Tips on writing a successful application for the NSF GRFP

by Ruben Atilho

The NSF GRFP includes an annual $34,000 stipend and $12,000 cost of education allowance for 3 years. In addition to funding, NSF GRFP fellows have access to special resources, like the supercomputer XSEDE, and opportunities for international and federal research experience. Writing a successful application for the NSF fellowship can be tough, but it’s not impossible. Like any grant, it takes time, effort, and a little bit of guidance. Below are some tips and advice for future NSF Fellowship applicants.

Visit the NSF GRFP website for information about the fellowship

This is one of the best sources of information on how to write a successful application for the NSF. Here you can find information regarding eligibility guidelines, application deadlines, and useful advice for both applicants and reference writers. Make sure to read the Program Solicitation. This document will contain the NSF’s official description of intellectual merit and broader impact that reviewers of your application will look for. Use these descriptions to your advantage when writing your essays.

Try to apply before you start graduate school

Due to recent changes, students are limited to one application while enrolled in graduate school. This means you can apply either in your first or second year of graduate school, but not both. In order to maximize your chances of winning the fellowship, I would recommend that students apply to this fellowship before they enter graduate school. Regardless of the outcome, you will benefit from the comments you receive from reviewers and the experience of the application process. Even if you decide not to attend graduate school, being awarded this fellowship would look great on your CV or resume.

Start writing early and don’t procrastinate

Finding quality time to work on your fellowship application can be difficult especially when you are applying to graduate school or starting your first year of graduate studies. That is why it is important to start early and give yourself deadlines to meet along the way. A good application takes time and many revisions. Plan to have a rough draft of your essays by mid-September to give yourself plenty of time to get feedback from peers and faculty. Lastly, make sure to give your reference writers plenty of advance notice and follow-up with them about the status of your letters.

Work closely with a mentor/research advisor when writing your research statement

 Selecting a topic for your research statement can be difficult, especially if you haven’t started your PhD thesis work yet. Since the NSF GRFP funds the student and not necessarily their project, don’t worry if you end up working on a different project during graduate school. Therefore, feel free to write your research statement on your undergraduate or anticipated graduate research. Lastly, get feedback from your mentor/research advisor when writing your research statement. If your research is part of a larger collaboration, make sure to mention that in your proposal. 

Include intellectual merit and broader impacts in each part of the application

 Intellectual merit and broader impacts are the only two criteria reviewers are asked to use to evaluate your application. Therefore, it is important that each part of your application (Personal Statement, Research Statement and Reference Letters) address both of these criteria. In your personal and research statements, make it as easy as possible for your reviewers to find this information in your application. This can be done by explicitly highlighting words or sentences that demonstrate intellectual merit and broader impact or by including headings in your statement that address these two topics. Lastly, remind your reference writers about these two criteria and don’t be afraid to give them a list of specific things you would like them to highlight in their letter.

Have other people read your essays

Ask for constructive feedback from as many people as possible. Having spelling/grammar mistakes will give your reviewer the feeling of a rushed application. If you personally know anyone who has been awarded the NSF fellowship, getting their feedback can be extremely valuable. Finally, most universities have dedicated writing workshops for the NSF fellowship where you can get feedback on your essays from faculty and other student applicants.

 Strengthen your broader impacts by becoming a mentor

Many applicants find it difficult to fulfill the Broader Impacts requirement for the NSF fellowship. To satisfy this requirement, be creative about how you can use your scientific knowledge to help members of your community. One way to do this is to be a mentor for local middle and high school students taking STEM courses or participating in a science fair. Many universities also have student run organizations that help the general public understand scientific research. Even if you are not currently involved in any outreach activates while writing the application, you can elaborate on your future plans to do so.

Send your CV/resume to your reference writers

Choosing who will be your reference writers should be the first thing you do to give them plenty of time to write your letters. One of your reference writers will be whoever is overseeing your research plan, while the other two should be previous mentors or professors that know you very well. Make sure to send them your essays and remind them of the two criteria reviewer will be looking for in their letters. Lastly, don’t be afraid to send them a few reminder emails as the deadline get closer.

Read additional tips and examples of successful applications online

Past winners can be a great resource when applying for the NSF fellowship. Many have written articles (listed below) which can be helpful when writing your own application. Many thanks to all these individuals for taking the time to make these great websites and best of luck to the next generation of applicants!

Useful Links

1. Alex Lang, Ph.D. 

2. Mallory P Ladd, Ph.D. 

3. Robin G. Walker, Ph.D.

Científico Latino Relevant Links

1. NSF GRFP Blog Post - lists information on deadlines and sample NSF fellowships and personal statements




Ruben is a NSF Graduate Research Fellow in the Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry department at Yale University. He is a member of the Breaker Lab where he studies bacterial noncoding RNAs called riboswitches. He received his Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from Quinnipiac University. When he’s not in the lab, he enjoys working with local high school students in the New Haven Science Fair program and the Yale Pathways to Science program.

STEMRobert FernandezFellowship, NSF