Quick Tips for the NSF GRFP
Updated: Jul 9, 2020
If you are a 4th year undergraduate planning on applying for PhD programs, or young (1st or 2nd year) PhD student and an American citizen, I highly highly suggest applying for the prestigious NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (GRFP). I was very honored to receive a 2020 NSF GRFP, and in this blog post I would like to share some tips to help others who may be applying or thinking about applying.
First and foremost, your intelligence, capability as a researcher and value as a human on this earth is not determined based on your ability to win (or not win) fellowships. However, it goes without saying that there are many awesome pros of winning prestigious fellowships, and your fear of being rejected should not stop you from applying! For reference, in the past I have applied to 4+ large fellowships (including the NDSEG [link], Hertz Fellowship [link], Google PhD Fellowship [link] and UVA Presidential Fellows in Data Science [link]), all of which I did not win, and many of which I did not even make it past the first round of cuts 😛. The only way you win fellowships is by applying, so even if you do not get this one, don't get discouraged and keep applying. Plus, there are many applicable benefits to learning how to craft an application package that can help you later in your career (such as learning about grant writing, learning how to concisely summarize your research, telling a compelling personal "story", etc.) As the old saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don't take!
These sources have some great material to help you strategize, organize and plan your application. I would start here when initially planning your application.
Program Solicitation: https://www.nsfgrfp.org/
Actual Application Portal - NSF FastLane: https://www.research.gov/grfp/Login.do
Examples about how to structure the essays: https://mitcommlab.mit.edu/eecs/commkit/nsf-personal-statement/
Super helpful blog with examples of past applications (this one was my favorite to reference, but there are many other good ones): https://www.alexhunterlang.com/nsf-fellowship
Other nice blogs with information from people who applied / won - http://www.malloryladd.com/nsf-grfp-advice.html and http://www.christineliuart.com/writing/2018/8/31/advice-for-applying-to-the-nsf-grfp
The biggest thing I can tell you is to start early. The earlier you work on things, the more time you have to improve them, without feeling too stressed or overwhelmed, and without an immediate impending deadline. I have attached a sample timeline with the *suggested* times you should complete things, along with when I actually completed each task. I started in July and my application was due in mid October. Don't beat yourself up if you get a little behind (as you will see I did), just keep making progress towards your app. You got this!
Gray is the suggested timeline, purple is when I actually completed things.
BD = Before the Deadline
4-6 Months BD
Late June / Early July - Do LOTS of background research: learn about program details, look at past applications, learn what reviewers are looking for. Honestly, the most helpful thing for me was reading a bunch of past applicant essays 🤓.
Early July - Start brainstorming 🧠 at a high level details of research and personal statements. Pick what specific area and sub-theme you will be submitting under, to make sure your application matches those areas well.
3-4 Months BD
Mid July - Make detailed outlines for research and personal statements. You should think about what the core of your “story” is going to be for each of these 🤔. Your research and personal statement should tie in to each other to make a cohesive package. Reviewers like well-structured essays that build off of each other and help them get a complete picture of who you are and what you bring to the table.
End of July - Get feedback on your overall story and outlines. I had help from my advisors and a previous GRFP winner.
Early August - Ask for recommendation letters 👩🏫 👨🏫. Strategize about what each recommender will talk about (so each mentions a different part of you and your application), and even provide each recommender with some key talking points you want them to cover.
3 Months BD
August - Write first rough drafts of research & personal statements. 📝 (Good papers go through 5+ IN DEPTH revisions, so don’t have too much pressure here. Just get something written!)
Late August - Get first round of detailed feedback from your advisors and hardcore revise the essays.
End of August - Make your account on the NSF FastLane application site to ensure you can successfully make an account and to look over all the application components. There is quite a few sections you have to fill out (with name, school, program etc.) beyond the essay submission parts.
2-3 Months BD
September - Revise and edit essays ✏️ 🖊, get feedback and repeat (do this a lot!) This is where the crux of the work is; this is where you should really be digging down and fine-tuning the essays to make them stand out.
1-2 Months BD
Late September - Invite your recommenders using the NSF FastLane portal. There is a part of the application where you can add the name and emails of your recommenders, or resend invites. I had some issues with this, where my recommenders never received their invites and I had to resend them a couple of times.
End of September-Early October - Complete final draft version.
Early October (closer to < 1 month BD) - Get feedback from EVERYONE 👩👨👩🦱👵 (aka a ton of people). The more people who read it, the more improvements you can make. For example, I asked my 2 advisors, 2 academic mentors in another field (I am in CS, but asked a mentor in Biomedical Informatics and an administrative mentor who used to work on grant application funding and fellowship stuff), my mom and a childhood best friend (to make sure my story was cohesive and sounded like me), a UVA graduate writing lab mentor (who is trained in writing mechanics and won the GRFP in past years), and 5+ fellow graduate students, both in my immediate research area and in research-adjacent areas.
1-2 Weeks BD
1 week BD - Make final revisions based on feedback, proofread and finalize. Make sure essays fit the required template EXACTLY.
1-2 Days BD
1 day BD - Submit application at least 24 hours before the actual deadline so you have time in case of any technical difficulties or system slowness. My app sat on a loading screen for 5 agonizing minutes before submitting 😬.
October Something - Submit app if you haven’t yet and 🎉Celebrate🎉!
Recommendation Letters Due
November 1st - Make sure recommendation letters are submitted by this deadline from your recommenders 👩🏫 👨🏫. You will be able to log in to the NSF FastLane portal even after you have submitted your materials to check if the recommender letters have been received.