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Criteria for Success

A successful personal statement:

  1. Demonstrates intellectual merit and broader impact
  2. Is specific and quantitative about your interests and experiences
  3. Forms a passionate and personalized narrative
  4. Is well-planned and organized
  5. Is appropriate to your current education level

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, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement” (personal statement) should convince the selection committee to award you a fellowship. The GRFP website states that:

“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.”

Your personal statement should convince readers that you have the capability and motivation to be a productive graduate student and become a leader in your field.

Analyze Your Audience

Your application will be “reviewed online by virtual panels of disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers and other professional graduate education experts.” These experts are academics, usually from your broad area of science (e.g., nuclear engineering) but not from your specific area (e.g., thermal hydraulics). They judge your application using a combination of:

(a) the NSF’s official criteria for the Fellowship,

(b) their personal feelings on what makes a good graduate student and future expert

The experts on the committee read many, many applications, so make your personal statement easy to read. Explicitly address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impact criteria that they use to judge your application. Help them remember your application by creating a cohesive narrative that is enjoyable to read and unique to you.  Target your writing to a sufficiently general technical audience to ensure that the experts outside of your field can understand your story. Avoid using jargon!


Address the selection criteria explicitly

NSF provides explicit criteria to select Fellowship recipients. Review the program solicitation to learn the criteria (especially intellectual merit and broader impact) that the selection committee will use. Make it as clear that you meet these criteria by directly addressing them in your statement.

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

NSF Fellowships fund you as an individual and not a specific research topic. Your personal statement is your opportunity to show the selection panel how your personal goals (e.g., collaborating with foreign scientists) align with the program’s goals (e.g., creating a globally-engaged workforce). Create a cohesive narrative about yourself that is honest, excites you, and alignments with the NSF’s stated mission. Weave this narrative throughout your entire personal statement to avoid a personal statement that reads like a resume in essay format.  This is a story about you and not a scientific publication, so you should personalize the statement tone to tell your story.

Concretize and quantify your experiences

Experiences are the core of your essay and help you build your story. Consider the experiences where you developed new skills, demonstrated leadership, or grew as a scientist. Provide concrete achievements and outcomes like awards, discoveries, or publications.  

Wherever possible, quantify your experiences to make them concrete. How many people were on your team? How many protocols did you develop? As a TA, how often did you meet with your students? Describe actions, not just changes in your mental or emotional state. A personal statement is a way to make a narrative out of your CV. It is not a diary entry.

Vague experience Concrete experience
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 more efficient.
I mentored first-year engineering students. I organized a 12-week seminar series for 35 first-year
engineering students.

Explain the meaning of your experiences

What your experiences mean is the “why” or “so what” of your personal statement. While quantifiable and concrete experiences are good, it’s even more important to explain why those experiences were meaningful.

Every experience should speak to one of the selection criteria or program goals:

  • How has the experience prepared you for graduate school?
  • 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 these selection criteria or goals may feel obvious to you, but you need to make these connections explicit for your audience. Be sure to tie your concrete experiences back to the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts criteria explicitly. For example, how did your three hours of volunteer work per week influence the STEM potential of young students? (Broader Impact)

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 Experience and Meaning
  • Sophomore year, I coded neutron transport algorithms. Junior year, I studied two-phase heat transfer.  Senior year, I applied electron microscopy and destructive materials testing to study plasma-material interactions.
  • In my first year, I was vice-president of __. In my second year, I founded a new organization. In my third year, I partnered my organization with other ones.
  • During my undergraduate career, I realized that I was most excited about applying interdisciplinary approaches to fundamental questions in fusion energy….I look forward to applying my interdisciplinary background to new research questions in plasma-material interactions as a graduate student.
  • Outside of the classroom, I worked to gain leadership skills.  I began by… My experiences as a leader helped form my goal to become to lead a research laboratory.

State how the support of the NSF will impact your future career

Will you leverage the fellowship to explore new and impactful ideas without established funding? Will you be able to engage in public outreach and education more easily with a secure source of funding? Answering these questions will show that you are forward-thinking and will put the fellowship to good use.

Match your level of specificity to your current academic level

Your current education level should influence the tone and topics you address in your statement. The NSF GRFP accepts applications from three levels of students: senior undergraduates, first-year graduate students, and second-year graduate students. The tone and specificity of your application should reflect your level. While senior undergrads can write generally about their future goals, second-year graduate students should write about specific progress towards career goals.

Resources and Annotated Examples

Annotated Example 1
Annotated Example 1

This personal statement was part of a successful NSF GRFP application. 881 KB