The Center for Life Beyond Reed

Letters of Recommendation: NSF

The National Science Foundation's Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) helps ensure the vitality of the human resource base of science and engineering in the United States and reinforces its diversity. The program recognizes and supports outstanding graduate students in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines who are pursuing research-based master's and doctoral degrees at accredited US institutions. The GRFP Solicitation contains several keywords that correspond with the mission, goals and future direction of the agency:

"The program goals are 1) to select, recognize, and financially support individuals early in their careers 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 research, become leaders in their chosen careers, and been honored as Nobel laureates." Source: NSF13-584 GRFP Solicitation.

Letters of recommendation that clearly articulate the student's intellectual merit and potential for broader impacts will make the application more competitive. Some tips:

Support the student, not just the project: The NSF is looking to fund the person, not the research project. Your letter should focus on the student's merits: past experiences, present plans and potential for contributions in science and society. Specifics help more than generalities. Students are encouraged to speak with you about their letter, and provide you with a CV or other materials that highlight their experience and why they are applying for the award. These materials should help with adding specifics.

Address intellectual merit: The NSF defines intellectual merit as, "The potential to advance knowledge" in the discipline. Intellectual merit can be shown in your letter by discussing a student's past experiences:

  • Strong grades, curricula, GRE scores
  • Awards & honors
  • Publications & presentations
  • Communication skills
  • Independence & creativity
  • Significant research experience

As well as through your understanding of what the student proposes to do in graduate school:

  • Thoughtful, student-originated research plan
  • Choice of institution

Address broader impacts: The NSF defines broader impacts as, "The potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes relevant to the NSF's mission." Broader impacts can be shown in your letter by discussing a student's past experiences:

  • Fostering diversity on all levels (across disciplines, gender, race, economical, etc)
  • Active community involvement
  • Involvement with underrepresented groups
  • Integration of research and education
  • Diversity of experience - includes international experience

As well as through your understanding of what the student proposes to do in graduate school:

  • Awareness of the research and its potential societal impact
  • Awareness of resources and programs
  • Leadership roles
  • Genuine and reflective essays
  • Passion

Speak to your audience: You can assume that the people who will read your letter for the NSF competition come from the student's discipline (though they may not be experts in the exact area of the student's expertise. Readers will be looking to you to add depth and perspective to the student regarding their research skills, intellectual ability and potential for a career in science, engineering or mathematics, so be sure to address those topics. Generally speaking, a one to two page single-spaced letter suffices for this competition.

Finally, reference writers should use letterhead and include the following information: Name and Title of reference writer, Department, and Institution or Organization. References must be submitted online via the FastLane site. If reference writers have difficulty with the submission process, they are welcome to contact the National Science Foundation at or (866) 673-4737. Additional letter-writing tips are available on the NSF Fastlane website.