Merit Review Criteria

All GRFP applications are evaluated using NSF’s two merit review criteria: Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. In order to present a competitive application, you must address both merit review criteria thoroughly. The Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement and the Graduate Research Statement should both reflect these criteria.  Remember to ask your reference writers to discuss how you fulfill the merit review criteria as well.

The following information is  from the 2019 NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Solicitation, Section VI:

Applications will be reviewed online by virtual panels of disciplinary and interdisciplinary scientists and engineers and other professional graduate education experts. Panels will review applications from broad areas of related disciplines. Applicants are reviewed in panels based on their selection of a primary Field of Study (see Fields of Study in Appendix). Selection of a primary Field of Study determines the application deadline and the panel that will review the application. Thus, applicants are advised to select the Field of Study in the FastLane GRFP Application module (see Fields of Study in Appendix) that is most closely aligned with the proposed graduate program of study and research plan. Applicants who select “other” must choose a primary Field of Study on the list for placement in a review panel.

Each application will be reviewed independently in accordance with the NSF Merit Review Criteria using all available information in the completed application. In considering applications, reviewers are instructed to address the two Merit Review Criteria as approved by the National Science Board - Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts (NSF Proposal and Award Policies and Procedures Guide). Therefore, applicants must include separate statements on Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts in their written statements in order to provide reviewers with the information necessary to evaluate the application with respect to both Criteria as detailed below.


Intellectual Merit:

The Intellectual Merit criterion encompasses the potential to advance knowledge.

For example, panelists evaluating applications submitted to the Graduate Research Fellowship Program may consider the following with respect to the Intellectual Merit Criterion: the potential of the applicant to advance knowledge based on a holistic analysis of the complete application, including the Personal, Relevant Background, and Future Goals Statement, Graduate Research Plan Statement, strength of the academic record, description of previous research experience or publication/presentations, and references.

Broader Impacts:

The Broader Impacts criterion encompasses the potential to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

Panelists may consider the following with respect to the Broader Impacts Criterion: the potential of the applicant for future broader impacts as indicated by personal experiences, professional experiences, educational experiences and future plans.


The following elements should be considered in the review for both criteria:

  1. What is the potential for the proposed activity to:
    1. Advance knowledge and understanding within its own field or across different fields (Intellectual Merit); and
    2. Benefit society or advance desired societal outcomes (Broader Impacts)?
  2. To what extent do the proposed activities suggest and explore creative, original, or potentially transformative concepts?
  3. Is the plan for carrying out the proposed activities well-reasoned, well-organized, and based on a sound rationale? Does the plan incorporate a mechanism to assess success?
  4. How well qualified is the individual, team, or organization to conduct the proposed activities?
  5. Are there adequate resources available to the PI (either at the home organization or through collaborations) to carry out the proposed activities?


Section VI of the 2019 Program Solicitation also includes the following information regarding the Broader Impacts Criterion:

Broader impacts may be accomplished through the research itself, through the activities that are directly related to specific research projects, or through activities that are supported by, but are complementary to, the project. NSF values the advancement of scientific knowledge and activities that contribute to achievement of societally relevant outcomes. Such outcomes include, but are not limited to: full participation of women, persons with disabilities, and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM); improved STEM education and educator development at any level; increased public scientific literacy and public engagement with science and technology; improved well-being of individuals in society; development of a diverse, globally competitive STEM workforce; increased partnerships between academia, industry, and others; improved national security; increased economic competitiveness of the US; and enhanced infrastructure for research and education.

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