Advice to Letter Writers for NSF

NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program: Advice to Letter Writers

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Proposals to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship program are expected to be accompanied by three very strong letters of recommendation. If you do not feel that you can write a strong letter for a student, I encourage you to let them know that before you agree to write. 

Ask your students if there are any specific points that they want you to address in your letter. Sometimes students want to convey a certain point in their application but feel uncomfortable writing it about themselves. This information is sometimes best provided by letter writers.

Write about past research, current/future research, and broader impacts to the extent that you can.

When talking about past research experience, be sure to describe the student's role in research projects. Were they a technician? Did they contribute intellectually to the methods, analysis, etc.? Were they, or will they be, an author on either a presentation or manuscript resulting from this research? Readers are generally less interested in the research itself, and more interested in the degree to which the student was intellectually engaged in the project and helped to guide the research. Readers are also interested in the skills that students obtained from the experience. Finally, readers are interested in your assessment of the student's potential to become a productive and innovative scientist.

When talking about future/current research, be sure to indicate the extent to which the research represents the student's own ideas as distinct from the research program of the advisor.

When talking about broader impacts, be sure to describe the student's role. It is important to remember that for the purposes of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, "Broader Impacts" refers to the communication of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math to non-specialists. It is not limited to the communication of the student's own research.

Scott Lanyon, Vice Provost & Dean of Graduate Education