If you are writing a reference letter for a GRFP applicant, the following tips may be helpful in providing an effective letter.

Please limit your letter to two pages. The GRFP Reference Letter module cannot accept letters that are longer than two pages.

A compelling reference letter will help reviewers understand how the applicant stands out from the crowd. Discuss the unique qualities of the applicant, including accomplishments or activities that the applicant may be too modest to mention. Reference writers have up to two pages to discuss the applicant.

Ask applicants to provide you with information that will help you write a good letter. Ask them if there are any specific items that they would like you to address in your letter. Applicants should be prepared to show you copies of their statements, transcripts, and other relevant material (such as their list of awards, honors, publications and presentations from their application, their CV, etc.). Many compelling applications include components that work well together – the information is consistent without being repetitive; each component offers different information about the applicant as a researcher and a person.  Taken as a whole, the entire package demonstrates how well the applicant meets the Merit Review Criteria.  For example, the information in your reference letter might provide details to support and elaborate upon information the applicant included in her or his statements.

Details are critical. Letters that offer reviewers specific information are much more effective than generic ones. Applicants for the GRFP are evaluated based on NSF’s Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts, as described in Section VI of the Program Solicitation. Compelling reference letters describe how an applicant’s specific projects, their contributions, work ethic, teamwork, and other qualities and experiences demonstrate the Merit Review Criteria. It is helpful to compare the relative placement of the applicant among peers (but do not name other students, including GRFP applicants and fellowship recipients).

Discuss your opinion of the applicants’ potential for significant achievements, and academic and intellectual success.  All applicants are expected to have adequate preparation to begin graduate-level study and research by Summer or Fall of 2019, so reviewers will appreciate information that speaks to an applicant’s potential to succeed in graduate school. Point out the potential the applicant has demonstrated for significant achievements in science and engineering.

Keep in mind that the GRFP application is not an NSF grant proposal. The GRFP seeks to identify individuals with outstanding potential as future STEM research leaders. The most effective reference letters speak to the applicant’s potential for future achievement in graduate school and beyond. Competitive GRFP applicants demonstrate the ability to develop a strong research plan, succeed with their graduate study, and have broader impacts on society.


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

GRFP 2020 Reference Writer Tutorial