Before you Begin...
This section is intended to serve as a checklist of actions to be completed before beginning your NSF GRFP 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!
Maybe you're a student that can hammer out a multi-component fellowship application in less than a month, but most students (myself included) are not. Since the GRFP is such a competitive award, you'll want to give yourself as much time as possible to prepare and go through several drafts of your personal statement and proposal. I began my application package in May of 2021 and submitted on October 19, 2021, and I still could have used another week to edit. I would recommend thoroughly reading the GRFP solicitation and organizing a timeline in an Excel spreadsheet.
Identify Recommendation Letter Writers
Some of the most important aspects of your GRFP application are the letters of recommendation written by faculty members. If you are applying for the GRFP, it should come as no surprise that you need evidence of research experience, and some of that best evidence will come from your research advisor's letter. If you have participated in an internship or REU, this would be a great time to email your advisor from that experience and ask for a letter as well. I would recommend getting to know your professors, especially those that participate in research, since these professors will be better positioned to write meaningful letters of rec. My three rec letter writers were my main research advisor, my research advisor from a summer internship, and one of my favorite professors who doubles as my academic advisor. These three professors all knew me well and all operate research labs. Though this may not be the most ethical advice, I'd recommend getting on the good side of the professors that you want writing your letters as soon as you are interested in applying. Volunteering to take up a little extra work a few months in advance of asking them to write a letter will definitely make it easier for them to oblige - and it'll give them something to write about! Also, once they accept, make sure to remind them of deadlines!
Collect Some Accomplishments
This one is subject to a great deal of interpretation, so I'll distinguish three overarching categories.
1) Volunteering / Mentorship
A great amount of emphasis is placed on "Broader Impacts" in the GRFP application. There are a couple of components to this, but primarily, the reviewers want to see that you will be able to contribute to your local community and the scientific community as a whole. This can be evidenced by showing a history of volunteering efforts. If you have none to show, I suggest finding some immediately. This can be campus or community efforts, but you just have to show the reviewers that you care about making an impact. If you really want to stand out, make sure to have a leadership position or two that you can refer to. Additionally, the reviewers LOVE to see that you have mentored other students. I was lucky enough to have this element incorporated into a class I was taking at the time, so there should be plenty of ways you can incorporate this into your application.
This is where the evidence of your own scientific experience comes into play, but it's something a lot of students overlook until it's too late. There are countless opportunities to present your research throughout the year, whether that be at regional conferences, or even at a university forum. Whether it's to present a poster or oral presentation, sign up for events where you can present your research (ask your research advisor for opportunities). Along with strengthening your application, these will hone your public speaking skills and expose you to valuable critique and feedback. Presenting is the bread and butter of a successful scientist, so that's why the GRFP reviewers look for this in your application.
This section is not for everyone, because it is definitely much more difficult to publish in some fields than others, and because not every project results in journal-worthy results. Having said this, if you are an author on a publication in a scientific journal, this will set you apart from your competitors. I recommend speaking with your advisor and graduate mentors as early as possible if you want to be an author on a published article. It takes time, and doesn't always work out, but they can definitely set you up to succeed by putting you on the right projects. If you have no publications, I will go so far as to say you must have at least a few presentations in order to have a decent shot.
When you Begin...
This section is intended to serve as a checklist of actions to be completed after starting your GRFP application. The following suggestions are in a logical order, but remember, this is only my opinion.
Identify the Field you Want to Study
You've probably read the horror stories about GRFP winners who were unable to use their fellowship because they applied using one major field of study (Chemistry, Engineering, Psychology, etc.) and then accepted a Ph.D. program in another major field of study. These stories are unfortunately true, and I have one friend who dealt with this personally. My best advice is to only apply to graduate programs within a specific major field of study (MFS), for example, if you select ENGINEERING as your MFS, you can safely apply to Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering, Nanoengineering, and Quantum Engineering, to name a few. You would not be able to accept a program in Organic Chemistry, Quantum Information Science, or Nanochemistry, however, because those are under the MFS CHEMISTRY. Check the solicitation for further instruction on this, it's a doozy.
Tell a Story
There are thousands of students who apply for the GRFP 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 Personal Statement with my Proposal. Using the personal statement 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 since this will aid your "Broader Impact." The more cohesive your application is, the better the reviewers will be able to remember your application.
Chart a Course for Your Future
Following up on #2, the reviewers will be much more likely to give $34,000 a year to someone who has clearly defined and attainable goals for their future. It's your job to envision a future for yourself, even if you're currently extremely unsure about that future (as I was). Remember that this application is not a contract, so you just need to make the reviewers believe that you know what you want for yourself. The helpful part is that, in developing your application, you'll likely peel back the curtains on what kind of career you want for yourself which will strengthen your resolve. Academia is riddled with imperfections, but this is an opportunity for you to explain, in "Broader Impacts" terms, how you plan to combat those imperfections - whether that's eventually in higher academia, industry, or government.
Develop a Research Plan
The research proposal was, without a doubt, the most difficult component of my application. Thankfully, my advisor and graduate mentor were incredible at helping me decide what I would be best suited to write about. The direction from which the proposal is approached varies from applicant to applicant, and while some students are so fantastically gifted that they can come up with a research proposal entirely on their own, most of us cannot. Remember that the research proposal is not a contract. No one will be twisting your arm and forcing you to perform this research because, after all, you probably won't even know where you'll be accepted to grad school when the fellowship results come out. There's no shame in expanding on old research from your lab, as long as you can put your own unique spin on the research and develop a scientifically sound proposal. The reviewers want to see that you can write like a scientist and keep their interest.
Develop a Hypothesis
I'm not sure if this is widely expected in the proposal, but I would strongly suggest developing and including a hypothesis for your work. If your research has not been concluded (and it shouldn't because they expect a proposal) try to predict your findings based on previous work or your own experiences based on similar methods. This is a small suggestion, but predicting is what makes great scientists, and your application will stand out if you do it too.
Cite New Sources
This is another small tidbit of advice, but make sure that the sources you cite are relatively new. A friend of mine was critiqued for citing a paper from 2004, which is logical since so many developments have occurred in his field since then. Make sure you only go back a few years for the sources you cite unless absolutely necessary.
The key to winning the GRFP 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 15 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 research 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 GRFP to compare applications with. The same friend that I worked with on my Goldwater application worked with me on our GRFP applications. The helpful feedback we provided each other paid off, and we both won the GRFP!
Lastly - BREATHE! You should be proud of yourself for undertaking this extensive application process!