a grant proposal and treat it separately from your personal statement. You have two pages to convey you research plan to someone you are unsure is even in your field and matches with your goals in your personal statement. This is how I outlined my proposal, which some parts will not apply to everyone:

  • Introduction - subsections: problem, past attempts, and additional issues

  • Objective

  • Methodology - subsections: model development, model evaluation, and software development

  • Anticipated Results and Products

  • Intellectual Merit

  • Broader Impacts

  • References

The following are my comments or examples on each part.

Introduction: Grab your reviewer with the first paragraph. Make it clear what the problem is and why should people care. Some example intros:

  • Despite significant studies in recent years, progress in the field of engineering functional tissue constructs has been hampered by limitations in traditional culture systems to reconstitute physiological factors in the cellular microenvironment in a spatiotemporal manner. This is particularly relevant for cardiac tissue constructs given the multiple levels of coordinated physical cues (mechanical contractions, electrical activity, hydrostatic pressure) that drive heart function. In fact, numerous studies have validated the underlying role of mechanical stimulus and electrical inputs, in the native cardiac extracellular matrix, to elicit the contractile properties of cardiomyocytes (cardiac muscle cells). [1] Therefore, the coupled application of mechanical and electrical stimuli is imperative to fully reproduce the physiological microenvironment leading to the establishment of cardiac functions in the engineered construct. While the integration of multiple physical cues in the engineered system has become a major obstacle in the field, adequate tissue vascularization remains as the most pervasive challenge to date. [2]

  • Massive power grid failure and GPS blackout may seem like the topics of a science fiction novel; yet, geomagnetic storms have caused both of these events [1]. In order to mitigate these risks, we must strive to fully understand our magnetospheric system, the shield of near-Earth space dominated by the planet's magnetic field that protects us from solar radiation. In particular, current magnetosphere models assume an averaged conductance value. However, it is the storm-time conductance fluctuations that allow ions to protrude further into near-Earth space, causing communication interruptions and saturated electronics. My proposed research hinges on new data that enables us to determine conductance values of the upper ionosphere during storms. I propose to use the recently released Van Allen Probes data to map ionosphere night-side conductance values during geomagnetic storms for inclusion in numerical models.

  • The ability to manipulate and control electronic systems is one of the major current challenges in condensed matter physics. Electronically exotic two-dimensional lattices such as graphene hold great promise, and finding a way to tailor their band structure would open the door to a variety of new possibilities. For example, graphene’s high electron mobility at room temperature makes it desirable for electronics, but a band gap must be opened in graphene to make it useful for applications such as transistors [1]. The ability to control the band structure of materials such as graphene would create new routes for the development of electronics in a time when silicon devices are beginning to reach their limit.

  • As the era of information and technology continues to dominate, big data offers tremendous benefits for education, economics, medical research, national security, and other areas through data-driven decision making, insight discovery, and process optimization. However, there are significant challenges in analyzing big data – data with high volume, high velocity, and/or high variety information assets that require new forms of processing. One of the crucial concerns is the extreme risk of exposing the personal information of individuals who contribute to the data when sharing it among collaborators or releasing it publically. An intruder could identify a participant by isolating the numerous connections to other contributors within the dataset. For instance, in 2006, AOL released over 20 million Web search queries of 657,000 "anonymous" users to the scientific research community. Within a few days of the release, The New York Times was able to identify one of the users (Gehrke, 2012). Some participants in other research studies provide inaccurate or no information about themselves, knowing the possibility of this kind of invasion. Furthermore, government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Labor are required to release statistical material worldwide, including education and health that is fully confidential. While big data has big rewards, there is great concern whether personal information can ever be private.

Objective: Clearly stating what is the issue your research will be resolving.

My objective: The proposed research will investigate data confidentiality in big data protection and develop new and original SDL techniques that address the specific challenges in big data. The developed method will strike a balance between the privacy of the respondents and the efficiency and validity of the statistical inference based on the released data. Additionally, I will develop a software package to promote the practical implementation of the proposed approaches.

Methodology: Outlining your research proposal throughout your graduate career.

Anticipated Results: State what the results of your research should be. Also state that if your research fails, what you would learn from it despite it deviating from what you originally thought.

Intellectual Merit: In the research statement, show the proposed activity suggests and explores creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts in a well conceived and organized manner. You should answer the following:

  • Feasibility and originality of the proposed research.

  • How are you equipped to complete this work? Why you?

  • What resources do you have access to to complete it? e.g. mentor, equipment, etc.

  • Why (insert chosen graduate school)? What does this school have that others don't? Or what do they have that make you able to complete your research.

Broader Impact: In the research statement, show how the proposed research benefits society at the local, community, national, and global levels. In addition, be specific on your plans to disseminate results broadly such as K-12, general public, and colleagues e.g. publications and conferences.

References: There is no formatting requirement except that the font can be 10pt. You can make a block of text for your reference section or leave out the journal to free up space. Here are some examples of how winning applications listed their references:

  • References: 1. Gehrke, J. (2012), Quo vadis, data privacy 2. Sweeney, Latanya (2013), Matching Known Patients to Health Records in Washington State Data 3. Dwork, Cynthia, et al. (2006), Calibrating noise to sensitivity in private data analysis 4. Wasserman, L., & Zhou, S. (2010). A statistical framework for differential privacy. 5. Reiter (2003), Simultaneous Use of Multiple Imputation for Missing Data and Disclosure Limitation 6. Liu, F. (2003), Bayesian Methods for Statistical Disclosure Control in Microdata, Doctoral Dissertation, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

  • Citations: [1] Baker, D. N. et al. (2008). [2] Liemohn, M.W. et al., (2005). [3] Ahn, B.H, et al., (1998). [4] Ilie, R., et al., (2012). [5] Kessel, R.L., et al., (2013)

Letters of Recommendation

You are given the option to have five people submit letters of reference, but only the top three (you rank your letter writers) are submitted for review. New for 2016 - 2019, two letters of reference is the minimum, but three letter is recommended. To avoid disqualification, ask at least four people so you have three letters total!

As with any application that required letters of recommendation:

  • Choose people who can confirm, evaluate, and contextualize your specific achievements. Your letter writers should know you.

  • Give your recommender a heads-up that you will be asking for a letter for a specific opportunity. Ideally—especially for the first letter you are requesting from that professor — do this two months in advance.

  • Provide all the necessary information (your CV and proposal, links to letter upload, etc.) in good time, i.e. at least three weeks in advance (not counting holidays).

  • Include all necessary information and links in email to your letter writer.

Your letter writers vouch your capabilities. They need to indicate:

  • transferable skills - communication, collaboration, computation, etc.

  • ability to finish graduate school

  • conduct novel research

  • broader impacts - scientific, professional, local, and university community impacts

Who should write your letters?

  1. Your current (graduate) advisor. If you are an undergraduate, this should be your potential graduate advisor or someone who can vouch your research abilities. While you may not know where you will be going, a strong NSF GRFP application has a letter writer from this "potential graduate advisor." They can write about your drive and ability to finish graduate school.

  2. Someone who knows how you perform research. This is a fellowship to fund you throughout your graduate school career. NSF wants to fund someone who will finish and complete good research.

  3. Someone who knows your broader impacts. This is one that some people will disagree with me on, but the part of the GRFP application that students typically fail on is broader impacts. If you are going to graduate school, you should already have decent research. This counts toward your Intellectual Merit. What students lack on their application is Broader Impacts. My undergraduate advisor wrote a letter, because not only did he know me personally as my advisor but we organized many STEM Outreach programs together.

Example Review Comments on Letters:

  • "She has strong letters praising her independence, ambition, breadth and depth of knowledge, and passion to produce promising and valuable research."

  • "Strong recommendations from three different peers at R1 universities in the nation and around the world give confidence that this applicant has a bright future in her chosen filed and beyond."

  • "The applicant is well-rounded and has been described as being friendly and working well with others – all the references give their highest recommendations."

  • "Applicant's great work ethics as attested to by references as being more than that of graduate students in the institution is an acknowledgement of applicant's demonstrated initiative and potential for success in graduate work."

General Fastlane Application

This list is only some aspects of the general application that are worth noting for additional advice.

  1. Transcripts
    Your undergraduate and graduate transcripts are required. Your average GPA does matter. For both the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 application years, over 16,000 students applied to the NSF GRFP. The likelihood someone who has similar qualifications as you and a better GPA is very high. If you have a low GPA for your field, you need to address it in your application in a positive light. How? What are the concerns of a low GPA? The reviewer might think you are unable to endure the rigors of research. You need to demonstrate without a doubt you are more than capable to conduct research.

  2. Past Professional Experiences
    List experiences that are relevant to academia or research e.g. grader, tutor, lab assistant, intern, etc.

  3. List of Honors, Awards, Conferences, and Publications

    List ALL relevant honors, awards, conferences, and publications! Your application will look weak if you have none.

Example Review Comments:

  • "Highly impressive list of awards, honors, and research experiences."

  • "He has some honors and scholarships."

  • "The applicant has presented his research at various conferences. For example, he received an award for his presentation at a meeting. He seems to be very involved with attending conferences."

  • "...has one first author publication and has presented research at two symposiums."

  • "The candidate has one paper accepted in a respected journal, under revision, a published conference paper, and poster presentations at local and regional venues."

Most Common Pitfalls

Here is a list of the common pitfalls people encounter:

  1. NSF GRFP is funding YOU: Your application should represent a "super you". The best possible, but realistic proposal of you.

    • Avoid "I hope", "I think", "I believe" statements.

    • "I will", "I plan", etc.

    • Use "I", "me", and "my" as often as possible instead of "we" and "our".

    • State if you can, "Professor X invited, sought, selected..."

  2. Lack of Story: Think of a thread that ties all your experiences up to where you are now and where it will lead to your future goals. Being one of 40 - 50 applicants, a good story will make your applications memorable.

  3. Lack of Impact: This is mentioned briefly in the letters of recommendation section. Applicants have a harder time receiving high scores on Broader Impacts. Easy ways to "boost" your application is to:

    • STEM Outreach - K-12, minorities, local community

    • Mentorship

    • Leadership

    • Research Presentations/Publications

    As rephrased by the program manager for the GRFP, helping one student who is an African American female doesn't count as a contribution to diversity. What counts as broader impact is:

    • Creating a teaching curriculum to improve STEM teaching at a local school.

    • Developing STEM education program for after school groups specifically targeting minorities.

    • STEM Outreach events, reaching out to the community.

    • Organizing events to help your fellow undergraduate/graduate students.

  4. Not Addressing any Downfalls: If you have anything that makes your application weak, you must address it in some way. Again, you might think your 3.7 GPA is good, but against 16,000 applicants it is considered low. Some example of "downfalls" are:

    • Lots of research and no publications. (my first application)

    • Transferring to more than one university in your undergraduate career.

    • Drop in GPA.

    • Changing fields.

    However, do not say "I have a low GPA, but ..." Address what concerns someone would have if you have a low GPA. For instance, one winning essay stated:

    • The best scientists couple fundamental mathematical and physical knowledge with innovation in order to excel in their fields. My past research experience, coursework, and outreach efforts demonstrate that I have the creative and intellectual potential to ourish in a research career. I thrive during these endeavors - exploring, building, creating, and making connections that transform the unknown into something that is meaningful. My ambition is to become a professor who encompasses both of these ideals, and NSF sponsorship will help me to attain these goals.

    The rest of the essay continued with the theme of being creative, having great intellectual potential, and never stated how low a GPA the person had. One reviewer commented:

    • Though the performance in courses may not be among the very top in the applicant pool, the applicant has very impressive scientific research experiences in different topics at several institutions, which resulted in oral and poster presentations.

My Tips

If you do not want to read in detail the other sections, here are my general tips to help with the GRFP:

  1. Apply Often - senior undergrad and 1st OR 2nd year graduate student: You learn so much from the first time applying. Sometimes you have good reviewer comments, indicating where you need improvement. The comments can also tell you what your pitfalls are that you initially thought weren't. For instance: when I first applied, the only negative comment was I had no publications. My reviewers thought it was odd I had a lot of research experience and lacked publications. I restated in my next application that:

    • Since I came from a small state university, these research programs exposed me to a wider range of research topics and gave me insight into how large universities conduct research. I gained invaluable skills such as computer programming and conducting research independently. Moreover, I had the opportunity to present poster and oral presentations at local and national conferences based on the research I conducted (e.g. Sigma Pi Sigma National Conference 2012).

    Practice makes perfect. Having done an application in 2013 - 2014, I had an easier time rewriting my essays for the next year and won. Furthermore, this example shows how an applicant needs to address any downfalls he/she has without directly pointing out the downfall.

  2. General writing tips:

    • Active Voice: "I analyzed the data" versus "The data was analyzed."

    • Strong Verbs: I "did" research versus I "performed", "conducted", etc.

    • I, me, my: "My research proposal" versus "Our research proposal" - take ownership of your work as often as you can.

    • No hope, believe, think: Do not say "I hope" or "I believe". You need to come off as confident. Say, "I will inspire" instead of "I hope to inspire" or "My work will..." instead of "I believe this work will..."

  3. Avoid cliche stories: I have edited over 100 NSF GRFP essays since working at Notre Dame in Fall 2014. I hate reading "When I was a child I became interested in science...". This opening gets old fast. Come up with a more unique story. In addition, the reviewer will have a harder time believing you if your foundation started when you were five.

  4. Ask ANYONE to read your essays: Get as many as eyes as you can to read your essay! Different people will find different mistakes. Bribe them with cookies if you have to! Also, ask people who are not scientists. Again, your essays, even your research statement, is lay! Suggestions on who to ask:

    • An Assistant Professor - someone who is busy, but not too busy to provide constructive feedback. They will be closest to what you will see to a reviewer.

    • Colleagues

    • Professors in your field and outside

    • Department admins - who do you think reviews your department chair's proposals?

    • Family

    • Friends

Other Resources

Here are list of resources that I referenced when applying for the GRFP. Thank you to these people for taking the time to make these great websites!

  • GRFP Essay Insights - An extensive guide on applying for the NSF GRFP created by the University of Missouri Graduate School coordinator, Dr. Robin G. Walker.

  • Alex Lang's Website: NSF Fellowship - A physics postdoc's general advice on how to apply for the NSF GRFP. Lots of details on what to expect, what to be aware of when apply, and a wealth of examples essays sorted by topic, year, etc.

  • Jean Fan's Website: NSF GRFP Sample Essays and Advice - General tips on applying for the NSF GRFP with a timeline. Has not been updated for 2015 - 2016 and beyond.

Resources that I didn't have while applying, but I recommend looking over, because they're great!