Reference Letters

On the GRFP application portal, applicants can list and rank order up to five professional referees. It is suggested that applicants seek out and list as many referees (up to five) as possible, but a minimum of three referees need to be listed. If all five referees of an applicant submit their letters, based on the applicant’s rank order selection, only the top three ranked referees’ letters are included in the review process. It is important that applicants select their top three referees carefully so that the final three reference letters include comments on a variety of aspects about the applicant (see below).

The reference letters should clearly communicate and comment on

  • the referee’s professional relationship to the applicant, including context and length;
  • the applicant’s academic preparation and research experiences;
  • the applicant’s participation and leadership in activities outside the classroom;
  • the quality, merit, creativity, and originality of the proposed research plan;
  • the applicant’s preparation and readiness for graduate research career;
  • the applicant’s potential for excellence and success in research and scholarly work;
  • the applicant’s vision for broader societal impact; and
  • any relevant information that can inform the reviewers in their assessment of the applicant’s GRFP package

As applicants seek referees to provide fair and strong reference letters, it is advised that they follow the guidelines suggested below.

  1. Be systematic in creating a pool of potential referees. Select some referees who are deeply familiar with applicant’s (your) academic preparation, laboratory or computational skills, research experiences, etc. Select other referees who know about your commitment to broader societal impact through educational outreach, integration of research and education, participation and leadership in student organizations and competitions, etc. Finally, select other referees who have observed your work ethics, ability to work independently as well as in a collaborative, team environment, ability to communicate to board audiences, etc.
  2. Carefully seek out and cultivate referees. Connect early and often with individuals who are familiar with you and can comment on your past accomplishments, current capabilities, and future potential. These may include your academic advisor, course instructors from your chosen research field, research mentor, internship supervisor, proposed graduate advisor, etc. Selecting a high profile individual who is only tangentially related to you professionally is not helpful.
  3. Your referees are all busy professionals with many demands on their times. It is in your best interest to personally discuss with them, early in the application process, serving as your reference letter writer. Such a first discussion with each potential referee should occur at least eight to ten weeks in advance of the GRFP application submission deadline. Provide the selected referees with all relevant materials, e.g., your CV, transcripts, scholarly articles, and two narrative statements (Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement and Graduate Research Plan Statement), well in advance of the reference letter submission deadline (early in the process, six weeks in advance, provide the draft narrative statements and later in the process, three weeks in advance or as soon as completed, provide the final narrative statements). This will give them sufficient time to prepare a strong letter in support of your GRFP candidacy.
  4. Discuss your plans for graduate studies, research plan, and GRFP application with your potential letters writers either in person (if local) or telephonically (if remote). This will enable them to connect with you at a personal level and know you better.
  5. Your referees are expected to comment on the “intellectual merit” and “broader impact” of your GRFP proposal. While most academic letter writers may be familiar with the aforementioned terms, it is important to highlight in your discussions with all letter writers what you consider to be the intellectual merit and broader impacts of your proposed research.
  6. You can track the receipt status of your reference letters in the NSF application system. If it becomes necessary, politely remind your referees about the due date for their letters two weeks prior to the deadline. The GRFP application portal does not accept any late submissions.
  7. It is critical that you connect and engage with all your letter writers adequately so that they can compose honest and strong letters in support of your application.
  8. Finally, extract out the section on Reference Letters from the NSF GRFP solicitation and provide a copy to your referees. It lists all formatting requirements and page limit for the reference letters.