For References

NSF’s aim with the GRFP: The Graduate Research Fellowship Program funds students who are training to become well-rounded researchers.

“The program goals are 1) to select, recognize, and financially support, early in their careers, individuals 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, become leaders in their chosen careers, and been honored as Nobel laureates.”

Importance of your Letter

Compelling letters that specifically address the applicant’s potential for intellectual merit and broader impacts will make the student more competitive for this Fellowship. GRFP panelists are seeking evidence that each applicant holds the potential to (a) advance knowledge within and across disciplines and will (b) benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired social outcomes.

The NSF provides insight on how the merit review criteria apply to the GRFP:

Intellectual Merit: The intellectual merit criterion includes demonstrated intellectual ability and other accepted requisites for scholarly scientific study, such as the ability to (1) plan and conduct research; (2) work as a member of a team as well as independently; and (3) interpret and communicate research findings. Panelists are instructed to consider the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience, the appropriateness of the choice of references and the extent to which they indicate merit, and the appropriateness of the choice of institution for fellowship tenure relative to the proposed plan of research.”

Broader Impacts: The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that (1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience; (2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens, women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities, in science and research; (3) enhance scientific and technical understanding; and (4) benefit society. Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.”

Steps for submitting a GRFP reference letter

  1. The GRFP applicant will enter your name and email address into the NSF FastLane GRFP system.
  2. Once the student submits your name, you will receive an automatically generated email that explains how to log in to the Fastlane GRFP system.
    Note: Fastlane GRFP is separate from the regular Fastlane system for grant proposals. Your PI login will not work in the GRFP system.
  3. Once in the system you will find (a) what you must address in your reference letter and (b) how to format the letter and (c) upload instructions.
  4. Note the reference letter submission deadline. The NSF GRFP makes no deadline exceptions.
  5. Ask the applicant for a copy of her/his essays. Also ask for a copy of the GRFP review criteria.
  6. Reference letters should address the instructions precisely.
    Note: Applicants cannot view or download reference letters in the Fastlane system.
  7. Once your letter is complete, login to Fastlane GRFP and click “Start” to upload your letter.
  8. Read the Confidentiality panel and select A or B.
    Note: “NSF will protect your comments and your identity as a reference from public disclosure to the maximum extent possible. However, if the applicant requests records on his or her application under the Privacy Act of 1974, we may be required to release to the applicant a copy of your comments.”
  9. It is recommended that you submit as soon as possible but no later than 1-2 days before the published deadline.
  10. Applicants will be able to confirm that your letter is saved in the system but will not be able to view or print your letter from Fastlane GRFP.


Submission Details

To be considered complete, applications should include three reference letters from non-family members. However, applications with two letters will be reviewed unless the applicant withdraws the application by November 15 of the application year (see instructions below). Applications with fewer than two letters will be returned without review.

All reference letters must be received on FastLane by 5:00 p.m. ET (Eastern Time) on the letter submission deadline date (see the deadline posted in FastLane’s Application Module and in Application Preparation and Submission Instructions/C. Due Dates of this Solicitation). No exceptions to the reference letter submission deadline will be granted. Each letter is limited to 2 pages. The FastLane GRFP Application Module allows applicants to request up to five reference letters and to provide a ranking of those reference letters. If more than three reference letters are received, the first three will be considered for the application. Reference writers will be notified by an email from FastLane of the request to submit a letter of reference on behalf of an applicant. To avoid disqualifying an application, reference writers should take into consideration the Eastern Time hours of operation of the FastLane Help Desk as stated in the notification email. Letter writers will receive a confirmation email after submitting a letter to GRFP.

Applicants must enter an email address for each reference writer into the FastLane GRFP Application Module. An exact email address is crucial to matching the reference writer and the applicant in the FastLane GRFP Application Module. Applicants should ask reference writers well in advance of the reference writer deadline, and it is recommended they provide copies of their application materials to the writers.

Applicant-nominated reference writers must submit their letters through the FastLane GRFP Application Module. Reference letter requirements include:

  • Institutional (or professional) letterhead, if available
  • Two (2) page limit
  • 12-point Times New Roman in the body of the letter
  • Name and title of reference writer
  • Department and institution or organization

The reference letter should address the NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts (described in detail below). It should include details explaining the nature of the relationship to the applicant, comments on the applicant’s potential for contributing to a globally engaged United States science and engineering workforce, statements about the applicant’s academic potential and prior research experiences, statements about the applicant’s proposed research, and any other information to aid review panels in evaluating the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria.