Competing for NSF Fellowships: Advice from a Current Fellow
The key to developing an award-winning application is to have a strategy. Please consider the following tips when applying:
DEVELOP A STORY
What makes the NSF GRF unique is that the program is looking to fund YOU as a future leader in your field, not your project. While your research plays a vital role in your application, it is only one component of the overall story you need to develop. The application provides you with two essay opportunities to convince the team of judges that you are a worthwhile investment. The best way to do so is to demonstrate your personal passion and dedication—not only in science, but also for that which matters most to you. For the personal statement, consider focusing on personal endeavors and accomplishments in your community service work, sports, religious youth groups, and the like. Make the most of the space you are given to explore what makes you a unique and driven individual.
With letters of recommendation serving as a crucial component of the award, it is important to realize that you are not only preparing this application on your time, but on the time of those who are recommending you. Be courteous and start early. Also, take the time to consider who would write the best recommendation for your application. Regardless of whom you choose, consider those mentors in your life who will be best contribute to your overall story.
It is also essential that you allow time for others to read and critique your essays. Get as many eyes on your essays as possible, including your parents, siblings, fellow graduate students, postdocs in your labs, and really, anyone else willing to help. The reality is that you have no idea who is reading your essays, and what kind of impact your writing will have on them. Getting more eyes on your essays broadens the scope of your impact to a diverse audience.
DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THE AWARD
Finally, I hope you strongly consider the impact that this award could have on your career. I have met NSF Fellows around the country that have shared stories of unique opportunities that have been made available to them through this award—including reversed graduate school rejection decisions, acceptances into top labs with limited space, and more influence in the direction of their projects. Personally, this award has been the single most influential factor in shaping my scientific career to date. Ultimately, I hope this motivates you to give this opportunity your best effort—it may have a bigger impact on your life than you may believe!
Doctoral student, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science
Corey is a 2013 NSF GRF Fellow and was a panelist in the Graduate School's Professional Development Series webinar on the NSF grant.