Department of Physics and Astronomy, George Mason University

How to write a winning NSF GRFP Proposal: Here’s what you need to know


If you are graduating senior or a first year graduate student and you have found your way to this page, congratulations! Applying for an NSF GRFP is one of the best things you can do as you being your research career. The National Science Foundation offers highly prestigious graduate research fellowships that include three years of financial support with an annual stipend of $34,000 and tuition assistance of $12,000 to the institution. Apart from providing you with financial support, these awards are a stepping stone to future success, give you valuable experience in writing proposals, and are the perfect opportunity for you to take inventory of your skills, interests, and personal background. I encourage all my students to pursue this opportunity and every one of them have told me that it was a valuable experience, regardless of the outcome.  The process is involved but tractable if you start a few months ahead of time. So, here’s what you need to know.

1. Who can apply?

You can find all the details on their website but in a nutshell, you must be:

  • A US citizen, US national, or permanent resident
  • Enrolled in US grad institution by the fall of the following year.
  • An Undergrad senior or grad student.
  • If you are a graduate student, you cannot have completed more than 12 months of graduate study by Aug 1.
  • If you are a graduate student, you can apply only once. If you applied as an undergrad and didn’t get it, apply again as a grad student.

2. What do you need to submit?

  • Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement (3 pages max)
  • Graduate Research Plan Statement ( 2 page max)
  • Three Letters of Reference (2 page max for each letter; you can submit up to 5 letters)
  • Academic Transcripts
  • NSF Fastlane forms

3. Who is reviewing your application and what’s the process?

  • Know your audience. As you write your proposal, know that while your reviewers are STEM faculty, they will not necessarily be in your field. Be wary of using technical jargon.
  • Each applicant gets three reviewers.
  • Each reviewer has 40 to 60 applications  to review.
  • Realize that reviewers are very busy and will likely spend 5 to 10 min per review your application.
  • Each application is generally discussed for about 5 min in each panel (there are about 30 reviewers per panel).
  • The level for evaluation is lower for undergraduates than graduate students so I encourage undergrad seniors to apply.

4. How are you judged?

NSF uses two criteria when reviewing applications. Every component of your application must address one or both of these criteria, both explicitly and implicitly.

Intellectual Merit

The primary concerns here are: (1) that the proposed program of research be well conceived and well designed, and (2) that the research should be “important” in terms of advancing knowledge both in your field and beyond. The proposed activity should demonstrate the capacity of the researcher (that is, you!) to conceive and explore original ideas and potentially transformative concepts. You must demonstrate that you are qualified to carry out the project, and that your intended PhD program is a good match for your research interests and goals, offering sufficient access to mentorship and other resources. I strongly recommend that you work with a faculty advisor with whom you can discuss some ideas and who can help you craft a winning proposal. In my group, I let students see past proposals from former students who are willing to share. I let my students read many of my proposal so that they can learn this vital skill. Always try to see “the big picture” as you write. If your science sounds “incremental”, it will hurt your chances of winning. If you have publications, gone to conferences, or have awards, list them explicitly in your statement.

Broader Impacts:

Every application must address the impact the research will have both on the scientific/academic community and on society more broadly. According to NSF, “The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes”. How will the results be disseminated? How does the activity advance discovery and understanding while also promoting and enhancing teaching, training, and learning? How will the proposed research activities benefit society – both as a whole and in terms of broadening the participation of underrepresented groups in the creation, application, and dissemination of scientific knowledge generated from this work? How will you communicate about your work? If you have done any volunteer work, tutoring, outreach activities, held leadership positions, engaged underrepresented groups, list these activities in your statement. It is very important to be genuine here. This criterion is used in all NSF proposals, and I have often found that applicants throw something together at the last minute without much thought. For NSF GRFP applicants, if you don’t address this criterion, you will not get selected. So what can you write here? Well, to give you some ideas, one of my previous students wanted to run observing sessions with our campus telescope in Spanish. Another student wanted to work with community college, with an eventual goal of initiating research partnerships for students from non-traditional backgrounds. Another student wanted to work on a mentorship program with middle school girls. Think carefully about something you care about. Be authentic and make a difference to the generations that come after you.

5. Crafting a winning personal statement

I never realized how busy professors were until I became one. We have to juggle panel reviews with teaching, grading, research, guiding research students, writing proposals, departmental and university committee work, writing letters of recommendation, and the list goes on. Since reviewers will spend limited time on your application, you need to make it stand out. Try to find a hook that draws your reader in and makes them care. Remember that the NSF is not awarding your proposal, but awarding YOU the fellowship. They want to identify the next generation of scientific leaders. Write your persona statement as if you were writing a story.  It needs to have a beginning that hooks the reader and makes them want to read more. Like all good stories, it needs to have an impactful beginning, a middle, and a clear ending. Work with your university fellowship support offices to craft a winning statement. Spend some time doing some soul searching. Why did you choose a career in science? What were your first influences that got you interested? What do you want to do when you graduate, and what have you done so far? Take inventory of your skills and accomplishment and weave them into your statement.  You have a unique story to tell. Let your readers get to know who you are and what you want to do with your life.

6. A few tips on your proposal

I highly recommend that you have a faculty advisor guide you through the proposal preparation. One thing students don’t realize is that you don’t have to do what you propose. NSF is awarding YOU, not your proposal. In the proposal, I recommend that you begin with “the big picture”, and explain how your idea is innovative and potentially transformative. The proposal needs to be feasible, described in sufficient detail, speak to any resources you need to carry out the work, and fit within a 3 year timeline with some milestones discussed. An experienced faculty mentor can guide you through this process and show you examples in similar fields. I share past proposals with my students. Your faculty mentor should do the same.

7. Letters of recommendation

These are a critical component of the review. You need to get outstanding letters by people who know how to write them. So how do you get outstanding letters? First, pick someone who really knows you. I tell my students not to just be a silent member of my class, receive an A, and then come and ask me for a letter when I have barely spoken to you. Talk to your professors. Ask questions, discuss your research plans, ask for advice. Develop a relationship with them. Most students who apply for a GRFP have done research, so your research supervisor must write a letter. If they have collaborators, develop relationships with them and you can potentially use them as references. When you ask for letters, do so well in advance of the deadline. That means in August for October deadlines. You need to give all letter writers a copy of your CV, your statement and proposal, and send take the time to meet with them and discuss your aspirations and any details you would like to share about yourself. In your email exchange with them, include the link to the NSFG GRFP website, and tell them this, taken directly from the website:

“The reference letter should provide details explaining the nature of the relationship to the applicant, comments on the applicant’s potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant’s academic potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant’s proposed research, and any other information to enable review panels to evaluate the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.

Applicants can improve their chances of obtaining strong reference letters by doing the following:

1.Choose your references carefully; choose people that can speak to your abilities and potential, rather than someone with a prominent title.

2.Provide referees sufficient time to write a strong letter.

3.Discuss the application and share your essays with them.

4.Inform them that reference letters should reflect both your “intellectual merit” and “broader impacts.”

5.Track submission of letters using your status page in the FastLane application module – if necessary, remind reference writers about deadline. No late letters will be accepted under any circumstances.

6.Have backup references in case one of your primary reference writers cannot submit their letter.”

Remind them also about the page limit for letter (2 pages). Anything that is not compliant with guidelines is discarded. Your university fellowship office often offers to read reference letters and offers feedback. Note that not every professor knows how to write winning letters. Make sure you pick wisely and provide as much information about yourself as you can.

For more detailed advice which includes links to other useful resources, download this pdf file.

Good luck!