Nsf Graduate Research Fellowship Sample Essays

Below is the prompt for the Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement:

Please outline your educational and professional development plans and career goals. How do you envision graduate school preparing you for a career that allows you to contribute to expanding scientific understanding as well as broadly benefit society? Page limit - 3 pages

Describe your personal, educational and/or professional experiences that motivate your decision to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM). Include specific examples of any research and/or professional activities in which you have participated. Present a concise description of the activities, highlight the results and discuss how these activities have prepared you to seek a graduate degree. Specify your role in the activity including the extent to which you worked independently and/or as part of a team. Describe the contributions of your activity to advancing knowledge in STEM fields as well as the potential for broader societal impacts (See Solicitation, Section VI, for more information about Broader Impacts).

NSF Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this statement is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement. Your ideas and examples do not have to be confined necessarily to the discipline that you have chosen to pursue.

If you have completed more than 12 months of graduate or post-baccalaureate study or a professional degree and an interruption of at least two consecutive years (fourth option under Completed Study in the NSF GRFP Program Information section), please address the reasons for the interruption in graduate study here. Please refer back to that section for details.

Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:

  1. Why are you fascinated by your research area?
  2. What examples of leadership skills and unique characteristics do you bring to your chosen field?
  3. What personal and individual strengths do you have that make you a qualified applicant?
  4. How will receiving the fellowship contribute to your career goals?
  5. What are all of your applicable experiences?
  6. For each experience, what were the key questions, methodology, findings, and conclusions?
  7. Did you work in a team and/or independently?
  8. How did you assist in the analysis of results?
  9. How did your activities address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?

Below is the prompt for the Graduate Research Plan Statement:

Present an original research topic that you would like to pursue in graduate school. Describe the research idea, your general approach, as well as any unique resources that may be needed for accomplishing the research goal (i.e., access to national facilities or collections, collaborations, overseas work, etc.) You may choose to include important literature citations. Address the potential of the research to advance knowledge and understanding within science as well as the potential for broader impacts on society. The research discussed must be in a field listed in the Solicitation (Section X, Fields of Study).

Important questions to ask yourself before writing the statement:

  1. What issues in the scientific community are you most passionate about?
  2. Do you possess the technical knowledge and skills necessary for conducting this work, or will you have sufficient mentoring and training to complete the study?
  3. Is this plan feasible for the allotted time and institutional resources?
  4. How will your research contribute to the "big picture" outside the academic context?
  5. How can you draft a plan using the guidelines presented in the essay instructions?
  6. How does your proposed research address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria?

Applicants are required to submit three reference letters. There are five slots available for applicants to list reference writers. Applicants are strongly encouraged to utilize all available slots.

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.

Your academic transcript is the evaluators' opportunity to view the courses you have taken, allowing them to determine your level of preparation for your proposed plan of research.  Thus, it is a significant component of a complete application.

An academic transcript is required for every institution you have listed in the application module. If your transcript contains your academic records for more than one degree, you need to only upload your transcript once. You can select a checkbox on the application that the transcript information for an institution is contained on the uploaded transcript for another entry on the Education and Work Experience section of the application.

Writing Resources

GRFP Statement Planning Guides

Checklist Use a checklist to plan your time and complete your GRFP application by the submission deadline.


  • Writer's Block? This list of writing prompts is applicable to the Personal, Relevant Background & Future Goals statements. The list is not inclusive by any means!
  • Describing Previous Research Experiences This worksheet will help you reflect on your previous research experiences.
  • Worksheet for the Graduate Research Statement. This handout may help you identify a possible research topic and an appropriate approach. Discuss your topic with your mentor before you commence writing.
  • Planning a Broader Impact Activity. This handout can help you identify broader impact activities aimed at "desired societal outcomes."Tip: Your BI potential will look stronger if you can build upon your current BI activities. If you proposed a new BI activity, make sure it is innovative!

Outlines for Statement Outlines (These are merely examples and are unofficial).

Formatting Suggestions

  • Graduate Research Plan Statement. Numerous applicants have asked how to organize the research statement. Your best bets are to (a) ask your mentor what panelists from your discipline might expect and (b) adopt section headings from articles in discipline-specific journals. Here is one possible format example.

Unofficial Rubric. This revised rubric is designed to help you reflect on (a) the content of your essays, (b) how well your application packet reflects your abilities, and (c) your writing mechanics.

GRFP Essay Examples* & Advice from GRFP Fellows

*Important: The GRFP instructions have changed entirely. If you elect to review essay examples from previous years, please keep this in mind. DO NOT model your statements after previous year's essays.

Alex Lang, PhD. NFS Fellowship. A 2010 Fellow Alex Lang is currently pursuing a PhD on physics at Boston University. His site includes numerous essay examples from several disciplines, some with reviewer feedback.

Mallory P Ladd, PhD Think like a Postdoc. is a 2014 GRFP Recipient. Her blog contains GRFP advice and statement examples.

Rachel C. Smith, PhD. National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Dr. Smith received the GRFP Award in 2007. Her page includes successful GRFP essays, many with the reviewers' comment.

Jennifer Wang, PhD. NSF Graduate Fellowship Advice. Dr. Wang received the GRFP Honorable Mention in 2007 and the GRFP Award in 2008. Her page links to other GRFP resources and advice from other award and honorable mention recipients.

Jan Allen, PhD. Graduate Mentor is an Associate Dean at Cornell. Her site contains information on a a variety of fellowships, including the NSF GRFP.

More on Broader Impacts

National Alliance for Broader Impacts. Join the free national ListServe and learn what others are doing for their BI efforts. Find collaborators! In fact, your institution may already be a NABI member.

Broader Impacts Guidelines . This page is primarily for grant proposers and reviewers, but the content can help GRFP applicants better understand the BI criterion.

GRFP 60th Anniversary Video Contest Winners. Here are three terrific examples of how Fellows have used technology to teach the public about their research endeavors.

COSEE Broader Impact Wizard Introduction (You Tube). While this video is aimed at faculty, it offers an excellent take on what "broader impacts" means. GRFP applicants should watch to 4:51 minutes. Learn how these faculty members collaborate with others to address the Broader Impacts review criterion.

Broader Impacts Showcase (2005). Findings from the Showcase offer ideas on how others have broaden impacts. GRFP applicants can adapt these ideas (or expand on them) for proposed future broader impact activities.

NSFGRF.org: Review Criteria. The GRFP Operations Center manages this resource site for Fellowship applicants, awardees and reviewers.

Resource Persons & Social Network Discussions

Your best bet for finding GRFP advice is to talk with your faculty mentor(s), GRFP Fellows and GRFP Resource Persons. Social networks are another option. However, like any other GRFP advice you may find on the web, read critically, consult your mentor and only use suggestions that make sense to you.

Social network discussions
Advice from Fellows

…once you finish the NSF GRFP application, your graduate apps will be a snap.

Adam Daily

'12 Fellow, Biomedical Engineering

University of Texas at Austin


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