If you applied to NSF’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program before you started your grad program, then you have one more chance to apply. That raises a big strategic question: should I apply during my 1st year, or wait until my 2nd year?

A lot of 1st year graduate students think they should wait, because not much has changed. When the October/November deadline rolls around, you are just getting into your first lab rotation, and you don’t necessarily know who your dissertation advisor will be. You might have added a few undergraduate accolades to your resume, but otherwise it hasn’t changed much. We’ve heard a lot of students in that position tell us that they don’t think they will be competitive until they beef up their lab experience.

However, that’s not necessarily good strategic thinking. 

First, resumes don’t distinguish winners from near misses. We studied hundreds of winning applications and honorable mentions, and we found impressive resumes in both groups. Winners beat out honorable mentions, because winners make the reviewers love them. Winners leave the reviewers thinking about their application at the end of the day when they have finished their pile of dozens of applications. 

So how do you get that kind of response? You have to tell a great story, and to do that you need to use a plot to structure your application (especially your personal essay). Take a look at your essay from last year: what’s the plot of your story? If you’re not sure,, then you’ve discovered what you need to do to make your application compelling. 

Even if your resume hasn’t changed much, giving your application a plot can get you the win. That’s something you can do right now.

Second, keep in mind that 1st years and 2nd years are reviewed differently. As a 1st year you are compared to other 1st years, so your competitors are in the same boat as you. As a 2nd year you are compared to other 2nd years, who have also been beefing up their research experience and presenting research. So, waiting might just put you in a more competitive pool. Check out our blog post, “When to Apply” to help you think through these considerations.

Even if your resume hasn’t changed much, you can make a big change to your application that can get you the win: give it a plot.