How to Write Winning Proposals & Mistakes to Avoid
When it comes to grants, most students probably think of federal funding like the Pell Grant. While this financial aid source is great for offsetting tuition costs, another type of grant exists for students undertaking academic research. Grant writing has become an important skill for students seeking financial aid, particularly those at the graduate and doctoral levels, and anyone planning to pursue a career in academia. Read on to learn more about the grant writing process and how to write a winning proposal for higher education pursuits.
What Are Grants?
Grants make it possible for students to undertake independent, primary research in a topic aligned with their academic pursuits. Academic research can be an expensive undertaking and receiving this type of funding can sometimes be the deciding factor in whether a project progresses. Research grants are also often seen as prestigious, so those who receive them can become well-recognized within their field of study.
Before getting into the nuances of grant writing, it’s important to distinguish the various types of grants. Though grant writing is also a common practice for organizations and schools seeking funding, this guide is specifically focused on grants used by students for academic research purposes, such as a thesis or dissertation. And though educational grants are often lumped in with scholarships and fellowships as a type of traditional financial aid, the types of grants discussed in this guide are used to cover expenses related to research rather than tuition.
Common Types of Educational Grants
When it comes to the different types of grants available, it’s important for students to understand how they are different and who is eligible. According to Ph.D. candidate Srimathi Kasturirangan, students really need to take their time and research grants before applying. “The types of grants students can apply for depend on lots of variables, such as which country and state you are in, your nationality and your citizenship status,” she explains. “Some grants are directly from the government, specifically for minority students or open only to those doing NIH-approved research, so students need to understand the requirements fully.”
Srimathi also reminds students that smaller grants are sometimes available. “Students can also apply to smaller grants that take care of laptop needs or required books – these are usually offered by the university,” she says.
Take a look at the common types of grants below, along with information on their sources and who they’re most ideal for.
Many undergraduate grants are available to ensure students from diverse backgrounds are able to go to college. While many focus on merit and/or need (such as the Pell Grant), others are designed to help students with specific academic interests or those from certain populations. Examples of these include the TEACH Grant and the Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant. While rare, some students may also be able to find a limited number of undergraduate research grants, such as those offered by Northwestern University.
Undergraduate grants typically come from federal and state governments, but a number of private foundations and colleges also offer grants at this level.
Freshmen and sophomore college students. Examples of federal aid grant programs include the Pell and TEACH grants. Undergraduate research grants tend to be reserved for senior thesis projects.
Graduate and Doctoral Grants
Most grants at the graduate and doctoral levels help cover the costs associated with a particular area or topic of research, while some are offered to specific populations. To receive this type of grant, students typically have to go through a grant writing process (more on that in a bit).
Graduate-level grants are provided via the federal and state government, private foundations, organizations and research universities.
Master’s and doctoral students, though some subject areas lend themselves to grants more easily than others (e.g. STEM subjects have access to more grants business).
These grants help students visit various locations to conduct research or allows them to travel and present their findings at conferences. Traveling grants are often much smaller awards than research grants but are generally enough to cover airfare and other forms of transportation.
This type of grant allows graduate and doctoral students to complete research at a university different than their own or at a research facility unassociated with their school for a set amount of time. In addition to writing a grant proposal, students receiving these awards are often required to present their research at the end of the project to show how the grant helped move the project forward.
Graduate and doctoral-level students engaged in very specific research that can’t be completed at their home university.
The Proposal Writing Process
Writing a grant proposal is a time-consuming and tedious process, but receiving funding is well worth the effort and, in some cases, may be the most crucial step for ensuring a research project takes places. The following section takes a look at what goes into writing a winning proposal. Most of the information is geared toward graduate and doctoral students, but undergrads seeking funding for senior theses may also find it useful.
Pre-Proposal: Before You Start Writing
Writing the grant proposal may take up the bulk of a student’s time, but learners also need to spend time focusing their efforts on the following steps before getting started on the actual writing portion.
Identify your research focus
Research at the graduate and doctoral levels is typically focused on an individual subject, and funding panels want to understand exactly what you’re researching and how it fills a gap in existing scholarship. Being able to convey this clearly and succinctly is paramount, so students need to refine their research until it has a clear identity and focus. “Grant review panels also look for feasibility of research and if the student has access to essential equipment for the research, so think about these topics while conceiving your focus area,” recommends Srimathi.
Know exactly how you’ll use the funding
When writing a proposal, it’s important for students to fully understand how much funding they’ll need, for how long and exactly what it will cover. Some students may seek funding for fieldwork or experimental research, while others may be at the postdoctoral stage and need funding to finish their dissertation or translate it into a manuscript. It’s also important to consider how long you need the funding – some projects may last only a few months, while other could stretch to last nearly a decade. Either way, you’ll need to clearly state how all funds will be used throughout the duration of your research.
“Panels essentially do a risk benefit analysis to see if funding a certain project is worthwhile, so it’s important that you fully spell out what it will take to produce the research,” Srimathi explains. “It’s also important to keep in mind that though basic research is extremely significant, it’s also essential the project produces some sort of tangible benefit to society as a whole.”
Find the right funding
There are many grants out there, but only certain opportunities will match your research needs. Students should seek out grants and funding organizations that are specifically interested in their type of research. Think about professional organizations, foundations, federal/state agencies or other universities that are engaged in similar work and see if they offer funding. All of this preliminary research will form the list of places to send your proposals.
Create a timeline
According to the University of Notre Dame, students should begin working on their grant proposals approximately two to three months before applications are due to ensure they aren’t rushed. Most applications are due in October, November or January, so students should make a timeline of all the grants they plan to apply for and work backwards to figure out when each one should be started.
Writing Your Proposal
The proposal is the single most important part of the grant funding process, making it vital for hopeful students to take their time and put forth their best effort. The following section outlines the crucial elements students should consider when writing the proposal.
Address your audience directly
Much like college applications, resumes and cover letters, grant proposals need to be tailored to individual organizations. “One must always consider the audience you are catering to when writing the grant, as this will dictate the language you use to write about the research and how fluent they are in your discipline,” says Srimathi.
To ensure your funding request is aligned with your audience’s interests, ask yourself the following questions:
Does my proposal line up with the funding body’s goals and mission?
Have I adequately researched individual members of the review panel and do I understand what they’re looking for?
Did I write the proposal in such a way that readers from multidisciplinary backgrounds can understand my research without getting lost in discipline-specific jargon?
Be aware of style conventions
How you organize your proposal and express your research goals gives review panels significant insight into who you are as a student, researcher and scholar. Proposals that don’t flow well or lack a strong structure tell readers that you may not be ready to undertake a significant research project. It’s also important to remember that every discipline has its own style conventions and students should adhere to those if they want to be seen as true scholars.
Questions to ask yourself – as well as anyone who proofreads your proposal before submission – include:
Does the organization of my proposal clearly reflect my unique style as a scholar?
Does this proposal demonstrate I’m a problem-solver who understands structure clearly or is it lacking clarity and reflection?
Does my unique voice as a scholar come through or does it read too generic?
Follow all rules regarding organization and structure
The University of Notre Dame notes review panels spend an average of 10 minutes or less on each application and proposals that get a second glance are those that get to the point quickly without sacrificing substance. “The format of each grant must be adhered to very strictly,” warns Srimathi. “If the directions say 12 single-spaced pages as a maximum, don’t exceed that number. Follow all margin restrictions and make sure the grant is as legible as possible and with a natural flow of thought.”
Because funding organizations typically have specific rules about how a proposal should be organized, students need to pay close attention to these guidelines when structuring their application. Questions to ask during this stage include:
Does my proposal efficiently and effectively convey why I should receive funding?
Have I followed all rules regarding headings, font, font size and margins set forth by each funding source?
Do I meet the page requirements?
Include all elements
When writing a grant proposal, all will be for naught if students don’t ensure that every component of the application is fully provided. Because different applications have different requirements, students need to make sure they follow the guidelines closely and don’t leave details out or include those that aren’t required. Some of the common elements include:
Abstract/Summary: The abstract is the first thing the review panel will read in your proposal, so think of it as an elevator pitch of sorts. This short, clear description should address the purpose and goals of your project, research methodology and the significance of your topic.
Introduction: The introduction mirrors the abstract but goes into greater detail. Students should use this to lay out what they intend to accomplish, how they plan to do it, what their anticipated outcomes are and how they will achieve them.
Review of literature: This part of the grant proposal should show review panels that you’ve done your homework in terms of what others have written about or around your topic. Even if you’re pioneering something new, chances are others have at least come somewhat close in one way or another.
Narrative: The narrative is where students will make their case for why their project should receive funding. In addition to laying out how and where you intend to gather the necessary research, use this section to anticipate any questions from readers and preemptively answer them.
Personnel: Depending on the type of research you intend to undertake, it may be necessary to hire staff to help you carry out the project. Examples may include translators, lab technicians, guides for specific locations or additional researchers. Grant applicants who need additional personnel should very clearly explain why the specific skill sets of additional persons are needed, why you’ve chosen the individuals (it’s common to include their resumes), how much it will cost to bring them on board and how long they will be needed.
Budget details and justification: The budget gives the proposal review panel a comprehensive breakdown of where all the money you’re asking for will go. Budgets are usually presented in an Excel spreadsheet or table and provide a line-by-line review of each expense. While it’s not against the rules to ask for more money than the grant states that it provides, students need to have good reasons for doing so. It’s also important you read over what the grant covers and not include any items that they don’t fund. As an example, some grants may not cover equipment, so don’t include those items in your budget proposal.
Create your own revision panel
The best grant proposals are months in the making and have many moving parts. Because of that, it’s important students seek outside feedback before sending it to the review panel, if possible. Consider reaching out to a handful of academics you trust to see if they’re willing to review the document. Examples of individuals to ask include former or current professors, peers within your discipline and other academics who aren’t specialists but can speak to the organization and presentation of the proposal. If your current institution has a writing center, see if a faculty member is willing to review it for grammar and syntax. In addition to asking for general feedback, consider coming up with a few questions to help guide their reading and root out any red flags.
6 Expert Tips for Writing a Winning Grant Proposal
The steps given in the previous section should help students working through the first draft of their grant proposal, but they may find themselves wondering what sets apart an acceptable grant proposal from a winning one. In this section, Srimathi Kasturirangan shares six tips she’s picked up from writing grant proposals for her research projects.
Tailor your language to each grantIn addition to fully reviewing guidelines, students need to carefully consider how the language they use affects readers’ perception of their work. “While it’s important to include details and the jargon associated with your discipline, you also need to have a broader perspective,” Srimathi says. She also advises students applying to a university grant to keep jargon to a minimum and instead talk about the benefits to mankind. If they’re applying to the National Institute of Health, they’ll want to focus on biological responses and the broader outlooks of their research.
Start earlyThe importance of getting an early start on your proposal cannot be understated. Though every student knows what it’s like to pull an all-nighter to finish a paper, grant proposals require a lot of research, data digging and thoughtful consideration – none of which can be accomplished quickly. According to a study on National Science Foundation grants, only 23% of those who spent a week or less on their proposals received funding.
Remember it takes a villageThe process of writing a grant proposal is often a solitary one, as students pull together all the necessary details and data to help their application shine. But once written, it’s important to pull others into the process to provide feedback and constructive criticism. Data shows 63% of applications that didn’t get funded had three or less readers review their proposals before submission, while 21% of successful applications had at least seven readers.
Keep the important questions centralAccording to a report by the Social Science Research Council, grant review panelists typically seek answers to three questions while reading proposals: What am I going to learn from this research that isn’t currently known? Why is it worth knowing? How will I know the conclusions are valid? By keeping these questions central in the narrative, applicants have the best chance for success.
Make the most important information easily findableBecause grant proposal readers are tasked with reviewing hundreds of applications, they don’t have time to review each in full. While you should still cover all requirements in detail, to ensure the most important parts of your application are seen, consider putting them in bold, bulleted lists or similar formats that make them easy to find quickly.
Don’t get discouragedNo matter how great your research topic and proposal are, the reality is that sometimes you won’t be awarded funding. This is simply part of the process, so don’t get discouraged. “To all of us, our research is important, but it might not be to the panel,” says Srimathi. “Don’t get too bogged down if it doesn’t get funded, but try and try again. Look at every unfunded grant as an opportunity to better your writing.”
5 Common Mistakes to Avoid
Having A Dull Title
It may not seem all that important, but the grant proposal title is the first impression readers get of you and your work. A boring title that doesn’t adequately convey your research interests can set the tone for the rest of the application. West Texas A&M University provides a list of tips for crafting a great title.
Using Generic Content
Grant proposals call on applicants to provide unique and tailored information that can’t simply be copied and pasted from one application to the next. If you find yourself reusing narrative text, chances are you’ve taken yourself out of serious consideration.
Having Endless Blocks of Text
Aside from meeting the stated requirements of a grant proposal, one of the best ways to ensure your proposal gets at least a second glance is to heighten its readability. Dense applications with little-to-no whitespace can appear overwhelming to a reader who needs to quickly scan the contents. Be sure to include lots of bullet points, headers, graphs and images to break up the text and clearly show where sections start and end.
Omitting Important Information or Being Vague
Reviewers are often given a rubric to help them evaluate each proposal against the same measures and weights. Proposals that tend to receive the lowest scores are ones where the student hasn’t provided specific blocks of text that address what panelists are looking for. The best ones clearly cite information pertinent to each measure and ensures nothing is omitted or vague.
Including Too Much or Too Little in Your Literature Review
One of the marks of a great proposal is a successfully written literature review section. Because panelists need to both understand the current field and see that you’ve fully researched it, this section can really set you up as an expert. But it’s important to choose the literature wisely. Including examples that stray too far from your topic shows a lack of focus, while including only a couple titles shows a lack of awareness.
Expert Advice: With Dr. Karen Kelskey
Dr. Karen Kelskey of the website The Professor Is In shares her tips for creating a foolproof grant template. According to Dr. Kelsky, this template has helped many students win hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding throughout the years.
Grant Writing Tips for Graduate Students The Chronicle of Higher Education shares a range of thoughtful and insightful tips about how to get review panels to notice your grant proposal and decide to fund your research.
Grant Writing Workshop Dr. Kathryn Temple of Georgetown University breaks down the step-by-step process of writing a winning grant proposal as a graduate student in this comprehensive YouTube video.
Sample Grant Proposals Northwestern University houses several winning proposals from previous students so those seeking funding can get a sense of what the reading panels want to see and how to craft a winning application.
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