Advice for Science Fellowship Applications: NSF, NDSEG, Hertz
July 2006 (perspective of a master's student)
The graduate research fellowship application process is best viewed as a highly competitive contest. To maximize the chances of winning, one needs to not only be technically qualified but also understand the motivations of the contest organizers and what non-technical traits they like to see in contestants. Anyone who hopes to win should seek the advice and guidance of those who have won in the past.
These are the 3 fellowships available for U.S. citizens and permanent residents attending graduate school in a science major:
I have sorted these 3 fellowships in increasing order of selectivity (which is, unsurprisingly, also the increasing order of monetary compensation and perceived prestige). There are about 1,000 NSF awards given each year, about 200 NDSEG awards, and only 15 Hertz awards (the Hertz fellows are all super studs and studettes).
I applied for all 3 fellowships during the 2005-2006 academic year at the same time that I was applying to Ph.D. programs in Computer Science. I received the NSF and NDSEG fellowships, but was rejected by the Hertz, although I did get to experience a fun but slightly masochistic first-round Hertz interview.
This article contains advice that I have collected from my own experiences as well as those of friends and mentors who have received these fellowships. Nowadays the competition for these fellowships is so fierce that it is necessary but not sufficient to simply have superb technical qualifications; having good advice can mean the difference between a win and a near-win. I know technical geniuses who have been denied these fellowships because they refused to take advice from others and thought that they could win by simply laundry-listing their pure credentials.
Let me begin with my first and most general piece of advice: Ask as many (relevant) people as you can about these fellowships, especially those who have won them, in order to get as many sample points as possible. Gather as much information and feedback as possible before submitting your application to give yourself the best possible shot. Don't just depend on your gut intuition.
Who should apply?
You should apply if you are simultaneously applying for a Ph.D. program in a science major (look at the individual fellowships for their particular definition of what constitutes 'science') or if you are in your 1st year of a Ph.D. program. All the fellows I know are (or were) Ph.D. students; it may be possible to get these fellowships to fund your Master's program, but I don't know anyone who's done so.
Why should you apply?
(1) Money, (2) freedom, (3) prestige, (4) practice, and (5) because your research advisor will make you apply anyways.
Can I benefit from the advice in this article?
Yes, only if you already feel confident that you are extremely technically qualified to win these fellowships. None of this advice can boost your credentials, so if you don't already have impressive credentials, then your chances of winning are pretty slim. So what are the necessary credentials? Most of it is based on research. You must have participated in at least 2 or 3 research projects during your undergraduate years, made some noticeable contributions such as engineering research tools, completing successful experiments, and ideally, publishing results in peer-reviewed papers. Secondary qualifications include grades, GRE scores, and extracurricular activities involving science or leadership; but by far, the primary qualification is the caliber of your research.
How should I read through this enormous mess of an article?
Read this article in its entirety all in one sitting! Well, do that only if you want your eyes to crust up and fall out. This entire article is a brain dump of whatever I remember from my application process, with little attempt at editing, so it is anything but concise. Here is an abridged road map:
When I applied in Fall 2005, the Hertz application was due in late October, the NSF in early November (both before grad school apps), and the NDSEG in early January 2006 (after most grad school apps). I began getting organized in early September, at the beginning of the academic year. At that time, I sent out emails to professors whom I wanted to write letters of reference for me in order to secure the 3 letters required for NSF/NDSEG and the 4 required for Hertz. I also started my online applications, read through as much info from the official websites as possible, and took some notes to record down my first impressions of these fellowships.
If you start school in early September, you have approximately 8 weeks before the NSF and Hertz are due. After finishing those, you can take a breather for a while and work on the NDSEG over winter break, because that application should be quite easy after you've finished the NSF and Hertz.
This is obvious, but don't procrastinate! You will need a lot of time to revise your essays, taking people's advice into account. Don't simply think that you can wing it all at the last minute.
The differences between fellowship and graduate school applications
You will most likely be applying for fellowships at the same time that you are applying for Ph.D. programs. Although the two types of applications are similar in many ways, I recall one fundamental way in which they differ: The fellowship application process is more like a contest (with wins and losses), while the graduate school application process is more like a job hunt (with acceptances and rejections).
A grad school app is a job application for the job of a research assistant; the only thing the admissions committee really cares about is your potential for performing good research for their school. You should not take these applications lightly because rejection from graduate school means that you must alter your professional goals in life. One application tip I have heard repeatedly is that it is a good idea to try to broaden your appeal so that you are not pigeonholed into one narrow sub-field, thus running the risk of rejection if the few professors in that sub-field aren't interested in new students at the moment. (I've heard stories of students being rejected by a school because they adamantly proclaimed on their applications that they would only be willing to work with one or two specific professors, and those professors just weren't taking new students at the time.) For my grad school apps, I focused on one primary research interest, but also presented the breadth of my experiences and my openness and curiosity in trying 2 other related areas of research. I have heard that writing down broader interests helps you in grad school apps because you can appeal to more professors. However, don't stretch yourself too thin and say 'Oh, I love EVERYTHING in this field, including this and that and the other things'. Aim for targeting at most 5 or 6 professors whose research genuinely interest you, and present evidence of how you became interested in their work.
In contrast, a fellowship application is a contest, and should be viewed as one. Give it your best shot, and it's no big deal if you don't win. You won't need to alter your life goals; you can still earn a Ph.D., receiving funding from a combination of research and teaching assistantships. In general, the fellowship app reviewers are looking for focus and depth in research interests over openness and breadth, which is in stark contrast to grad school application reviewers. They are not trying to find a place for you within a university research lab (where your presentation of breadth makes you a more flexible candidate); they simply want to see how well you can present yourself technically, so trying to describe too many different interests will dilute the persuasive force of your application. That said, you should still briefly mention the breadth of your research and extracurricular experiences (because those can't hurt), but make sure to find one area in which you are intensely passionate about and focus hard on it. You want to sound highly confident of your passion, interest, and ability to perform research on one particular topic, even if that is not going to be the topic you will eventually do your dissertation on. It's okay to win a fellowship and then completely drop the topic you wrote about in your essays; the fellowship reviewers know that many students will change their interests once they get into a Ph.D. program, but what they value is the fact that you can discuss a sophisticated technical topic clearly, eloquently, and with some personal passion. The most common topic that people choose to focus on is the research project they are currently involved in at the time of their applications. This is a great idea because of the writing principle of show, don't tell—you want to show how you are interested in some topic by describing actual work you have done, challenges you have faced and overcome, lessons you have learned, etc., rather than simply tell the reviewers that you have a passion for something.
In sum, remember the following general rule: For grad school applications, try to present yourself with broader interests, and for fellowship applications, tighten your focus intensely and only mention your other interests in passing.
Logistics (getting organized)
When you begin the application process, make a note of every single item that you eventually need to submit (e.g., GRE scores, reference letters, online applications, etc.) and the deadlines for each item. After each item has been submitted, make a note of it along with the date, so that by the final deadline, you should clearly see that all items have been submitted. I wrote all of this info in plaintext files, but some people prefer to use a calendar application. Whatever you use, just make sure you write down these logistical points ON THE COMPUTER (and not just on flimsy post-in notes). Being organized will prevent you from making stupid mistakes like missing a deadline and disqualifying yourself from competition.
Also, make a directory on your computer dedicated to fellowship applications, and a sub-directory for each fellowship. Write down advice that you collect in text files within the appropriate sub-directories. Don't think that you'll remember everything when crunch time comes; just be safe and write it all down. Although you can save partially-completed applications online, it's pretty dumb to simply use the web form text boxes as a word processor (there's no spell checking). Write your essays offline and save and backup your files neurotically like there's no tomorrow!
Area of specialty
All the fellowship apps ask you to either choose or to write in an area of specialty within your major (for Computer Science, areas might include 'robotics', 'software engineering', 'theory', etc.). I feel that this choice is very important, because it will determine who will read your application. It also places you into a particular applicant pool with other competitors who are writing about the same interests. Choose a specialty that you feel you can write about convincingly and with solid evidence of research in that specialty, because that will maximize your chances of winning. Don't try to game the system by choosing some obscure area you feel that there isn't much competition in—choose the area that you can most convincingly portray with evidence of personal passion and research in your application.
Letters of reference
In order to have a competitive application, you will need 1 super good letter, 2 pretty good letters, and 1 alright letter (this 4th letter will only be used by Hertz). The 1 super good letter should come from your current research advisor and provide additional evidence to bolster your primary focus point about how you have a ton of passion for work in your particular area of specialty. The 2 pretty good letters could come from professors whom you have previously done research for, even if you simply did low-level grunt work, or research scientists at a lab you interned in. Unless you have no other choice, don't get a letter from a professor who taught a class that you got a good grade in, because reviewers give very little weight to these 'did well in class' letters. The NSF and NDSEG only require 3 letters, so you are set if you can get 1 super good and 2 pretty good letters. The Hertz requires an extra letter, but I doubt that most students have done research for 4 different professors as undergrads, so it's okay if this last letter comes from a company supervisor, 'did well in class' professor, or whatever, just because it's unreasonable for the reviewers to expect 4 serious research-based reference letters.
After you find your letter writers, spend some time preparing a printed informational packet to hand to them. This packet should include a brief resume, a small blurb of what strengths you want to focus on in your application, and, most importantly, a summary of the work you have done for this particular professor, including notable achievements and results. Having this summary on-hand will help refresh their memory and allow them to write a stronger letter for you, backed by solid evidence of your achievements. As the months roll by and the deadlines approach, send polite reminders every few weeks or so to make sure that they remember to write your letter, and offer to provide any additional information they might need. Don't go overboard and sound too demanding or pushy, though, because professors are very busy people. Oh yeah, after they have submitted all of your letters, make sure to show your appreciation by giving them thank-you cards. Sure, it's just a gesture, but it is a sincere one because they put forth effort to help advance your career, so you should be grateful.
How technical should the essays be?
The reviewers of your application will be researchers in your field, and probably in your area of specialty or in a closely-related area. Thus, write for a technical audience who is somewhat familiar with your area of specialty. It's still a good idea to not just pollute your essays with abstruse jargon, though. Spend some sentences relating your own research to the bigger picture; start with something that laymen can almost understand in order to provide context, and then drill down into the hairy technical details. Don't spend too much text being fluffy, though, because you want your essays to be concise and meaty. Show, don't tell. Show that you are good at doing X or that you are passionate about Y by citing evidence from your work or extracurricular activities. Also, whenever appropriate, provide citations of relevant journal or conference papers to show that you have an understanding of the literature (but don't go overboard and cite papers just for the sake of doing so, because that will appear overly contrived).
The importance of impact
Impact goes a long way in making a strong application. Don't just talk about what you tried to do in your research; rather, talk about what you succeeded in doing and how that impacted the world (albeit probably in some small way). Most likely, you aren't doing research that singlehandedly cures world hunger, but talk about any impact that your research has had, however small, such as enabling other researchers to make more progress (contributing to the research community), allowing students to learn better in the classroom (building educational tools), etc. Reviewers want to see not only that you've put yourself out there and tried to dive into graduate-level research as an undergrad, but more importantly, that you've persevered and been able to create, innovate, improve, etc. something that has some visible impact.
Another reason why the reviewers really look for evidence of impact is that they want to see whether you understand the meaning of research impact. An applicant who understands what it means for research to have impact will more likely successfully pursue research with actual impact in the future. And the best way to demonstrate your understanding of impact (aside from an in-person interview) is to eloquently write about the impact of your research experiences.
To win the game of the graduate science fellowships, you need the 3 C's (indulge my corniness, please): Completeness (including every relevant technical detail in your application in some form), Clarity (presenting the best aspects of yourself clearly and concisely), and Coherence (having parts of your application tie into each other instead of being a disparate brain dump of facts ... unlike this article).
Most of your competitors will be technically qualified in science research, probably just as qualified as you or, more likely, even more qualified. The only thing that can set you apart is the overall quality of your application. If a reviewer had to choose between applications from two applicants with nearly identical credentials, I would bet that he/she would more likely choose to endorse the one that's better written, more logically organized, easier to read, and more memorable ... the one that best exhibits the 3 C's ...
So ... what are my chances?
Like parenting, the fellowship application process is something in which nobody can claim to be a scientific expert ... because of the simple fact that nobody has enough sample points to make any statistically significant claims. A parent can only raise at most a handful of children, all in one of many possible environments. Similarly, a fellowship applicant can only try for a handful of fellowships, all in one of many possible environments. Even if one raises an all-star child or wins a fellowship, it doesn't mean that he/she knows the sure-fire way to repeat those favorable results. There is definitely luck involved, and forces outside of one's control, such as the disposition and biases of the anonymous reviewers, the quality of the competition, etc. There is no algorithm for parenting, nor is there an algorithm for winning these fellowships. Every fellowship winner or loser is only one sample point. That is precisely why I stress the importance of picking many people's brains for advice, because the more sample points you collect, the better of an idea you will have in terms of your own chances.
Your chances might heavily depend on your major and even on your area of specialty. The NSF technically gives out awards for dozens of majors, but if you look at the lists of winners from previous years, you'll find that most are either in the 'hard sciences' (physics, chem, bio) or in some form of engineering (mechanical, aeronautical). If you happen to be in a major or specialty area that isn't too popular for funding agencies at the moment, then you might be facing an uphill battle. But, oh well, at least you're competing with others in your major who are in the same predicament as you.
I've also heard that where you are from, in terms of region of the country, also matters, because there might be some fuzzy algorithm that tries to balance out the distribution of funds to different areas of the country (so that they are not ALL concentrated in the prestigious New England and California research universities). Also, there may be subtle biases in favor of racial and gender diversity. In sum, there are a lot of factors that are out of your control in the fellowship application process, so don't get stressed out by any of them. Just play the game as best as you can.
General Philosophy and Format
Out of the 3 fellowships, the NSF seems like the one that stands up best to the ideal of science for the sake of science. They are a government agency with lots of money to invest in the future of American science of all shapes and forms. In my year, the NSF application contained 3 essay questions. I wrote 2 pages (single-spaced, 12 pt. font) for each of them. The rest of the application (short answer and fill-in-the-blank questions) is pretty straightforward, so I will concentrate my advice on the essay questions.
Essay 1: Previous Research
Here is the prompt for 2005-2006 (it may differ for your year):
Describe any scientific research activities in which you have participated, such as experience in undergraduate research programs, or research experience gained through summer or part-time employment or in work-study programs, or other research activities, either academic or job-related. Explain the purpose of the research and your specific role in the research, including the extent to which you worked independently and/or as part of a team, and what you learned from your research. In your statement, distinguish between undergraduate and graduate research experience. If you have no direct research experience, describe any activities that you believe have prepared you to undertake research. At the end of your statement, list any publications and/or presentations made at national and/or regional professional meetings.
This essay is pretty plain vanilla. Just follow the prompt and write about all the research projects in which you have been involved, making sure to hit all the points the prompt requires. Briefly describe each project, your particular role in it, how much you worked per week, what you learned from the experience, what impact it had on the world (however small), how it motivated you to want to pursue a Ph.D. (if it did at all), etc.
The flow of my essay was one of build-up and climax. I wrote about 4 projects in chronological order, each one requiring more sophistication and experience than the previous one. The climax came as I described my most significant (which was my most recent) project. I spent the first page describing the first three projects, and the second page solely dedicated to describing the final and most significant one. I suggest devoting more space to your most significant project, because it emphasizes your greatest strength; it also provides good context for your next essay, Proposed Research, as well as ample space for making cross-references between your essays. Don't devote an equal amount of space to each of your projects unless you truly feel that they are all of equal significance.
If you have published (or submitted) papers, in addition to listing them at the end of this essay in a mini-bibliography like the prompt requires, make references to them in the essay itself in order to put those papers in their proper context.
Essay 2: Proposed Research
Here is the prompt for 2005-2006 (it may differ for your year):
In a clear, concise, and original statement, present a complete plan for a research project that you may pursue while on fellowship tenure and how you became interested in the topic. Your statement should demonstrate your understanding of research design and methodology and explain the relationship to your previous research, if any. Describe how you propose to address the two NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts. Refer to the program announcement for specific guidance.
Format: Include the title, key words, hypothesis, research plan (strategy, methodology, and controls), anticipated results or findings, literature citations, and a statement attesting to the originality of the research proposal. If you have not formulated a research plan, your statement should include a description of a topic that interests you and how you would propose to conduct research on that topic.
Research topics discussed in your proposed plan will be used to determine eligibility. Refer to the Field of Study eligibility criterion in the program announcement.
This essay is a real doozie. It will take a lot of thinking, planning, and discussion with your advisor and colleagues to come up with a research proposal that makes for a strong essay. What the reviewers are looking for is whether you can write a technical proposal for a project that is feasible, impactful, and realistic given your particular expertise. However, nobody is going to follow-up with you and force you to actually work on the project you proposed.
I would strongly suggest writing a proposal that's somehow based on work that you have already done, so that you can tie it in with your Previous Research essay (cross-references!!!). In other words, don't just make up some cool topic out of thin air. If you're not that excited about your current work and desperately want to switch to something completely different once you start your Ph.D., now is not the time to express your discontent. It's dangerous to propose a research project that's not related to what you've already done because it dampens your credibility. Show, don't tell. If you make a proposal that's based on your current work, you have more opportunities to show rather than tell. However, don't fall into the trap of simply proposing a small step forward for your current research (a slight tweak here and there), because that just makes you sound lazy and unoriginal. The reviewers want to see something innovative. Don't be afraid to make a bigger, more ambitious conceptual leap, as long as it's grounded in your current work, even if you have no clue whether it's fully tractable to solve the problem you've proposed (just don't leap as far out as cold fusion or perpetual motion).
Oh yeah, you know how the prompt says: If you have not formulated a research plan, your statement should include a description of a topic that interests you and how you would propose to conduct research on that topic. Well, don't ever take this cop-out route! Formulate an actual research plan! Nothing is stopping you, other than lack of effort. Taking this cop-out route is a fast path to the land of loser.
A good research proposal will contain solid anchoring to your previous work, a well-motivated research problem, citations from 4 or 5 references to show that you are familiar with the body of existing work on this problem, and a proposed solution to the problem that sounds somewhat tractable. I know, 2 pages isn't much room at all, but everyone else has the same space constraints too.
The prompt wants you to satisfy the requirement of Intellectual Merit, but that is pretty straightforward. That simply means, write something that's technically competent and shows that you know what you're doing.
In order to satisfy the requirement of Broader Impacts in this essay, you will need to argue for why this research benefits society and the world (feel free to stretch a bit, but don't be too corny). And no, simply advancing the 'state of the art' in your field isn't sufficiently broad an impact, because that doesn't impact the people in the rest of the world who know nothing about your field. Think broader.
Essay 3: Personal Statements
Here is the prompt for 2005-2006 (it may differ for your year):
NSF Fellows are expected to become knowledge experts and leaders who can contribute significantly to research, education, and innovations in science and engineering. The purpose of this essay is to demonstrate your potential to satisfy this requirement. Your ideas and examples do not have to be confined necessarily to the discipline that you have chosen to pursue.
Describe any personal, professional, or educational experiences or situations that have prepared you or contributed to your desire to pursue advanced study in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics. Describe your competencies and evidence of leadership potential. Discuss your career aspirations and how the NSF fellowship will enable you to achieve your goals. Provide specific details in the narrative that address the NSF Merit Review Criteria of Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts as described in the program announcement.
Ok, pay real close attention. This is the essay that will make or break your application. Stop laughing. I'm not kidding. It sounds like a foofy fluffy feel-good personal statement essay, but trust me, the people I knew who didn't take this essay seriously barely missed out on winning an award, getting an honorable mention instead and receiving written reviews along the lines of "you're very strong technically, but you just don't have enough broader impacts." Pretty much all top contenders are technically marvelous, so what makes the difference between a win and a near-win is Broader Impacts, which are best expressed in this essay.
See the next section for more details about Broader Impacts, but the name of the game in this essay is to incorporate as much Broader Impacts as humanly possible while still following the prompt. In previous years, there was a separate essay specifically asking you to address Broader Impacts, but in my year, they eliminated that essay, so this is your primary opportunity to discuss Broader Impacts.
Don't be too selfish in this essay; don't toot your own horn too much because the reviewers don't care about you as a person. Don't just make it all me, me, me, like about how deeply passionate you are about your field ever since you played with your first chemistry or electronics set when you were 6 years old. Instead, try to talk about your own work and interests in relation to other people, such as leadership, mentoring, TAing, learning from research colleagues, working on a team, etc. Show your passion for your field by cross-referencing your internship and research experiences (to weave together different parts of your app) instead of just recounting wonderful childhood nerd stories that nobody except your mother cares about.
The definition from the 2006 NSF Program Announcement:
The broader impacts criterion includes contributions that (1) effectively integrate research and education at all levels, infuse learning with the excitement of discovery, and assure that the findings and methods of research are communicated in a broad context and to a large audience; (2) encourage diversity, broaden opportunities, and enable the participation of all citizens-women and men, underrepresented minorities, and persons with disabilities-in science and research; (3) enhance scientific and technical understanding; and (4) benefit society. Applicants may provide characteristics of their background, including personal, professional, and educational experiences, to indicate their potential to fulfill the broader impacts criterion.
Broader Impacts (mostly expressed within your Personal Statements Essay) makes or breaks your application. Alone, it cannot secure you a victory, but coupled with great technical qualifications (the other criterion, Intellectual Merit), it can vastly improve your chances of winning. Every single person whom I've asked about the NSF fellowship tells me to spend lots of time thinking about and addressing Broader Impacts. They've told me stories about how their friends barely missed winning because their Broader Impacts weren't, well, broad enough. You must infuse Broader Impacts throughout all of your essays, but the Personal Statements Essay gives you the most opportunities to do so. Let's go through the 4 parts of the criterion one-by-one:
Out of all 3 fellowship applications, I spent by far the most time on the NSF. It was definitely time well spent, though, because it made doing the other 2 applications, especially the NDSEG, much easier.
General Philosophy and Format
Despite its military-sounding name, I've heard that the NDSEG actually has fairly civilian intentions: The fellowships are given out to ensure that America has a steady supply of capable future scientists, because presumably America will be a stronger and safer place if our best and brightest don't escape to other naughty countries to make doomsday weapons for them. So don't worry. If you win this fellowship, you won't have to enlist in the military for mandatory service or anything. This application isn't due until mid-December (after all your grad school apps), so if you've done a solid job on the NSF and Hertz applications, it should be trivial to fill out this one (there are no long essays, only a few short essays and fill-in-the-blanks). You can easily finish it in a few days over winter break.
You don't need to tailor your application specifically for the military
When working on this application, don't treat it like the military brass or super-duper-hardcore patriots will be scrutinizing you, waiting to pick out any glimmer of sedition. Don't try to purposely impress them by casting your accomplishments in military terms (unless, of course, your research really does have direct military applications). Just relax and don't let the name of the fellowship intimidate you. As far as I know, respectable scientific researchers will be reading your application, just like for the NSF.
Study what the funding agencies are looking for
The area of specialty you choose to write in really matters a lot. Here is why ... taken from a passage from the Proposed discipline & area of specialization section of the NDSEG application instructions:
2. Area of specialization - Describe your area of specialization, if any, within your chosen discipline. For example, an applicant applying within the Physics discipline might enter 'optics' or 'acoustics' in this text box. If you do not have an area of specialization, enter the discipline.
To learn more about the areas of interest to the DoD, applicants are encouraged to consult the Broad Area Announcements for the Army Research Office (http://www.aro.army.mil), Office of Naval Research (http://www.onr.navy.mil), and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (http://www.afosr.af.mil).
Okay, you have a text box where you can write down the name of an area of specialization. Don't take this decision lightly. You need to write down an area which, (1) you can promote strongly with evidence in your application, and (2) one of the three funding agencies (Army, Navy, or Air Force) is likely to fund. Go visit the websites of these agencies and look up what areas of specializations are especially hot for funding by them at the moment.
Please, please don't write down a specialization that doesn't appear in any of these funding agencies' lists; that's a quick ticket to the land of loser. Ideally, you want to write down a specialization that appears in all 3 funding agencies' lists in order to give yourself the broadest possible appeal. If you're really doing research that doesn't appeal at all to any funding agency, then you will need to tweak your application so that it matches some specialization that they are willing to fund.
General Philosophy and Format
The Hertz is the mack daddy of the 3 general science fellowships, with the most money, most prestige, and least number of winners (a measly 10-15 per year as compared to the 200 for NDSEG or 1,000 for NSF). It is given out by a private foundation that offers money to the best and brightest in applying the physical sciences to empower and protect America. I think it's the most patriotic out of all 3 fellowships, so keep that in mind as you are working on it.
The most unique portion of the application process is the two rounds of interviews. Approximately 800 students apply for the fellowship, and about 1/4 of them (200 people) are selected for a first-round interview. 1/4 of those (~50-60 people) pass onto the second-round interview. Then 1/4 of those are picked as the final awards recipients (~10-15 people). Yeah, so the selection process is pretty darn difficult and mostly out of your hands. I made it to the first-round interview and was then rejected.
The written application isn't brain surgery or anything. Just put your best foot forward as a smart, passionate, patriotic American student of science. Keep in mind what the Hertz Foundation means by the application of the physical sciences (read their website again and again until you're no longer puzzled) and try to portray how your own research and interests fit this requirement.
The First-Round Interview
I was fortunate enough to be picked for a first-round interview. This interview is usually held at some local hotel and lasts 1 hour. Your interviewer will be a researcher who is most likely a former Hertz fellow. Wear a suit. It's pretty formal. This is no time for funny business. There's really not much you can do to prepare. It will be a technical interview, so he/she will prepare questions for you to answer. You can spend some time at the beginning of the interview describing your own research, but the primary purpose of the interview is for the interrogator to grill you with math, physics, chemistry, and other science questions and assess how well you think about solving problems.
Because the Hertz emphasizes a physical science education, you should know basic physics and chemistry pretty well if you want any chance of advancing past the first-round interview. You won't have to do surface integrals or anything, just basic algebra, but you'll have to remember basic physics equations like F=ma and friends. You should also study up on some basic probability theory, because people often get asked questions about probability as well. They are testing how well you think about solving problems, not necessarily if you can get them correct, but of course, if you answer correctly, it will be to your benefit! In short, there really isn't any way to prepare for this interview. You either know stuff, or you don't. It's really a crapshoot, so just treat it as a fun experience and don't get too stressed out if your interviewer seems antagonistic. It's his/her job to push you hard and see how you react.
One last bit of advice I've heard is that you should bring several intelligent questions to ask your interviewer. At the end of the interview, he/she will ask you to ask some questions of your own, about the foundation, the fellowship, or whatever else you want. Come prepared so that you don't just sit there like a rock for a minute and then sputter out something lame like "Uhhh, were you a Hertz fellow? How did you like it?"
The Second-Round Interview
Ummm, I didn't get this far, but I do know people who have. They've told me that it's a pretty intense grilling. The interviewers turn up the heat much more than they did in the first round so that only the strongest survive. If you get this far, then I'm no longer qualified to provide you with advice. Just do your best and hope that you are one of the lucky 1/4 picked to receive the award.
The DOE Computational Science Graduate Fellowship
Update on 2011-12-23: A reader wrote to tell me about the DOE's Computational Science Graduate Fellowship, which might be a good idea to apply for in addition to the NSF, NDSEG, and Hertz. Here is her description of the fellowship, in her own words:
The main advice I have is just to apply for it, since it is a lesser-known fellowship. Last year, only 18 were awarded, which represented about a 3% acceptance rate. That rate is about the same as NSF, but NSF awarded about 2,000. It is only for computational people, but those people can be in computer science, applied math, engineering (any flavor), chemistry, physics, biology... basically any science or engineering PhD student who computational and a U.S. citizen or permanent resident is eligible, and students can apply the year before they enter grad school or in their first or second year. There are addicational coursework requirements, balanced by a limit on the amount of required TA'ing. The fellowship is for up to 4 years (vs. 3 for NSF), stipend is $36K (vs. $30K for NSF), has a annual community-building conference (vs. none for NSF), a practicum at a national lab (vs. none for NSF), pays all tuition and fees including my required purchase of a CTA pass (vs. NSF limited to $10,500 for cost-of-education, but may increase to $12K), and gives $5000 in the first year plus $1000 each following year for professional development such as computer purchase, going to meetings, books, etc. (vs. $0 for NSF). The application is short; I found it much easier to complete than the NSF application. The reviewers are not focused on grades. They want to build a community with diverse skills and backgrounds, with people who are interested in advancing science.
Here are some other pages that might be useful for fellowship applicants:
This article would not have been possible without the advice I received during the Fall 2005 fellowship application season from people at MIT smarter than myself: Russ Cox and Brian Demsky, Hertz fellows who helped to shed some of the mystery behind its application process, Harr Chen and Dan Roy, who repeatedly stressed the importance of Broader Impacts on the NSF application, and Omar Bashir, Stephen McCamant, and Derek Rayside for reading through my NSF essays and providing me with immensely helpful feedback, including last-minute comments by Derek on the day before the deadline that motivated me to completely re-write my Personal Statements Essay, leading to tremendous improvements that helped me to win the fellowship.