Anyone can serve as a reference writer for a GRFP applicant, as long as they are not family members of the applicant. The most effective reference writers are individuals who can provide detailed and specific information about how the applicant demonstrates the NSF's Merit Review Criteria, and potential for success in their graduate education and beyond.

If you have been nominated to submit a reference letter for an applicant, NSF requests that you provide the following information in your letter:

  • Please limit your letter to two pages. The GRFP Reference module cannot accept letters that are longer than two pages.
  • Please include the name of your department and institution, and tell us how long you have known the applicant, and in what capacity. Note that the more specific (as opposed to generic) a letter you can provide, the better reviewers can evaluate the candidate. If you are the candidate's research supervisor, please comment on the originality of their research statement, and what role, if any, you played in assisting the student with the application.
  • The reference letter should include 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 enable review panels to evaluate the application according to the NSF Merit Review Criteria.
  • The application will be evaluated on the basis of the two National Science Board approved merit review criteria, Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts.
  • Please address both the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of the applicant in your letter. Please refer to Section VI of the current Program Solicitation for more information about the Review Process and Broader Impacts.
  • Please submit your letter on letterhead, if possible, and it should be signed. Please use standard 8.5" x 11" page size, and 12-point Times New Roman font.
  • Reference letters are strictly limited to two pages. The GRFP Reference module will not accept reference letters that are longer than two pages.
  • All reference letters must be submitted electronically using the GRFP Reference module, and received by the deadline of 5:00 PM Eastern Time Friday, November 1, 2019. Late letters cannot be accepted under any circumstances.

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 the totality of the content in the application, including the strength of the academic record, the proposed plan of research, the description of previous research experience or publication/presentations, and references. Panelists may consider the following with respect to the Broader Impacts Criterion: the personal, professional, and educational experiences, the future plans and prior accomplishments in the integration of research and education, and the potential for future broader impacts.


Please see the video below for a tutorial on the 2020 GRFP Application Reference Writer Process

GRFP 2020 Reference Writer Tutorial