The National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) is an investment of $138,000 by the federal government into your future as a researcher, innovator, and leader.
Whereas many grants fund specific research projects, the GRFP is truly an investment in you; as long as your field of study is eligible, you can work on any project with anyone at any eligible university. As the NSF likes to point out, past fellows have included numerous Nobel Prize winners, Google founder Sergey Brin, former U.S. Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu... I could go on, but the point is that the NSF is proud of funding cool people doing cool things.
With the freedom and opportunity afforded by the GRFP, it is not surprising that the award is extremely competitive. 13,000 of the most hardworking, bright, and accomplished students apply each year for one of the 1,600 coveted awards. And with so many high-profile fellows, it can be pretty intimidating and humbling to apply. But I'm here to tell you that you should absolutely apply for the following reasons
The GRFP application contains all the essential elements of high-stakes applications: a personal statement, a research statement, a CV/work history section, and letters of reccomendation, sections that you will see on grad school and grant applications in the future. By putting in the work now, you will gain a much better understanding of writing for high-stakes applications in the future.
It is a useful process to go through. Writing and revising (over and over and over) a detailed personal statment requires some serious soul searching. Do you really want to pursue a career in academia? Can you convince your 3 application reviewers? Can you convince yourself?
You might actually get the damn thing. And it's a pretty sweet gig! Not only will you have more time to focus on research, you have the flexibility to work on your own passion projects, whether they be creative, academic, or outreach focused.
By now you should be frothing at the mouth. But where do you go from here? What do you need to know in order to apply for the GRFP? And do you even really have a shot at getting it? Without knowning anything about you, I say you can submit a competitive application with a good shot at winning. The caveat is that it will require a lot of challenging work, but it's work that is ultimately very rewarding.
The first thing you should due is ensure your eligibility and check your deadlines. Be sure you're looking at the grfp solicitation for the correct year! After that, carefully read the evaluation criteria. The great thing about the GRFP is you don't have to guess what the reviewers want. They tell you exactly what they are looking for in your application!
After doing your due dilligence, it's time to start the writing process. But I recommend that you don't just start hammering away at the keyboard. Rather, begin some pre-writing exercies and storyboarding, keeping in mind the specific GRFP merit criteria, and then see what narrative emerges.
This is an extensive process and can be overwhleming at first. But one tool that I found invaluable in my GRFP process is the GRFP Primer written by Dr. William Head, Professor Emeritus at CSUMB. Everything you need is in this meticulously crafted document. Do not be scared off by its heft. If you spend the time with this mighty tool, you will be in fantastic shape come submission time.
Another resource you might find useful is this list of successful essays currated by Alex Lang.
I will likely add and refine this post, and perhaps make it into its own dedicated section on my website. But for now, you should have PLENTY of things keeping you busy as you work through the Primer linked above. If you have any questions, don't hesistate to reach out. Good luck!