Broader Impacts Resource Center

Penn State Eberly College of Science Outreach Office




Broader Impacts in NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Applications

Broader Impacts (BI) is one of two criteria that reviewers will use to evaluate your GRFP application. Since NSF reviewers are often presented with several proposals of equal Intellectual Merit, having standout BI sections is critical for increasing your chances of success! After talking with successful NSF GRFP awardees from Penn State’s Eberly College of Science and reading their application statements, we put together 9 tips to help you develop standout BI sections in your own NSF GRFP application. (You can also view summaries of the Broader Impacts activities they described in their applications here – PSU login is required to view.) Good luck!

9 Tips for Developing Standout Broader Impacts (BI) Sections

1. Build up a track record of diverse BI involvements as early as possible. 

Successful NSF GRFP applicants are often able to describe a variety of contributions they have already made to the research community and wider public. Examples of different “types” of BI contributions include mentoring/teaching undergraduates, sharing research at conferences, conducting K-12 science outreach, sharing data or analysis resources with other researchers, creating public science blogs or videos, holding leadership positions in science or community-focused student organizations, etc… Successful applicants often have strong experience in at least 2-3 different “types” of BI that they’ve chosen based on their personal interests and passions.

2. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel – plug in to what’s already going on! 

Successful applicants often contribute to existing programs or events for their BI activities, e.g., contributing to Science Outreach events or helping to plan undergraduate research symposia. (Often the way they distinguish themselves is by helping make those existing programs more successful than they were before!) Our partner directory has information on PSU offices and groups you can get involved with, though your advisors, professors, and peers will likely have great recommendations that align with your interests!

3. Make sure the future BI activities you propose in your application connect logically to what you have done in the past. 

Your NSF reviewers want to feel confident that you have the skills and experience to actually make your proposed BI activities happen. The best way to give them this confidence is to propose activities that build on what you’ve done previously. For example, if you have experience serving as an undergraduate research mentor, you could propose to mentor more students through a REU in the future. (Don’t worry if you end up not being able to do exactly what you proposed. You will be asked to describe your BI activities in your Annual Report to the NSF, but it’s acceptable if the exact activities change based on your situation.)

4. Discuss your planned BI activities with your advisor.

Different advisors have different expectations for the types of activities beyond research that their advisees should engage in.  While a difference of opinion with your advisor isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, it can definitely make implementation of your BI activities more difficult! Have a conversation with your advisor before finalizing your proposal.

5. Before you start writing, get a sense of what successful applicants have submitted. 

In the module here (PSU login required to view), we have described the BI experience and planned activities that successful NSF GRFP awardees from Penn State’s Eberly College of Science described in their proposals. This should help give you an idea of what NSF reviewers have viewed favorably in the past, but if you are able to get actual statements of successful applicants to look at, even better! (We are not currently providing them here to avoid risk of plagiarism, but consider reaching out through any academic connections you might have.)

6. Talk about Broader Impacts in BOTH the personal statement and research proposal. Make the BI sections as clear as possible.

In the research proposal, successful applicants often include at least one clearly marked paragraph describing the BI potential of the research itself, e.g., the potential of the research to lead to breakthroughs in certain industries or contribute to solutions to societal problems. Applicants also often add a few sentences about other BI activities they plan to do, though this is not always the case. In the personal statement, some applicants weave their BI experiences and plans through a single narrative while others create more clearly marked sections – both approaches have been successful.

7. In your Personal Statement, connect your Broader Impacts involvements and future plans with the story of how you got involved in science research. 

Threading this theme throughout your essay can help your NSF reviewers understand your motivation for doing BI activities. What is it about your life that inspires you to keep giving back to the research community and the public? Making a compelling, personal connection can differentiate you from other applicants who have similar experiences and Intellectual Merit.

8. When describing your BI-related involvements in your Personal Statement, don’t just describe what you did. Talk about the impact! 

Differentiate yourself from other applicants who have done similar activities by talking about the impact you helped achieve.  Did the STEM youth program you ran as an undergrad double its participation numbers under your leadership? Did you receive an award for your outstanding contributions to a student organization? Show the NSF reviewers that you are someone who has a reputation for making a difference.

9. Get feedback on your statements from experienced peers or mentors.

This is especially important if you are applying as a graduate student. Due to a recent change in the NSF GRFP eligibility rules, graduate students can only apply to the program once, either as a first or second-year graduate student. Not having a second chance means that your first try needs to be a finished, final product!

Questions? Comments?

Please email us at if you have any questions or suggestions for how we can improve this resource center!  Additionally, we would love to hear if you have Broader Impacts grant or activity examples you would like to share!

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