Before you Begin...
This section is intended to serve as a checklist of actions to be completed before beginning your Goldwater Application. The following suggestions are listed in no particular order. Remember, this is only my opinion, but I highly encourage interested candidates to follow a similar route, and success should be imminent!
The Goldwater Scholarship is a highly competitive award, and many students that apply have applied previously or have experience applying for scholarships like it. It is important to consider that the application process will likely take several months, and several steps are necessary to ensure a successful application. If you are a dedicated student with decent time management, however, this should be a straightforward undertaking!
Desire a Ph.D.
The Barry Goldwater scholarship seeks students that intend to earn a Ph.D. in a STEM field. Winning the scholarship does not force you to pursue one, but if you just want to win without eventually pursuing a doctorate, that will be apparent in your application. If graduate school isn't for you, neither is the Goldwater Scholarship. It should be said, however, that completing an application for the Goldwater Scholarship will be an incredible advantage when it is time to apply for graduate schools or fellowships such as the NSF GRFP.
Have Good(ish) Grades
There is plenty of room for interpretation on what exactly "good grades" imply, so I will lay out three scenarios.
1) If you are a co-author on a scientific publication and have strong research experiences: This will allow for some GPA fluctuation. If you have a published article in a scientific journal, this better supports that you will be a successful researcher than your academics. I'd say if you have a few publications (which is rare) you can get away with as low as a 3.4 GPA (this is considering a 4.0 scale) though your letters of recommendation would need to be stellar. I won the scholarship with a 3.71 GPA at the time (which is on the low end for the scholarship), but I had several publications which bolstered my application.
2) If you have no publications but you have strong research experiences: This is probably the category most applicants fall into since it is so difficult to publish as an undergraduate. The GPA requirement is hard to nail down in this category since your application relies so much more on how involved in research you were. Again, if you have great rec letters and can show in writing that you were involved in research, you should be fine with a ~3.7 GPA or above.
3) If you have no publications and very little research experience: You can still win the scholarship - I have a good friend that fell in this category and won the award. Here is where your academics, your rec letters, and your extra curriculars matter the most. You should have as close to a 4.0 as possible and you must be capable of proving to the Goldwater committee that you are dedicated to research, and you have lots of creative scientific ideas.
Speak to Professors
You must have 3 good recommendation letters from faculty members. These letters should ideally come from professors that are involved with research themselves, as this strengthens your candidacy. As such, you should start speaking to your professors as soon as you know you are interested in applying for the scholarship. Participate in class, ask questions, visit their office hours. The important task here is to make sure that more than 3 professors know you in case one declines to write you a letter. One of your letter writers should absolutely be your research advisor, which brings us to suggestion 5.
Join a Lab/Participate in Research
By far the most important aspect of your application will be your research experiences. Most universities have professors that are actively engaged with research, so it is your responsibility to seek these professors, find a group that you are interested in, and speak to the professor about joining and participating in undergraduate research. This will be a significant dedication and will impact your schedule, but if you plan on pursuing a career in scientific research, it will open that path for you. It is important to note that having participated in undergraduate research is strongly recommended for graduate school applications and has almost become a prerequisite. If professors at your university do not accept undergraduates in their lab (shame on them) there are hundreds of great summer experiences such as research experiences for undergraduates (REUs) and internships at universities and industrial companies across the US. Once you have secured a spot in a lab, make sure to request responsibility or even ask for your own project. It is important for you to be doing research instead of just filling a lab coat and washing glassware.
Speak to Your Research Advisor
In addition to serving as the most important rec letter writer, your research advisor can help you identify projects that you can contribute to. As soon as you are in a research lab and you've started thinking about applying to the Goldwater or any other competitive scholarships, request an appointment with your advisor and talk with them about your options. They will prove to be instrumental in the success of your research essay, so the earlier they know of your interest, the better.
When you Begin...
This section is intended to serve as a checklist of actions to be completed after starting your Goldwater application. The following suggestions are in a logical order, but remember, this is only my opinion.
Speak to your Campus Representative
Your university must be a qualifying institution for you to be able to apply for the Goldwater scholarship. If that's the case, your campus should have a representative for nationally competitive scholarships. Seek them out and contact them as early as possible. This person will serve as your point-of-contact while you proceed through the application steps and will offer edits and suggestions for your application. I spoke to my campus rep at least once a week and I received countless application edits from her that polished my essays.
Develop a Timeline
This was done for me by my campus rep, but if yours doesn't do this, you should familiarize yourself with the Goldwater deadlines and develop a comprehensive timeline for yourself. As I stated earlier, I began several months in advance, and I edited my application right down to the week of the deadline, so you can't start too early. It's important to remember that classes will not stop just because you're applying for a cool scholarship, so time management is a must.
Develop your Research Essay with your Research Mentor
For many, the research essay will be the first significant piece of "high academic" scientific research they have written. If this is the case for you, don't fret. The research essay was my biggest concern when I started applying for the Goldwater Scholarship, but my graduate mentor really stepped in and helped me with the logistics of academic writing. The Goldwater Committee isn't expecting a proposal of research with proof that you have thoroughly explored all possible avenues; they just want to see that you can write like a scientist. Your essay (it is an essay of research, not a proposal) should be a well-written document that describes the importance of your work, but a lot of leeway is given to what exactly that entails. The important factors are that your essay is scientifically sound, shows that you know what you're doing in lab, and shows that you have put a lot of thought into where your project is going. Plan to write this essay with TONS of feedback from your research mentor. It's likely that most undergraduates are working on a project with a graduate student, so it's logical to get their advice in this area.
Tell a Story!
There are thousands of students who apply for Goldwater each year, so it is vital that your application stands out. The most direct way to accomplish this is by telling a cohesive story throughout your application. For example, I have a family that suffers from various medical conditions and many of my volunteer efforts have been driven by a desire to help people with similar conditions. My research involved using conjugated polymers for applications in medical monitoring devices and wearable sensors, so I was able to connect my research essay with my personal story. Using the personal statement prompts as a place to expand on your scientific motivation helps the reviewers to understand your trajectory. If, however, your research has nothing to do with your personal history, I encourage you to try and find a connection. There has to be some reason you chose to pursue science as a career. Identify that reason, then exploit it. The more cohesive your application is, the better the reviewers will be able to remember your application.
Get Feedback then Get Some More
The key to winning Goldwater can be summed up in three words: FEEDBACK, FEEDBACK, and FEEDBACK. Get an opinion from your research mentor, advisor, campus rep, professors, and anyone else who is willing to read it. I had 13 different people (that I can remember) to read and edit my application, and each one identified an area for improvement. Some people avoid getting too much feedback for fear of harsh critique, but that harsh critique is what will improve your application. Having said that, it is important to know which advice to use, and which to discard. You know yourself best, and you should know your project best, so only you can decide which edits to keep or discard. At some point, you will have to say, "Enough is enough," and hit the submit button.
If you can get past the competitive nature of the application process, I highly recommend finding a friend who is also applying for the scholarship to compare applications with. A good friend of mine and I worked together on our applications and provided helpful feedback to each other. It worked out in the end, and we both won!