Alex T. Williams is a PhD student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find him on Twitter @AlexT_Williams or at his website.
Disclaimer: The yearly specifics and official details of the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP) can be found on this website—this post is meant only as a helpful resource.
The NSF GRFP provides students an annual stipend of $32,000 for three years and is one of the most prestigious fellowships in graduate school. It also has a surprising statistic—about 1 out of 7 applicants receive the award. The good news is this means that you have a realistic chance of winning! The downside is that all of those applicants are probably competitive. With applicants so tightly grouped together, some people see this as a negative—“it just comes down to luck,” they complain. But you should see this as an opportunity: it means that the small things can make your application stand out. And small things often come down to preparation.
Because of that, I spent five months preparing my application. That sounds like a long time, but when you consider the prestige and value of the award, it is time well spent. Here’s the timeline that I followed:
Start researching everything you can find about the program—from websites like GradHacker, to discussion boards like thegradcafe, to Google search results. Some of my favorite websites offered detailed explanations of how to approach each essay, provided a roundup of resources, and shared what it’s like to be a reviewer. There are also these collections of actual essays. They will look intimidating—in retrospect I think it is probably because only the most confident applicants chose to share their essays online.
After reading all of this advice, write a first draft of your essays. Even though the essays will have a strict page limit, allow yourself to go over the limit by a hundred words. You can trim the word count as it gets closer to the deadline. Remember—show, don’t tell. Saying that you were in a research program is not effective. Explaining what you learned from the research program is much better.
Start sharing your essays with your classmates, advisors, and former winners in your field. At this stage, you want experts that can point out flaws in your methodology and theory. Don’t be afraid to contact former winners that chose to list their email on the NSFwebsite. If you write respectfully and your email illustrates that you are taking this application seriously (e.g. asking for advice months in advance), I’ve found that most people are happy to share their opinions. Their feedback is helpful because they will only be able to understand your research through the essays—since they don’t know you personally—just like a reviewer. My field had rarely won, so there were three winners in the past five years. Of those, one gave me very detailed advice and feedback on my essays.
Start contacting winners outside of your research field. I contacted individuals that created websites offering advice, people who were listed on NSF’s website and were in a related field, and winners that attended my university. At this point, you need people who can point out flaws in your reasoning that may be blind spots to people in your field. For example, one of the best pieces of advice I got, as someone who was applying for an award in communications, was from a computer scientist. He asked me why I thought newspapers still mattered—which no one had asked me before. So I added a line about how many people still read newspapers. It was an essential part of my argument that I had glossed over. I received helpful feedback from at least seven winners that I did not previously know who were not in my field.
Start whittling down your essays to the required length. At this point, you should know what your main narrative is. Focus on communicating it concisely. Because reviewers typically read applications quickly, format your essays to help them quickly comprehend your narrative by using “signposts.” For example, at the end of each essay I created “Intellectual Merit” and “Broader Impact” sections that summarized my main points in the essay. At the end of each paragraph, I summarized the main point of that paragraph. I used bullet lists or tables when I could. And I labeled each section of my essays in bold. My personal statement had the following headers:Mentorship; Work Experience; Community Service; Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts; Future Goals. This meant that even if a reviewer only skimmed my essay, my main points were clearly labeled.
To save space, I read that a former winner used this citation format. Reviewers aren’t going to be looking up your citations, or likely even glancing at them, so they are almost a formality. The first citation on my research proposal, for example, just used a  for the in-text citation. The last section of my essay was formatted like this:References:  Pew Research Center 2011.  Wahl-Jorgenson 2002. Journalism Studies, etc.
Focus on refining your essays. They should now be within the required length. The application will be due in late October or early November. Ask people to try and read all of your essays in five minutes and then ask them if they can briefly answer: what you are interested in researching; what your previous research was; how you will carry out your research; and how your research will benefit society. If they cannot answer each of these questions, you need better signposts. During this last month, you should not be changing anything substantively. You should only be tweaking things style-wise to make the essays easier to comprehend.
I submitted my application in November. In April I received an email with the subject line “2013 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Notification.” I nervously opened the email and began skimming until the word “congratulations” jumped out—I had won!But by then, I had realized that win-or-lose, I had grown a lot from the application process. By working on drafts with my advisor, I had gotten to discuss my research plans with him in-depth. And I learned how to explain my research interests and why they matter in a clear manner. Regardless of the outcome, it was time well spent.
While there is no secret recipe for an award-winning application, I believe that this timeline maximizes your chances. You will have spent five months carefully researching web resources, contacting former winners for advice, and ensuring that your essays are easy to comprehend. So if you are planning on applying for the NSF GRFP this fall, start working this summer!
What has been the best piece of advice you have received on writing grant applications? Tell us in the comments!