Tutoring Graduate Students with Personal and Research Statements:

Fall Term NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program Application

The Graduate School at OSU conducts workshops every fall for the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP). The fellowship offers 3-year support to master’s and doctoral students, as well as to undergraduate seniors and post-bacs who intend to pursue graduate education, in STEM fields and social sciences. While students are required to complete a full application packet, the documents students are most likely to bring to center sessions are the personal and research statements. This handout is intended as a resource for students and writing assistants during sessions. It identifies the main considerations for the statements that tutors and students might discuss during their sessions.

Research Statement and Personal Statement

Though they serve the same purpose of establishing a student’spromise as a scholar-researcher, there is a key difference between the two types of statements: the personal statement includesrelevant background in relation to the student’s future goals in their specific field or area; the research statement focuses on the significance of the student’s intended research. In both statements, however, the writer’s passion and motivations must come through clearly.

The NSF will review both statements according to the main criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. The NSF GRF Program Solicitation (2016) makes it clear that these criteria are weighed equally, and together, rather than each by itself (p. 12).

Intellectual Merit:The potential to advance knowledge (p. 12). What is the story of the writer’s intellectual development as a researcher, and what is the contribution of the research to the field or broader society (e.g., new knowledge, new methods, new collaborations)?

Broader Impacts:The benefit to society or advancement of societal outcomes (p. 12). How will the research or work benefit various groups, individuals, organizations, and/or the broader society, including greater inclusion of underrepresented groups in STEM fields, and communication of STEM knowledge to non-science audiences.

WhileNSF GRFP reviewers are not looking for the type of well-rounded statement that we might expect to see from experienced researchers, statements will still be evaluated according to how clearly they portray each student as a promising scholar. The NSF requires the two types of statements because they want to know who students are and that students are prepared to do the work. So you might discuss the ways the statements portray the student as being competent.

Understanding Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts

Consider DNA analysis at a crime scene. Before DNA collection and testing methods were possible, there were few reliable ways of collecting physical evidence that would allow investigators to fill in missing elements of a crime story. With the advent of DNA testing, investigators could use that evidence to verify elements of a crime story with greater accuracy.

This innovation was a huge leap forward for the field of forensic science: the intellectual merit of this procedure was that police and prosecutors could build cases with greater reliability. The broader impacts included many benefits for police, victims, and even alleged perpetrators. For example, police could complete elements of casework more efficiently, prosecutors could make more concrete arguments that would lead to conviction, and many people wrongly imprisoned for crimes could be exonerated.

Other Considerations to Discuss During Sessions

Other considerations you might address during sessions include purpose, content, readability, the implicit relationship between tone, style, and focus, and coherence of the application package.

Purpose: Not only must students show a strong background and interest in their chosen fields, but they must also convince reviewers that their research path is worthwhile and that their background prepares them to do the research—or what the NSF calls, “demonstrated potential.” Discussing how a student’s research contributes to the field and how the student sees the importance of their research is one useful approach for brainstorming content,or reviewing the writing, to meet the purposes of both the research and personal statements.

Content: Related to purpose, content must be more than summary information. Ultimately, the statements must show students’ passion and determination. In short, background information is necessary to connect the student to the intended field or research area, but it must also support the reviewers’ perception of the student as a promising scholar.

Readability: Readers should not have to work hard to find information. The NSF encourages applicants to use headings to separate sections to prompt skimming for information. Each writer should also select content relevant to their story as a promising scholar, so thatNSF reviewers have compelling information to advocate for the studentduring the review process. Additionally, students are encouraged to make content sensible to educated readers who may not share their expertise. Jargon-heavy statements that ignore educated lay audience needs for information or clarification are not rated as successfully as statements that appeal to both specialist and educated lay audiences. For that reason, you might look for opportunities where the student’s language use could be concise, precise, and direct.

Tone, Style, and Focus: Many students worry about bragging about themselves. You might ask students to articulate how they define themselves as promising scholars. There is a difference between bragging and promoting, but students may feel confused about how to negotiate that difference. Stylistically, the personal and research statements should be concise. NSF reviewers generally prefer short sentences, with variation in length at various points so that the reading does not become monotonous. Finally, NSF reviewers also prefer focus and development of a student’s determination, passion, vision/plan, and background over summary information alone. You might help the student to identify themes to focus and organize their content (for example, does the student mention leadership, scientific background, experiences, and past success to make their personal background relevant to the direction of their future goals?).

Coherence of the Application Package:

Encourage each writer to use all components of the application package strategically (the two essays, three letters of reference, transcripts) to create a coherent and complete picture of the applicant. For example, if overcoming obstacles is an important theme in the Personal Statement, that focus could also appear in some way in one of the reference letters or even in the Research Statement. There are many ways the components of the application could be mutually supportive. Whatever the writer chooses, the componentsshould match the writer’s overall narrative.

For further discussion of NSF review criteria, see the Program Solicitation, pages 9, and 12–13.


National Science Foundation. (2016). Graduate research fellowship program: Program solicitation [NSF 16-588]: