Nsf Graduate Fellowship Sample Essay

Note: This is a post from my old website that I’ve since shut down due to moving my website to Github. The original post is from 2013, yet it still seems reasonably relevant today. In this version, I have added a few updates (annotated as UPDATE) based on what I know now as I am nearing the end of my graduate career. Hopefully it will still be a useful resource to young aspiring scientists looking to launch their academic careers :)

NSF GRFP overview

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSF GRFP) provides funding for graduate research. Although essentially all (science) PhD programs will fund you (pay for your tuition, healthcare, and provide a stipend), with the first one or two years being paid for by the department and the remaining paid for by your PhD advisor, having a Fellowship means being able to walk in to any lab you want with the confidence that the PI will not need to worry about funding you (and will hopefully be more willing to take you because of this). I applied for NSF GRFP during my senior year of undergraduate studies in 2012-2013 and was awarded the fellowship. Below are some advice and information about the application process with some reference materials from my own application. Additional information can be found on the NSF GRFP website.

Benefits of being an NSF Fellow (as of 2013):

  • $30,000 annual stipend for three years, which may be used in any three 12-month units over a five-year period that begins in your award year
  • Additional research opportunities such as Graduate Research Opportunities Worldwide, which offers opportunities to participate in 3-12 month international research collaborations
  • Access to cyberinfrastructure resources through the XSEDE (TeraGrid)
  • Obviously: prestige

  • UPDATE: Some graduate programs will also offer to increase your stipend (by a few hundred dollars) or provide an educational allowance for computer purchases, conference travels, etc if you have a grant such as the NSF GRFP.

If your department pays for the first year or two of your tuition through some sort of training grant, consider deferring NSF by said time; you have the option of deferring for up to two years for this reason (you’re not allowed to defer to take a year off). Your PhD advisor will love you for this!

Be sure to check with your department and graduate program about deferring though! Some will not allow students to defer their NSF unless they have obtained some other source of outside funding that can be utilized during that time so you may be required to utilize any fellowships you obtain as soon as possible.

Basic NSF GRFP Requirements:

  • You must be a US Citizen, US national, or permanent resident
  • You must be in a graduate degree program (PhD) pursuing an advanced degree in an NSF approved field of study by the Fall of your award year
  • According to the NSF GRFP eligibility guide, NSF approved fields of study do not include “research with disease-related goals, including the etiology, diagnosis or treatment of physical or mental disease, abnormality or malfunction.” However, you can still pursue research with disease-related, diagnostic, or treatment-related goals (as I did). You will just need to frame your research from a scientific or engineering perspective.
  • NSF does not award fellowships for MBAs, MDs, MD/PhDs, JD/PhDs, etc. If you are pursuing any degree other than a PhD and are an immigrant or child of an immigrant, consider applying to The Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans instead. It’s one of the few fellowships that provides support for non-PhDs!

UPDATE: You can only apply to the NSF GRFP as a senior in undergrad or within the first two years of your graduate studies. If you are already in your 3rd year, you are no longer eligible (you would apply for something like the NIH F grant instead). That said, success rates are much higher for those re-applying (so ideally, you would want to apply as early as possible so that if you fail to get funded, you have the ability to reapply). So start early, fail often, and try again!

Required materials and information for application:

  • Three 2-page essays: Personal Statement, Previous Research, and Proposed Research
  • Three or more letters of recommendation
  • Your proposed University/College and Program (you do NOT need to be accepted or decide to go there)
  • Your proposed Primary Field of Study (you should stay in your proposed field even if you decide on a different University or Program though)
  • A list of fellowships, scholarships, teaching, and work experiences relevant to your field of study since entering college/university (experiences do not have to be limited to the academic realm but no more than 5 are recommended)
  • A list of your significant academic honors, publications, and presentations

Finding professors and PIs to write strong recommendations for you is honestly the hardest part of this process in my opinion. Hopefully you do have a good relationship with your academic advisor and/or have been involved in research at school, but don’t be afraid to just ask a professor who’s class you took (and hopefully did very well in). Be prepared to provide professors with some key points about yourself that they should mention and your CV (in the likely event they do not remember you).

Ask for your recommendations early! Professors and PIs are very busy! Don’t just assume that they will meet your deadlines. It will be your job to make sure they get their recommendations in on time. Although NSF will only look at the three recommendations, consider asking for a 4th in the event something pops up and one recommender is not able to submit in time. If you do not have a minimum of three recommendations by the deadline, you will be disqualified.

When listing your significant academic honors, publications, and presentations, DO NOT be modest. Even if your presentation was at some small school event, JUST LIST IT. Even if your publication was in your undergraduate research journal, JUST LIST IT. Even if everyone in your program got the same award and you think it’s nothing special, JUST LIST IT. It’s not up to you to decide whether your achievements are “worth” listing. Let the judges decide.

All essays will be reviewed on the criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Intellectual Merit is probably easier to address than Broader Impacts so make sure to go back and emphasize your previous efforts in any community service or outreach and thoroughly discuss how you and your research will help the society at large.

Know your audience when writing your essays, in particular your Research Proposal. Do not spew out a ton of jargon but also do not waste time explaining the central dogma of genetics (and other mundane facts common in the scientific community). You will be able to name a Tentative Panel Field (such as Medical Sciences, Engineering – Biomedical, Comp/IS/Eng – Informatics, or a mix if you’re interdisciplinary) in your application from which your reviewers will be picked from. So they will not be experts in your field but they will also not be clueless.

UPDATE: In hindsight, the NSF GRFP application has substantially fewer requirements and essays than all other grants. So the amount of work is quite minimal for the pay-off. Putting together the application has also been really great practice for my other grants; I still use some parts of my resume and personal statement in my biosketch for new NIH grants! And the recommenders that wrote my recommendation letters for the NSF GRFP are still writing me recommendation letters for my new ventures (so keep in touch with your former advisors!)

Sample timeline

  • Early August – Ask for recommendations. Start brainstorming about your Personal Statement and Proposed Research. List out your previous research. Prepare your CV.
  • Mid August – The NSF GRFP applications are open. Create a FASTLANE account and start filling out the basic information. Familiarize yourself with the program solicitation. Check in with recommenders to see if they’re writing your recommendations and if they need help.
  • Early October – Write a draft of your Personal Statement. Complete your Previous Research essay just to get it out of the way. Start reading papers and brainstorming for potential Research Proposal topics. Ask your recommenders to submit their recommendations if possible.
  • Late October – Finish your Personal Statement. Write a draft of your Research Proposal. Ask your recommenders to submit their recommendations if possible.
  • Early November – Ask your research advisor or a professor in your intended field to go over your Research Proposal with you. Start finalizing your Research Proposal. Start nagging your recommenders to submit their recommendations if they have not done so already.
  • Mid November – Finish all essays. Complete your application through the FASTLANE website (this will likely take longer than you think). Go back to the program solicitation and review your essays to make sure you’ve addressed both Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in each essay. Seriously start nagging your recommenders to submit their recommendations if they have not done so already.
  • Late November – Submit!
  • Late March – Hear back!
  • Early May – Decide!
  • The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship Program
  • The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans
  • The National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship
  • The Ford Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship
  • Department of Energy Computational Science Graduate Fellowship

A lot of these fellowships request for the same information and essays, so if you’re already applying to NSF, it’s pretty easy to just recycle your essays and apply to a few more to increase the likelihood you will get at least one fellowship. However, if you get awarded multiple fellowships, you will likely have to choose between them as you are only allowed to accept one Federal fellowship (with the exception of Soros since it’s private).

Other fellowships:

  • Bell Labs Graduate Fellowship – currently unavailable but may become available in the future
  • Dept Homeland Security – currently unavailable but may become available in the future
  • Dept Defense SMART – post-graduate work at Dept Defense required
  • Dept Fulbright – requires traveling abroad
  • EPA Star – must be environmental study
  • GAANN – must have financial need
  • Jacob Javits – humanities and social sciences only
  • Marshall – must study in the UK
  • NASA Aeronautics – must focus on aeronautics
  • NASA GSRP – required internship at NASA
  • National Physics Science Consortium – must intern at sponsoring employers
  • Rhodes – must study at Oxford

Coordinating multiple fellowships

According to the NSF administrative guide for fellows, starting with the 2011 Fellows forward, GRFP Fellowships cannot be concurrently accepted or combined with another Federal Fellowship, irrespective of the Fellow’s Status. This means that you if you receive multiple Federal fellowships, you will have to choose one. However, you can still accept multiple fellowships as long as only one is Federal.

Prior to 2011, students who receive multiple fellowships may accept multiple as long as they did not receive multiple sources of funding in the same year. That is, students may take the DoD NDSEG for the first three years, deferring NSF GRFP for two years and forfeiting one year, then using NSF GRFP for the last two years. This is no longer possible!

Sample essays and review

Rememeber: Do your homework! Google around for more advice, resources, and sample essays/reviews! Below are some other great places to get started:

Reading other people’s essays, especially Research Proposals with topics similar to my field, and their reviews definitely helped me the most; or at least made me more confident about my project’s difficulty level and feasibility. Seeing how others organized their Previous Research was also helpful. In reading other people’s Personal Statements, I realized that this was the one essay where you could insert some personality or otherwise differentiating/unique aspects about yourself so make it count! In hindsight, I think my Personal Statement is a bit too much on the cheesy side but luckily it worked out.

Even if you don’t get awarded the Fellowship, just having applied is a big bonus when you’re applying and interviewing for graduate school. Schools will love that you’ve put thought into your future! Plus, when interviewers ask you what you plan to do in terms of research in graduate school, you can just refer to your Research Proposal!

the NSF Fellowship is a great way to jumpstart your research career. The worst thing that can happen is you don’t get awarded the Fellowship so why not apply? There’s no application fee anyway 😛

UPDATE: I did not use the entire duration of my NSF GRFP because I received new funding from an NCI F31 (grant which required me to give up the remainder of my NSF as fellowships cannot be concurrently accepted or combined). There are many grants you can apply for at various stages of your academic career. If you don’t get this one, you can try again or get the next one. The important thing is to just try!

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Resources

If you would like more information on attending one of our NSF Support Series workshops, please consult our Professional Development events calendar. Students who interested in the GRFP or are actively working on the application can contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at gradgrants@nd.edu for more information.

Applying for the NSFGRFP

Applicants should first explore the user-friendly NSFGRFP applicant website.
Familiarize yourself with the official NSF solicitation.
Read the NSF Guide to Proposal Writing.
Create a Fastlane user account and read the Applicant Guide.

The Graduate Research Statement (PDF)

You must convince the readers that your plan of research:

  • is worthwhile.
  • is feasible within the grant parameters.
  • should be undertaken by you.

Choosing a project:

  • Begin with an area with which you are familiar. You should be comfortable with the concepts and vocabulary pertinent to the field.
  • Complete a literature review to get an idea of what questions are being asked in your area, and what still remains to be done.
  • Imagine the “next question” to ask of the work being done in the lab you work in (or have worked in).
  • Frame your interest in a hypothesis driven manner.
  • Brainstorm the experiments you will complete and outline what the results would mean one way or another for your hypothesis.
  • Discuss your research plan with a faculty member. Verify that your program has the resources to complete your project and that your intellectual merit and broader impact are realistic within its scope.

Drafting your proposal:

Your project proposal must demonstrate:

  • the significance of your research.
  • the originality and creativity of your idea.
  • the soundness and rigor of your methodology.
  • that you are in the right institution to pursue your plan.

Proposal components:

Title: Create a clear, concise but descriptive title.

Key Words: list several descriptors that best describe or categorize your study

Introduction: State the nature and scope of the specific problem(s). Cite key findings from literature that demonstrate the scope of the problem and the gap your research fills.

Hypotheses or Research Questions: List 2-3 specific hypotheses.

Research Plan: Describe your methods, connecting specific methods with specific hypotheses. Explain your timeline, any compliance issues, how you will monitor and evaluate progress, what limitations may exist, and what your contingency plan may be. Note anticipated results and give a rationale for these expectations. If your plan is part of a larger team effort, clearly explain your specific responsibilities and the role of your work in the larger project.

Intellectual Merit & Broader Impact: Restate the significance of the problem. Describe the potential outcome of the research, and who will benefit and how. Explain how you will communicate your findings.

References: Include key citations. References do count within the two-page limit.

The NSFGRFP Research Guide may be helpful in planning your proposed research essay.

Questions to ask of your completed first draft:

Intellectual Merit:

  • How important is the proposed activity to advancing knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields?
  • How well qualified is the proposer (individual or team) to conduct the project?
  • To what extent does the proposed activity suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  • How well conceived and organized is the proposed activity?
  • Is there sufficient access to resources?

Broader Impacts:

  • How well does the activity advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning?
  • How well does the proposed activity broaden the participation of underrepresented groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, disability, geographic, etc.)?
  • To what extent will it enhance the infrastructure for research and education, such as facilities, instrumentation, networks, and partnerships?
  • Will the results be disseminated broadly to enhance scientific and technological understanding?
  • What may be the benefits of the proposed activity to society?


  • Is there sufficient documentation of the background and justification for the study?
  • Does the plan address a significant need or problem?
  • Does the plan address NSF funding priorities?
  • Are the proposed methods rigorous and appropriate for the hypothesis? Are the steps or the process clear? Are potential pitfalls addressed and a contingency plan been outlined? Is the plan doable in the time allotted?
  • Are the intellectual merits and broader impact suggested realistic for this project?
  • Does the project proposal address the aims of the NSF, and the GRFP specifically?

The Personal Statement, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement (PDF)

This essay will work to demonstrate your ability to successfully undertake your proposed project and your potential to be a leader in science and/or education.

Like your research proposal, it must address the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria. It should be an integrated narrative that motivates, both personally and professionally, your choice of graduate study, and indicates how your future goals stem from your past experience.

This essay should show readers how well prepared you are to conduct research and how likely you are to complete your proposed project. You should give concrete examples of experiences in which you demonstrated characteristics like ingenuity, resourcefulness, determination, flexibility, reliability, etc.

Possible topics:

  • Experience on faculty-led research projects, research assistantships, leadership on student research teams
  • Experience during internships, field research, study abroad, or employment
  • Experience in coursework, lab work, or scholarship.

For each experience describe your role, your contribution, the outcomes, what you learned, and skills you gained.

  • Describe how the experience will be useful to your future research, and how it has influenced your perspective and/or determination.
  • Describe how the experience helped you improve your analytical skills, self-direction, time management, creativity, resourcefulness, etc.
  • Describe the methods or technical skills acquired: research design, data collection, field research, data analysis, data protection, responsible conduct of research, grant proposal writing, presentation skills, etc.

Remember that reviewers are looking for students who are highly engaged, will encourage diversity, and will advance scientific knowledge that benefits society. You should demonstrate cultural competence, respect for other disciplines and other people, global awareness, and a willingness to integrate science and education.

Possible topics:

  • Research with international faculty and/or on interdisciplinary research projects.
  • Reaching diverse audiences through teaching, scholarship, presentations, public outreach, media, etc.
  • Leadership in field organizations, membership in professional societies, attendance at conferences.

If appears that your proposed research plan would be a challenge given your current ability, you should demonstrate your eagerness to learn the skills necessary to complete it. Give examples of your willingness to seek out and accept feedback and explain your plans to gain the necessary training.

This essay should also demonstrate your potential in a more personal manner: your motivations, your goals, your abilities, your character.

Ideas to address:

Intellectual Merit:

  • How motivated are you to pursue your studies, and this project? What motivates you?
  • What efforts have you undertaken to improve your skills and knowledge, inside and outside the classroom?
  • Can you demonstrate a willingness to challenge assumptions, test new ideas, learn from mistakes, overcome barriers, think creatively, find resources, act independently, etc.?
  • What qualities do you possess that will make you a leader in your field?

Broader Impact:

  • Do you demonstrate an understanding of local and global challenges, and a passion to make a difference in the lives of people in the US and abroad?
  • What are your career aspirations, and how will you contribute to your field?
  • Do you demonstrate leadership qualities as well as the ability to be a collaborative team member?
  • What are/will be your personal contributions to society?


  • What key experiences made you who you are today?
  • What are you passionate about? Why is your research important to you?
  • How have you helped others?
  • How will you adapt to advances in the future?

Steps to writing your essay:

  1. Brainstorm notes about experiences that best demonstrate your research qualifications, your personal strengths, and the motivation for your professional goals.
  2. Reflect on these experiences and decide which best demonstrate your knowledge, skills, and the characteristics that demonstrate potential. Reflect on which experiences best reflect the intellectual merit and broader impact criteria.
  3. Select concrete examples that make your skills, strengths, and motivations clear to your audience.
  4. Choose a writing structure. You might describe your experiences chronologically, or write about your most meaningful experiences first. You might also list skills you have acquired, and give a concrete example of how you applied that skill.
  5. Write a draft of your essay. Don’t be initially concerned if you go over the 3-page limit – it is generally easier and more effective to cut material than to add it. After you’ve included all your relevant experiences, try to identify an overall theme and use this to create a compelling introductory paragraph.
  6. Create a compelling introduction and conclusion that bring your ideas full circle.
  7. Share your essay with the fellowships advisor, writing tutors, family, friends, etc. to get feedback.
  8. Set aside your essay for a few days, and then revise with fresh eyes.

Questions to ask of your draft:

  • Did you provide evidence of your intellectual merit and broader impact with concrete examples?
  • Have you accurately represented your research experiences?
  • Is your past experience connected with your future research and professional goals?
  • Will a reader believe that you have the necessary skills and drive to undertake your proposed research?
  • Does this essay reflect the real you? Does it feel sincere?
  • Is the writing clear, compelling, and detailed?
  • What sets your essay apart from other applications?

Sample essays:

Students interested in studying sample essays for the NSFGRFP should contact the Office of Grants and Fellowships at gradgrants@nd.edu. The sample essays cover most fields and disciplines.

Sample reviewer comments

By analyzing reviewers’ comments on both successful and unsuccessful applications, you can determine what to include in your essays. Elements highlighted in blue will help boost your score, and elements in red should be avoided.


Much of the above material was adapted from GRFP learning materials created by Dr. Robin G. Walker, University of Missouri – Columbia. Visit her GRFP Essay Insights website for more information.

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