Winning an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

A graduate fellowship is one of the many ways to pay for your graduate studies. One of the most competitive and prestigious fellowships is the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (NSFGRF). Although it is competitive, it has a clear and a (somewhat) transparent process that makes applying for one a no-brainer.

Every year, I get several requests to review NSFGRF applications and to offer my annual workshop on the topic. In the 5 years since wining an NSFGRF, I have hosted about 10 workshops and helped a dozen students individually. As far as I know, at least 10 students who received my help have won an NSFGRF. While, I can't take credit for their success (anyone applying for and NSFGRF is a smart and driven cookie to start with), all of them had unpolished essays and put way too much emphasis on the personal statement and GRE scores. So while, you have done well on your own, writing successful grants requires a unique skill-set. Here I will show you how to transform a rough application into a polished research proposal.  Of course, this guide won't make up for poor GPAs, no reliable reference letters, and summers spent lounging in the Hamptons. But if you took your academic career seriously thus far you are in very good shape.

When I applied for the NSFGRF back in 2005-2006, there was virtually no advice out there. I relied primarily on the excellent article by Keith Gamble and advice from past winners I knew personally. Since then, there have been a ton of "application advice" resources, including from the NSF. Feel free to review them. This page will focus on how you can win an NSFGRF. I will start by reviewing some basic prerequisites and then move to the essays in order of importance.

Table of contents:
  1. Preliminaries
  2. Research Proposal 
  3. Letters of Recommendation
  4. Previous Research
  5. Personal Statement
  6. Wrap-up


  1. Thanks for stopping by! Please leave any comments/suggestions to improve this guide. Thanks!

  2. Hello,

    I was introduced to your website by Jenn and Robin from CCNY. I wish that I knew about this place earlier. Since my essays were already on their 10th draft (or something above that), it was hard to reconstruct it according to your advices. Regardless, it was very helpful in the end! I am just crossing my fingers while applying to grad schools and other fellowships at the moment.


  3. Jaeseung,
    Thank you for your note! Regardless of the outcome you have put yourself in a great position to apply for graduate school and other fellowships. Best of luck, and please do let me know how your NSF application pans out.


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