Preparing a Successful Grant Application

Requirements for the technical portion of grants and contracts vary according to sponsor and the type of project. The OSP can provide general assistance with individuals seeking clarification or interpretation of instructions. The following guidelines are adapted from the NIH FELCOM Program series "What They Never Taught You in Grad/Med Schools". Contributed by Judy Stenger.


Before starting the proposal, establish the right frame of mind. View the application as an opportunity to 1) focus on developing plans for the future, 2) obtain feedback from colleagues and reviewers on your ideas, 3) establish and/or further your career and 4) receive financial support for something that you want to do! You should have a clear concept in mind that you feel is worth developing. All fundable projects start with a good idea. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from the possible sponsors. They may be able to guide you and give your proposal the competitive edge. Get instructions (oral and written) and follow them!

Follow a time line to guide your progress toward the development of a winning proposal. Three to six months prior to the due date, you should have developed the idea and obtained the instructions from the sponsor. If this much lead time is available, you should also inform the funding agency of your intent to submit a proposal. Two to five months prior to the due date, you should start writing. It may be necessary to make several revisions, therefore, the more lead time available, the greater the opportunity to strengthen weaknesses. One month prior to the date for mailing, you should obtain all clearances required by your proposal. Submit your application to the Institutional Review Board (IRB), Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) or any other committee necessary. During this time, you may also send your application to colleagues and/or reviewers for feedback. Remember to keep an open mind and do not take criticisms personally. Two weeks prior to the mailing date, the proposal should be delivered to the OSP for obtaining final University clearance and signatures. Although some agencies will accept date of postmark for deadline compliance, others may require date of receipt. Be sure to check and determine which is true for individual requests for proposals. It may vary even within a given agency. A minimum of two days is required to assure courier service delivery by the designated date.

Although the precise content of a proposal will vary according to specific guidelines, there are basic components of most applications that are universally found. The background and significance of the project will state why the work is important, what has already been done or is known in the area, and how the proposed work will fill the gaps in knowledge. Usually limited in length, this portion of the proposal should be thorough, but succinct. References should be made to historical and recent milestones in the area. If available, preliminary data should be provided to lend credibility to the feasibility of the project. Experimental design should directly answer the questions posed by the work. Experiments should not address tangential concerns.

Write the first draft by clearly expressing your ideas. An outline of the application may help to focus ideas onto paper. Don’t worry about aesthetics, it can be ‘cleaned up’ during the editing and rewriting period. If possible, brainstorm with colleagues. Begin to write as early as possible.