Goldwater Advice

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship is one of the most prestigious awards in STEM at the undergraduate level. You may apply in your sophomore or junior year (or even fourth year, if you will take 5+ years to graduate), and the award gives up to $7,500 for each of your remaining years. The application process is likely longer than other applications you may have done in the past, but is a very beneficial process. The first step is to contact your campus representative. This is who you will submit your application to and they will select some of the applicants from your school to nominate as finalists for the award. The application itself consists of three components: a research essay, short answer questions, and background information including short research statements. Below you can find my advice on each piece of the application process, as well as why it’s worthwhile to apply, and here you can find application tips on the Goldwater website. At the bottom you may find my application materials.

Research Essay

This is a three page summary of your research and the largest part of the application. If you have participated in multiple projects, you must choose one to write about, although you get to very briefly discuss any other research projects in another part of the application. If you haven’t done research yet, you can still apply but instead will write about proposed research (more on that later). I chose the following rough outline for my research essay:

  • Roughly 1/2 page for introduction. This is the big picture stuff. What are you interested in and why is it important? How does this work relate to the field as a whole?
  • 1.5 pages to talk about what you did in your project. Did you do field work? Run experiments? Develop code? You need to focus very heavily on your contributions to the project. If you have an easily digestible graph or illustration that shows your results, that would be good to include.
  • About 1/2 page for results and conclusions. Be brief. What did you find? Why are these results important? Tie them to a bigger picture. If you’re going to continue the work, explain what you’re going to do and why. Showing that you understand the importance and limitations of your work and results is important.
  • About 1/2 page (or less) for references. This isn’t so important, but you should have a couple of references to key papers.

When writing this, keep in mind that the people reviewing your application will be scientists, but they will probably not be experts in your field. Keep jargon to a minimum and try to make it as accessible as possible. For this, I suggest having as many people proofread it as possible, preferably people with a different background than you. Friends from different majors are a great resource!

Also check out the official FAQs.

Short Answer Questions

You've distinguished yourself as a researcher, now this is where you can set yourself apart as a person. You are asked to answer the following questions:

  • “In one or two sentences, describe your career goals and professional aspirations. (200 characters)”
  • “Expand on the above brief statement to more fully describe your career goals and professional aspirations. Indicate which area(s) of mathematics, science or engineering you are considering pursuing in your research career and specify how your current academic program and your overall educational plans will assist you in achieving your career goals and professional aspirations. (3000 characters)”
  • Describe an activity or experience that has been important in helping shape or reinforce your desire to pursue a research career in science, mathematics or engineering. (1500 Characters)
  • “(Optional. Answering this question will depend on your personal experience.) Goldwater Scholars will be representative of the diverse economic, ethnic, racial and occupational backgrounds of families in the U.S. Describe any social and/or economic impacts you have personally experienced that have influenced your education – either positively or negatively – and describe how you dealt with them. (1500 Characters)”

The first question sets up for the following questions and how your answers are driving you to that career. You should avoid language such as "I want to go to graduate school." Instead, something stronger like "Following graduation, I will pursue a Fulbright followed by a PhD in nuclear engineering, and then a staff scientist position at a national lab." It should be short, specific, and strong.

The key in this section is to try to set yourself apart. For the second question: how is your academic program preparing you for your goals? Are you supplementing your coursework with another major to better prepare yourself for your field? Anyone can say “My coursework in x major is preparing me for graduate school in x field.” How is it doing that? And how are you making it uniquely yours? How have your research experiences prepared you for this career path?

For the third question you get the chance to show your passion. Maybe it was your first time in the lab, your first time visualizing your data, you first time seeing your work applied, or even your first failure. You’re trying to show the reviewers why you love science. Again, you want to be unique. The reviewers have to read a lot of applications, so make them want to keep reading yours. And avoid clichés. I can’t stress that enough – they only hurt your writing.

The final question is tricky and can be, in my opinion, a make-or-break question. You want to explain why any parts of your application may be lacking, such as your GPA. If you are facing or have faced hardships such as being a first-generation college student, a member of an underrepresented minority, or coming form a low-income family, this is the place to talk about it. Demonstrate how these things have affected you and how you have overcame them. Although the question is technically optional, I would advice against skipping it.

Although these are all different questions, you should try to create an overarching narrative throughout, so that when read together, they give a clear picture of who you are and how qualified you are.

Individual Research Statements

These are short abstract length summaries of your research projects. Like with the research essay, focus in on what you contributed to the project, and avoid overusing technical jargon. You should try to explain, in roughly one paragraph, what you did and how it fits into the field as a whole.

Other Application Materials

In the application itself, you will be asked to list if and where you've presented your research, any extracurricular clubs/organizations that you're involved in, and any awards you've received.

What if I Don’t Have Research Experience?

If you don’t yet have research experience, you can still apply! The primary difference is that your research essay must now become a research proposal where you will write about research that you are going to do or want to do. If you are applying for research programs for the coming summer or academic year, it might be best to write about that project. The more concrete, the better. The rest of the advice for the research essay still applies, with a little reframing. I would keep the introduction the same, and then discuss what you will do. Talk about the limitations of the work. You won’t have a proper results section, but explain what results you might want or expect and why the results will be useful, placing the proposed work in a larger context. Why should someone care about this research?

You also have an additional short answer question to answer: “In the absence of formal research experience, describe any skills or accomplishments significant and relevant to this application (e.g., analytical, lab, presentation skills).” Here, you might want to describe skills that you’ve obtained that would prepare you for a research project. Maybe one of your classes included fieldwork, or programming assignments, or labwork, or presentations, for example. Relate these skills directly to the proposed work.

Letters of Recommendation

You have to choose three people to write letters of recommendation for you. For this, and for all competitive applications, these people need to really know you. You should send them your statements (drafts are fine), CV/resume, and make sure they are familiar with your goals and research. The faculty mentor for the work you write about in the research essay should be one of your writers. If possible, it would be good to get another person who has worked with you in a professional setting outside of the classroom, and one person who can speak to your abilities as a student. Be sure to also send them the Goldwater’s recommender tips to give them an idea of how they should be writing your letters.


The campus deadline for sending in initial applications varies from school to school, so you should contact your campus representative to determine your deadline. It will be somewhere from mid September to early January. I met with my campus representative in early August and began working on an outline and first drafts. Your exact workflow will depend on your campus deadline, but give yourself as much time as possible to revise, revise, revise. I advise spending time in the summer before the application is due to plan out the essays. By August, you should be in contact with your campus representative and writing your first drafts. The folks at the Goldwater put together this nice graphic that puts all of this in one place.

Why Apply?

I found applying for the Goldwater to be an incredibly rewarding experience. If you intend on going into a career in STEM, especially an academic career, writing applications like this is going to become commonplace, and learning to write an effective application is a skill that is difficult to develop. Regardless of whether or not you receive the award, the experience of applying will be invaluable later on when applying for graduate fellowships such as the The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship and The FORD Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship. All of this will be helpful for applying to graduate school, internships, or jobs. After receiving an honorable mention for the Goldwater, in the following year I went on to receive a graduate fellowship from Michigan State University, an honorable mention for the FORD Foundation Predoctoral Fellowship, and ultimately an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

We have also started a Goldwater Scholars' Community: a network of scholars and honorable mentions to provide resources and experiences for scholars.

I applied for the Goldwater during my fourth year of undergrad (out of five) and received an honorable mention. You may find my application materials below.