The following insights for the GRFP application preparation are derived from a variety of sources, including the NSF GRFP solicitation, the GRFP website, and recommendations of panelists and selected finalists from prior application cycles. Although there is no proven recipe to prepare a GRFP application with guaranteed success, it is highly recommended that you read through and absorb the following insights and select the strategy most aligned to you and your primary field.

  1. Read the solicitation carefully and completely: Devote a couple of hours to read the entire solicitation in a single sitting. Indeed, the solicitation is long and it is easy to get distracted. Nonetheless, it is essential that you devote sufficient time to critically read the entire solicitation. Use a highlighter to mark key points, e.g., items that you may need further clarification on by a second reading or by using reference materials; items that you wish to showcase in your own application, etc. Even as the solicitation serves as the primary reference to find accurate information for GRFP application process, many applicants ignore reading it fully, resulting in applications that fail to respond to the solicitation requirements, e.g., addressing the two merit review criteria adequately throughout the application materials.
  2. Review selection results from prior years: As with any competitive grant proposal, it is recommended that the applicants review the research summary and profile of awardees of the GRFP, from their primary discipline, for the last two to three years. This can be informative in understanding what emerging research directions may be of interest to the panelists. While you are learning about emerging research directions, review recent research grants received by faculty in your primary field at your own institution or at your intended graduate school.
  3. Apply as a senior undergraduate versus graduate student: The review panels rank undergraduate and graduate students separately in their own peer groups. According to selection data from prior years, approximately 35% to 40% of the awards are made to those applying as senior undergraduates and the remaining to those applying as graduate students. If you are a senior undergraduate student with industry intern or laboratory research experience and perhaps authorship on scholarly articles, then you are well prepared to apply for the award (to begin your graduate education as an awardee). If you do not have research experience as an undergraduate, it may be worthwhile to wait for a year. However, this strategy requires that you make use of the intervening one-year period to engage in publishable research. However, if you devote your senior year (or first year of graduate studies) only to complete the required coursework without engaging in meaningful preparatory research, then the yearlong delay will not be advantageous for your application prospects.
  4. Get a mentor: Once you make a deep dive to begin preparation of your application, you have to deal with a lot of minutiae. Do not wait until you need guidance with navigating this process, instead, early on, recruit at least one to two mentors whom you trust and who are committed to your academic and professional success. These mentors may be professors in your own department, a research advisor from a prior summer research program, a doctoral or postdoctoral researcher in the lab that you wish to join, or an industry professional. It is important that these mentor be familiar with the process of grant-writing process in general and the GRFP application process in particular. It is ideal if they have previously mentored students win competitive awards and/or fellowships or have won such accolades themselves. You can also search the following experienced resource list for individuals associated with your primary field and/or institution, here.
  5. Prepare and follow a checklist: Similar to most competitive award/grant applications, the GRFP application process requires gathering, preparing, and submitting multiple documents. You will need to prepare a formal plan to organize yourself so that you can effectively devote your time to various components of your application. It is recommended that you make a checklist of tasks to be completed with explicit and realistic timelines. A sample check list is provided on this website to get you started, you can add additional subtasks based on your specific needs.
  6. Qualities of a successful applicant: Many past recipients of GRFP award exhibit similar traits, e.g., self-motivation, enthusiasm and drive, leadership and mentorship skills, prior research experience, and commitment to STEM outreach. Many successful candidates have previously published papers in conferences or journals and genuinely care about societal impact of their work.

  1. Choose the primary field before writing research statement: There is no shortcut to determine the perfect primary field fit for your application. Nonetheless, recall that the primary field selected by you will determine which GRFP panel will review your application. It is recommended that you carefully review the available disciplinary and specialization level primary fields and select one that is most closely related to your proposed graduate program major and research specialization. This has to be an area that you are intimately familiar with through your academic, research, or internship activities. You must be passionate about this area to the extent that you are willing to devote next several years to explore it deeply. Your personal statement ought to provide concrete evidence of your preparation for this field and your research statement must provide an exciting yet achievable plan of research in this field. An advantage of selecting a primary field in which you have worked previously includes the awareness of and familiarity with the various norms of this field, e.g., vocabulary and phrases; research frameworks and methods; claim, evidence, and reasoning chain; etc.
    The GRFP portal primary field selection prompt allows ‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘Others’ options, however caution is suggested in selecting these. Panels that review proposals under these two categories will include experts from varied fields under the specific interdisciplinary category and it may be relatively difficult for an application to be considered novel by experts from two or more disparate fields. Thus, the selection of ‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘Others’ option is suggested for truly novel proposals that have the potential to impact multiple disciplines.
  2. Identify and focus on a knowledge gap: Instead of funding isolated projects that may well be worthy of support, NSF is known to bet on people who have the potential to discover new scientific knowledge and advance technology frontiers. Nonetheless, it is important to understand that for the GRFP application your research proposal has to be creative and novel allowing you to distinguish yourselves from your peers. Thus, in crafting your research plan, begin by identifying a knowledge gap or a gray area where your creative ideas can instigate new discoveries and advances, thereby changing science. Moreover, your personal statement has to showcase that you are academically well prepared, possess unique experiences and a high degree of motivation, and are worthy of the panel betting on you to emerge as a leader of your discipline in due course. As suggested previously, to learn about the emerging research directions, review recent GRFP awards in your primary field and recent research grants received by faculty in your primary field.
  3. Develop your research statement: In preparation for developing your research statement, first draw on your education, research, or internship experiences to identify a broad area of research for your graduate studies. Second, conduct a literature review and consult with faculty mentors and laboratory colleagues to narrow down the topic of your proposed graduate research. Third, based on above, prepare a list of points that you wish to highlight in your research statement. Fourth, use this itemized list to organize and create a section-by-section outline of your research statement.
    Having created the above outline, begin developing the draft of your research statement. Since the first impression is the last impression, experiment with crafting the opening paragraph of your research statement that is broadly appealing and engaging so that it holds the readers’ interest to keep reading further. Next, start developing the introduction and background statements that narrow down to your intended research and connect back to the opening paragraph. Here, be mindful to highlight the knowledge gap you identified and its importance to your research in particular and to your field in general. Continue further development of your research plan by addressing your hypothesis, research methods, and expected outcomes. Finally, ensure a compelling end to your research statement by communicating how your research addresses the Intellectual Merits and Broader Impact review criteria.
  4. Communicate directly to the review panel: Research indicates that human beings are universally predisposed to the “narrative format” of communication for interpreting, comprehending, experiencing, and making sense of the world. Thus, the GRFP applicants should consider crafting their personal statement to tell a story, using it as an opportunity to personally communicate with the reviewers. The personal statement should draw and retain the attention of panelists and make a compelling impact on them. Your only target audience in the personal statement is the review panel and thus you ought to respond to the types of questions that the panel may be seeking answers for in your statements.
  5. Take aim at the target and hit it right away: The GRFP statements need to be precise and concise. It is suggested that you stick to your natural writing style without relying on unusual vocabulary or idioms that you have not used previously and that are not common in your field. Use simple sentence structures that are easy to decipher for the panelists. Use a writing style with active (instead of passive) voice.
  6. Address the merit review criteria: The review panel assesses GRFP applications based on the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria. It cannot be stressed enough that you should explicitly address the two merit review criteria explicitly in your narrative statements and highlight them so that they not buried with the rest of the text.
  7. Mention your shortcomings, if any: It is important to have a realistic self-awareness of one self. If you believe that you have a shortcoming that can potentially undermine your application, then it is best to address it effectively in your application. Do this in a manner that honestly addresses your past shortcoming, reasons for it, and how you have or plan to overcome it. Although no one is perfect, it is crucial to be aware of one’s shortcoming and having a strategy to overcome it.
  8. Use graphics, images, and tables: Each GRFP panelists may review several dozen applications. You can strategically use graphics, images, and tables to effectively highlight and communicate your ideas, ensuring that they received the required attention. However, if and when you employ this strategy, make sure that you appropriately label your graphics and size them to make them legible.
  9. Apply design thinking: Design thinking is a creative problem-solving process used by innovators to break down complex problems into meaningful and achievable small sub-problems to drive real impact. Such a process can be utilized in preparing your two GRFP statements. The five stages of the process are: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.
  10. Avoid common pitfalls: Make sure that you review and revise your statements several times. After you have done so yourself, ask your colleagues and mentors for feedback. As you undertake this review, pay particular attention to avoid following common mistakes.
    • Not addressing review criteria explicitly and sufficiently: Your research and personal statements need to explicitly address “both” the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact of your proposed work.
    • Poor writing: Do not make spelling, punctuation, or grammar errors. These will distract the reviewers from focusing on the intellectual merit and broader impact of your proposed work and you will lose credibility with them.
    • Selecting wrong primary field: Consult with your mentor if you have any doubt about the most relevant primary field for your research. A mistake in this regard can cause your proposal to be assigned to a panel that may not be able to give it due consideration.
    • Lack of research focus: Do not give a shallow discussion about several broad topics. If your research builds on these topics, then explicitly illustrate how you connect these through a deep discussion.
    • Failure to link education preparation with research: You should explicitly explain how your education has prepared you to dive into your proposed field of research and to be successful.
    • Stale research topic: Seeking funding in an area that has been previously supported is not helpful. Carefully explore the status of your research field and seek funding in an emerging area of research that may have only recently started attracting interest. Find out terra incognita in this field and focus on that.
    • Lack of background research: Do not neglect to include and cite prior research literature in your field.
    • Violating page or word limits: Do not go beyond the allowable page or word limits.

  1. Choosing reference letter writers: Reference letters are an essential part of your application, thus selecting appropriate letter writers is of paramount importance. Applicants can submit up to five name of letter writers and prioritize three for reading by the review panel. It is a recommended to get two extra letters, just in case. Your proposed research supervisor ought to be one of the reference letter writers. The two remaining letters can be from your research or internship mentors or professors with whom you have done coursework.
  2. Diversity of information in reference letters: Each reference letter represents an opportunity to highlight and communicate a distinct quality or strength that you possess. The page limits of GRFP statements can prevent you from communicating all of your relevant characteristics to the review panel. Thus, it is important that all letter writers know you well and they bring out at least one unique quality about you that you have not addressed explicitly in the application. Ideally, they should be able to support what and how they think about you through illustrative examples of specific encounters (e.g., what was the situation, what task was to be accomplished, what actions did you take, and what was the end result).

  1. Submit your application at least a day early: Make sure that you have reviewed all your application materials and statement for accuracy, compiled it all in one place, and uploaded it in the GRFP application portal at least one day in advance of the deadline. Having worked on it for last two or three months, there is little you will be able to add to enhance your application meaningfully. Rushing on the last day to edit or submit application can be stressful and the rush can often cause you to make mistakes (e.g. not uploading correct version of document, etc.). The GRFP application portal converts the documents you upload into PDF formal (it even redistills PDF documents) and sometimes you may find that your narrative statements no longer fit within the required page limit upon PDF conversion! Finding these issues late in the game will be stressful, it may even result in a submission that is deemed failing to meet requirements and thus turned down without review. Thus, be kind to yourselves and everyone else who has supported you through the GRFP application process (including your letter writers) by completing your submission a day early.
  2. Re-apply: It is difficult for most people to overcome rejection and failure. However, with competitive awards and grants such as GRFP, it is highly advisable that if you fail in your first application attempt (as a senior undergraduate) then you make use of your second opportunity to apply (as a graduate student). Moreover, you should also seek out and apply for other graduate fellowship opportunities (see list on this website). If your GRFP application is declined, you usually receive feedback from the review panel about the aspects lacking in your application. You can use this feedback to effectively prepare your application for your second GRFP application opportunity.