Criteria for Success

  1. You are eligible for the Fellowship (i.e., you are not proposing to pursue an MD-PhD; you are not proposing research about a particular disease or clinical practice).
  2. Your personal statement convinces a panel of academics that you are qualified to receive the Fellowship, especially with respect to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria.
  3. You show only those skills and experiences that demonstrate how you fit those criteria.
  4. The skills and experiences that you show are concrete and quantitative.
  5. Your personal statement meets the formatting and page limit criteria.

Structure Diagram


Note that the Broader Impacts sections can be woven through the rest of the experiences as well as highlighted in separate sections. Sizes of sections are approximate.

Identify Your Purpose

Your personal statement (technically, the “Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement”) is part of an application that should convince the selection committee to award you the Fellowship.

The GRFP website says, “NSF Fellows are expected to become globally engaged knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this statement is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement.”

The personal statement is the only part of the application where you get to lay out the experiences you’ve had, the goals you intend to pursue, and how those experiences and goals qualify you for the Fellowship.

Analyze your Audience

Your entire application will be “reviewed online by virtual panels of disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers and other professional graduate education experts”. These are academics, usually from your broad area of science (e.g., biology) but not from your specific area (e.g., polymer biomechanics). They will judge your application using some combination of (a) the NSF’s official criteria for the Fellowship and (b) their own ideas about what makes good science or a good scientist.

The people on the committee read many, many applications. Make it easy for them to figure out that you are qualified for the award by referencing the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria that they use to judge your application. Make it easy for them to remember you by creating a narrative that “brands” you.


Include Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria

Like many awards or job offers, there are explicit criteria that show if you qualify for the Fellowship. Read the program solicitation to learn the criteria that the selection committee are using to judge your application. Write your personal statement in a way that makes it as clear as possible that you meet these criteria.

The 2015 NSF solicitation says (emphases added):

The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and in STEM education [and senior undergraduates]. The GRFP provides three years of support for the graduate education of individuals who have demonstrated their potential for significant research achievements in STEM and STEM education.


Reviewers may consider the following with respect to the Broader Impacts Criterion: the potential of the applicant to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes based on a holistic analysis of the complete application, including by personal experiences, professional experiences, educational experiences and future plans.

Read these materials so you know what “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts” mean to the NSF, and use your personal statement to show how you meet those criteria. In particular, do not just make up your own ideas about what “Broader Impacts” means. The NSF has specific lists of activities that constitute Broader Impacts.

Note that applications prior to 2018 did not require “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impacts” to be addressed under separate headings. Be sure to follow the most up-to-date guidelines provided by NSF, especially if you are referencing older examples.

Create a personal narrative

Unlike a grant that funds a specific project, the NSF GRFP invests in the professional and scientific growth of individuals. The program solicitation talks about building a “globally-engaged workforce” and ensuring “the Nation’s leadership in advancing science and engineering research and innovation”.

Your personal statement is your opportunity to show the selection panel that your personal goals (e.g., collaborating with foreign scientists) align with the program’s goals (e.g., creating a globally-engaged workforce). Tell a narrative about yourself that is honest, that you’re excited about, and that shows this alignment. Use this narrative through your entire personal statement. It should help you avoid writing a personal statement that is just a resume in essay format.

Concretize and quantify your experiences

Your experiences are the “what” of your essay. Which experiences led you to develop your skill set and passions? Where have you demonstrated accomplishment, leadership, and collaboration? Research, teaching, and relevant extracurriculars are all relevant. State concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.

Quantify your experience or impact to make them more concrete. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? How many people were in competition for an award? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students?

Describe your actions rather than changes in your mental or emotional state; your personal statement is not a diary entry.

Vague experience Concrete experience
During this project, my mind was opened to the possibility of using different programming languages together to create code that is faster to run and easier to understand and modify. During this project, I collaborated with other group members to develop a user-friendly Python wrapper for a 10,000-line Fortran library.
I showed initiative in my second project in the lab. Frustrated with the direction of my first project, I consulted with other faculty and proposed an entirely new project.
During my first year, I became a more curious and capable scientist. I explored the literature and proposed two alternative procedures to make the experiment efficient.
I won the physic department’s Laser Focus prize. I won the physics department’s prize for top student among my cohort of 20 students.
I learned about the role of enzymes in cancer. I quantified the kinetics of three enzymes implicated in cancer onset.

Explain the meaning of your experiences

The meaning of your experiences is the “why” or “so what” of your personal statement. It’s good to have quantitative and concrete experience; it’s even more important to attribute meaning to those experiences.

Every set of experiences should speak to one of the requirements that the NSF GRFP solicitation lays out:

  • How has this experience prepared you to seek a graduate degree?
  • How will it help you become a globally engaged knowledge expert or leader?
  • How will it help you contribute to research, education, or innovations in science and engineering?
  • How will your graduate experience prepare you for a career that expands scientific understanding or benefits society?

The connection between your experiences and the NSF GRFP’s goals may feel obvious to you, but you should make these connections explicit for your audience: this will make it easy for them to put you in the “yes” pile.

In terms of writing style, use statements about the meaning of experience as transitions between experiences. Try to “wrap” meaning around your experiences. Putting the meaning at the beginning and end of a paragraph makes it easy for a reader to understand what they should be taking away from the details in the middle.

Experience only (schematic) Experience and Meaning
  • Sophomore year, I coded image-processing algorithms.
  • Junior year, I studied cell cytoskeletal structure.
  • Senior year, I applied microscopic techniques and computational image analysis to studying cell development.
  • During my undergraduate career, I realized that I was most excited about applying interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental questions in cell biology.
  • I gathered complementary perspectives and skillsets from diverse research experiences.
    • Sophomore year…
    • Junior year…
    • Senior year…
  • I look forward to applying my interdisciplinary background to new research questions in cell biology as a graduate student.


Resources and Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1

Annotated Example 1

This personal statement was part of an MIT BE graduate student’s successful NSF GRFP application. 13 MB