Writing Personal Statements Online

The National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship


The National Science Foundation (NSF) awards fellowships for graduate study in science, mathematics, and engineering to candidates who are expected to contribute significantly to research, teaching, and industrial applications. Fellowships support students for one year or several, and the stipend is generous (in 2009 each fellow received $30,000 for a 12-month tenure), with an additional cost-of-education allowance granted to the fellowship institution ($10,500 in 2009). Obviously these awards are highly competitive, and selection panels choose students who will have a great impact on their fields and bring further reputation to their institutions. The NSF program also includes special awards for women in engineering and computer and information science. Individuals can apply during their senior year of college as well as during graduate school.

The NSF Fellowship Selection Criteria

NSF applications are reviewed by discipline-specific panels of mathematicians, scientists, professors, and engineers. Reviewers attend specifically to two criteria:

  • intellectual merit, including the strength of the candidate’s academic record, the research plan and previous research, and ability to communicate and interpret research findings;
  • broader impacts, reflecting the review panel’s desire to encourage diversity and benefit society through NSF awards.

Once the review panel makes its selections, NSF staff further review the fellowship recommendations, considering additional criteria such as geographic region, discipline, and other policy-specific selection factors.

Answering the NSF Application Essay Questions

The NSF application includes almost 20 questions, four of which must be answered in the form of extensive essays. Essays must be uploaded online through a process called FastLane, with all essays typed in no smaller than a 10-point font size and strict adherence to the dictated page limits.

For the essay questions requiring full narrative responses, applicants must carefully determine the substance of the question and frame responses so that the answers complement each other rather than result in needless redundancy. In this regard, it is useful to think of these questions in the context of just one or two words (e.g., personal motivation, scientific commitment, previous research, proposed research), and frame your answers accordingly. Extrapolate from the lengthy wording of the questions to generate ideas for examples, keeping in mind the fundamental context of the question and sticking to that context.

Evaluation of Two Sample Sets of NSF Application Essays

The two sample responses to NSF application questions provided in the pdf below make for an excellent study in contrast. Also noteworthy: despite the great differences in these two approaches, both students did indeed receive an NSF.

The first sample essays are grounded completely in narrative and do not include any figures, tables, or references. The style is sometimes highly informal, to the point of what some might call a slightly hubristic tone, the use of an exclamation point (!), and even an admittance by the candidate that he has not yet decided on a particular graduate program. Nevertheless, if you read closely you realize that the informality is mostly placed within context of the personal motivation and scientific commitment discussions, while the discussions of previous research and proposed research are scientific and concerned with solving relevant problems related to microelectricalmechanical systems (MEMS). The research hypothesis and applications are also spelled out directly. Thus, we obtain a strong sense of the person (and personality) of this candidate, and we gain confidence in his abilities as a researcher.

In the second sample essays, discussions of previous and proposed research resemble formal literature reviews, each one citing numerous references from refereed journals and presenting figures generated by the author. The applications of the research, which has implications for rebuilding cartilage tissue and relieving musculoskeletal pain, are straightforward and beneficial to society. Meanwhile, we also get a sense of this writer’s personal character, as she cites examples of tutoring other students and her role as captain of a women’s soccer team sponsored by the Biomedical Engineering Society. In short, we meet both the scientist and the humanist—equal concerns for the NSF selectors.

Click here to download a pdf of two sets of NSF Graduate Research Fellowship application essays by former students.


When you apply for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program, the process begins at the fastlane.nsf.gov website.

Visit the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship website.