GRFP Essay Insights: Application Resources for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program
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Reference Writers: FYI

NSF's Aim with the GRFP

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program funds students who are training to become well-rounded researchers. As shown by the boldface below, the GRFP Solicitation contains several keywords that correspond with the mission, goals and future direction of the agency. According to the 2017-19 NSF GRFP Solicitation,

"The program goals are 1) to select, recognize, and financially support, early in their careers, individuals with the demonstrated potential to be high achieving scientists and engineers, and 2) to broaden participation in science and engineering of underrepresented groups, including women, minorities, persons with disabilities, and veterans....GRFP is a critical program in NSF's overall strategy in developing the globally-engaged workforce necessary to ensure the Nation's leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation. The ranks of NSF Fellows include numerous individuals who have made transformative breakthroughs in science and engineering, become leaders in their chosen careers, and been honored as Nobel laureates."

Importance of your Letter

Fact: Compelling letters that specifically address the applicant's potential for intellectual merit and broader impacts will make the student more competitive for this Fellowship. GRFP panelists are seeking evidence that each applicant holds the potential to (a) advance knowledge within and across disciplines and will (b) benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes. This year, you will be asked to specifically address the applicant's potential to "succeed graduate school; conduct original research; communicate effectively; work cooperatively with peers and supervisors; make unique contributions to his/her chosen discipline and to society in general...and the broader impacts of supporting this applicant, including his or her leadership potential in the chosen field of graduate work and in general, as a member of the scientific and technical community." Source

The NSF provides insight on how the merit review criteria apply to the GRFP:

"Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit criterion includes demonstrated intellectual ability and other accepted requisites for scholarly scientific study, such as the ability to: (1) plan and conduct research; (2) work as a member of a team as well as independently; and (3) interpret and communicate research findings. Panelists are instructed to consider: the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience, the appropriateness of the choice of references and the extent to which they indicate merit, and the appropriateness of the choice of institution for fellowship tenure relative to the proposed plan of research." Source

"Broader Impacts: The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that (1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience; (2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens-women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities-in science and research; (3) enhance scientific and technical understanding; and (4) benefit society. Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion." Source More on the review criteria.

Find FAQ's and Suggestions for Reference Writers at

Steps for submitting a GRFP reference letter

  1. The GRFP applicant will enter your name and email address into the NSF FastLane GRFP system.
  2. Once the student submits your name, you will receive an automatically-generated email that explains how to log in to the Fastlane GRFP system.
    Note: Fastlane GRFP is separate from the regular Fastlane system for grant proposals. Your PI login will not work in the GRFP system.
  3. Once in the system you will find (a) what you must address in your reference letter and (b) how to format the letter and (c) upload instructions.
  4. Note the reference letter submission deadline. The NSF GRFP makes no deadline exceptions.
  5. Ask the applicant for a copy of her/his essays. Also ask for a copy of the GRFP review criteria.
  6. Reference letters should address the instructions precisely.
    Note: Applicants cannot view or download reference letters in the Fastlane system.
  7. Once your letter is complete, login to Fastlane GRFP and click "Start" upload your letter.
  8. Read the Confidentiality panel and select A or B.
    Note: "NSF will protect your comments and your identity as a reference from public disclosure to the maximum extent possible. However, if the applicant requests records on his or her application under the Privacy Act of 1974, we may be required to release to the applicant a copy of your comments." source
  9. It is recommended that you submit as soon as possible but no later than 1-2 days before the published deadline.
  10. Applicants will be able to confirm that your letter is saved in the system but will not be able to view or print your letter from Fastlane GRFP.


Fastlane GRFP Login Help: Detailed instructions for reference writers are found in the Fastlane GRFP Help Guide. At the bottom of the left column (Contents), click "GRFP User Guides." The list will expand. Select "Instructions for References Writers." Once you log in, you will find the complete instructions for formatting your letter and what you must address about the applicant. If you have questions, call the the GRF Operations Center 1-866-673-GRFP (4737) (office hours: Monday- Friday, 8:30 am- 5:30 pm EST). Email is slower and not recommended.

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Advice from Fellows

Having this award on your record shows that you are capable of thinking beyond the average student and are able to do great research.

Melonie Williams

'07 Fellow, Psychology

Vanderbilt University


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Updated July 22, 2016 | Site content and handouts created by Robin G. Walker, PhD
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