NSF Writing Tips

Writing the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Application: Tips for Carleton students

Dara Strauss-Albee '09 is the recipient of the 2010 National Science Foundation Graduate Research
Fellowship Currently graduate student in the Department of Immunology, Stanford.


1.     The process of writing this fellowship application can seem intimidating.  It helps to remember that the NSF provides very specific requirements, and you will greatly increase your chance of success by following them.  Here I’ll offer some guidance on how to do this, based on my experience, assuming that you are already familiar with the basic guidelines of the fellowship.  However, this document is only a start.  The Internet is chock-full of NSF GRFP advice pages that go into much more detail.  Read as much as you can. This site: http://www.jenniferwang.org/nsf.html offers a pretty comprehensive list of advice pages.  I found the pages by Barbara Dancheck and Philip Guo especially helpful.

2.     Try your best to obtain at least one set of essays from someone who’s received the fellowship before, preferably someone in your same field.  This will give you an idea for general content areas for your essays.  Bonus points if they’ll give you their reviewer feedback, too.  It’s becoming easier and easier to get these online.  Check out the site by Rachel C. Smith.

3.     Especially as a nice liberal arts student in Minnesota, it’s tempting to think that if you just put a lot of work into your application, the NSF will be able to recognize how much you deserve the fellowship.  Unfortunately, this is not the case.  This is a competition, and in addition to putting a lot of time and thought into your application, you have to be willing to play their game.  Remember that reviewers have only a few minutes to read all of your essays.  You should never exaggerate or fabricate, but don’t be afraid to emphasize the elements the NSF considers important, such as…

4.     Broader Impacts.  Also known as the way(s) in which your project will benefit society.  How you address Broader Impacts will make or break your application.  Brilliant research proposals are a dime-a-dozen to the reviewers.  Applicants who have thought carefully about the importance of their projects and integrated their Broader Impacts throughout their three essays are the ones who stand out. 

5.     As a Carleton student, you have the advantage of being at a small institution where you’ve probably participated in activities that somehow relate to the Broader Impacts criteria.  The NSF has a helpful document on its website, worth checking out, that defines what it considers Broader Impacts activities.  Think about any things you’ve done that might be related—TAing, volunteer work, extracurriculars—and show the reviewer how experienced you are in these areas.  Remember, writing about activities in which you’ve already participated is more convincing than writing about things you’re currently doing, which is more convincing than writing about things you plan to do.

6.     Once you think you’ve added enough Broader Impacts to your application, double the amount.  The Personal Statement is your best bet for getting these in.  Every little piece of this essay should further convince the reviewers how capable you are of changing the world.  Hit them over the head with it.

7.     Integrate your past experiences with your proposed project, both in the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts areas.  In your proposal, though you don’t want to just say you’ll be continuing your undergraduate research, it’s wise to emphasize how you’ll be using techniques or strategies you’ve used before.  Likewise, don’t just say you’d like to teach science to kids, explain how you already know how to do this through your volunteering experience with ACT.  Credibility is a big deal to reviewers.

8.     Have people read your application. Get as many eyes as you can on those essays. “Laypeople” (aka non-scientists) will offer helpful advice on your writing.  Your scientifically-inclined peers will likely offer the most germane advice on content.  Faculty will have great tips, too.

9.     Like all contests, whether or not you win involves a huge element of chance.  Good luck!