I was looking for some information on the site that might help for applications to the GRFP. I found JeffE's answer to an old question extremely useful. However, I noticed that some of the advice he gives appears to be somewhat outdated. For example, the answer claims that it is a very bad idea to provide more than 3 recommendations, since any extra recommendations will be ignored. However, the NSF site now states:

Applicants are required to submit three reference letters. There are five slots available for applicants to list reference writers. Applicants are strongly encouraged to utilize all available slots.

Have there been any other changes to the application criteria in the last few years that might invalidate any of the points in the old answer? Is there anything new to consider?

  • Great question! I don't know the answer, but I'm keeping an eye on this.
    – jvriesem
    Commented Apr 7, 2015 at 16:26
  • 1
    One major change on the review side is that the GRFP reviewers no longer meet physically; rather, applications are distributed electronically to reviewers, and reviewers are given a few weeks (about a month?) to complete their reviews. In principle, the change allows for more thoughtful reviews of each application; in practice, I have my doubts.
    – JeffE
    Commented Apr 10, 2015 at 0:26

2 Answers 2


First off, as a single data point, I was awarded the GRFP this year with only three reference letters.

Each application consists of the following components: a 2-page personal statement; a 2-page description of past research; a 2-page description of proposed future research

Currently, the GRFP requires a 2-page Graduate Research Plan Statement, and a 3-page Personal, Relevant Background and Future Goals Statement. This latter essay combines and shortens the previously required 2-page essays.

That's the only thing in JeffE's post that is obviously no longer true.


I believe they strongly encourage you to fill all 5 slots so that you don't get stuck in the situation where one of your 3 references fails to submit your letter by the deadline. If only 2 letters are submitted then your application is incomplete and thrown away. By filling all 5 slots, you are hedging your bets in case this happens.

To my knowledge, they still only actually look at 3 in the review process.

  • If this is actually true, a huge amount of professor-hours are being wasted writing letters that will never be looked at.
    – Tom Church
    Commented Apr 11, 2015 at 1:28
  • 1
    And it's a huge amount of additional worry for students too, developing significant relationships with three professors it's hard enough, let alone five. Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 18:57
  • I didn't say it was a great recommendation...
    – CephBirk
    Commented Apr 12, 2015 at 19:58

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