Getting Started – Before You Write

Quality proposals required considerable effort before you write your first word. Submitting a poor quality proposal may give reviewers an unfavorable impression of you.

  • Start early! Competitive grants are not best produced through last minute efforts. You’’ll need time to research, reflect, rewrite, and to get others to critique your proposal. It is critical to identify funding opportunities as early as possible to allow the maximum amount of time to prepare the proposal.
  • Get registered with the appropriate agency. Contact your office of sponsored research for registration assistance.
  • First, read and re-read the proposal guidelines. Failing to use the acceptable font size or missing required sections can cause your proposal to be rejected without review. Reviews are important because they provide you with competitive information for future rounds and allow you to more strategically align your proposal to a program’s funding goals.
  • Is the proposal a limited submission? It is very important that you identify any requirement which limits submissions from a single institution as these must be coordinated for the entire campus. Typically, this involves a pre-selection process. Contact Research Development for further information if you see an institutional limit in the guidelines. Also, identify any eligibility and PI or Co-PI restrictions.
  • Research the program you are submitting to. Your first step is to decide where and how to pitch your proposal.
    1. Understand the success rate. Would you be better pursuing this one or one with higher rates of awards funded?
    2. Make sure you understand the review process and criteria. Will this be peer review? Is the panel a standing group or ad hoc? Will it include professionals outside your field? Will education or diversity aspects weigh heavily in the competition? What will the broader impacts be? NIH lists Integrated Review Groups and Study Section Rosters at
    3. Know the review criteria. Broader impacts are more important for an NSF proposal than one for NIH. NSF seeks to increase participation of women and underrepresented minorities in science, technology, and engineering.
    4. Reviewers will look for Significance, Approach, Innovation, Investigator, and the Environment. These are discussed in more detail under the “Writing The Proposal” section below.
    5. Consider your target audience of the grant. Clearly explain them in terms of demographics, size, problems, or challenges faced.
  • Gather background information. It is critical you know where your field is in relation to your proposed research. Analyze what already exists. Show thorough knowledge of your field and don’’t overlook relevant publications potential reviewers have authored. Seek constructive criticism from knowledgeable peers. If you state your idea is novel or innovative, it had better not already have happened elsewhere in your field! Know your competition.
  • Check for winning proposals. Do a thorough search of the agency website; contact colleagues in that field who have been awarded grants and see if any will share information or even a proposal with you.
  • Build Coalitions among departments, institutions, industries, and constituencies. They can contribute letters of endorsement/commitment to the project.
  • Work out the overall research plan. Everything must relate to one fundamental question.
  • Have a brainstorming session. Write down every idea and connect ideas and words to develop a visual flow.
  • Select your co-PIs and partners strategically! Establishing your co-PIs for specific effective and competitive reasons is extremely important. Don’’t just consider who is easiest to ask or who happens to work down the hall, especially if that person isn’’t as qualified as another that you could include. Consider whether or not diversity is important to the funding agency. How will reviewers view the expertise the PIs present? Choosing co-PIs by consensus or the “”Who wants to be?”” method is not the best approach.
  • Finally, create a realistic timeline for you to accomplish specific proposal components and stay on track.