Mature Female Student Working On Laptop In College Library.

Applying for a grant takes time and effort, but there are ways to make your application stand out from others.Credit: Getty

Writing a research proposal is a time-consuming but priceless opportunity to develop research ideas, build critical-thinking skills and develop communications strategies — not to mention obtaining funding. As research-development strategists, we coach both clinical and basic-science researchers in the art of writing compelling proposals. Grant writers often ask whether we have examples of successful proposals that we can share. Yet few early-career grant writers know how to turn their access to these proposals into a competitive edge.

Proposal libraries are collections of proposals, both funded and unfunded, that were previously submitted for consideration by funding agencies. We have developed such a library with proposals submitted to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other foundations, including applications for large project grants, research grants, career-development awards and fellowships. Our proposals are not anonymized; instead, we encourage grant writers to provide only what they feel comfortable sharing. We have examples of one-page Specific Aims and Research Strategies documents, as well as boilerplate documents and full proposals. In some cases, reviewers’ comments are included and provide insights into how the application was received.

Proposals in our library are accessed using a cloud-based content-management platform and available read-only, meaning that they cannot be downloaded. We also refer grant writers to a repository called Open Grants. To build your own proposal library, ask your peers or mentors whether they would be willing to share their proposals with you. Many funders publish lists of people who’ve been awarded grants, so reaching out to previous winners is a good way to start. Ask for a 20-minute meeting to chat about their application experience, then enquire about their willingness to share their proposal.

But how can you transform such a library into a meaningful grant-writing aid? Our three-step approach can help.

Assess structure

Start by taking a big-picture view of the proposal. Scan each page but don’t read the text (yet). Consider the margins, font size, figure placement and more. Is it filled to the brim with text, or does it have space to breathe? Is the organization well defined? Do the authors use typographical emphases such as underlining, bold text or italics to set off key elements?

Note that although previously submitted proposals can provide important clues, requirements can change, so be sure to consult the most up-to-date instructions when preparing your own applications.

Assess content

Next, give the proposal a quick read to examine the placement of ideas within the sections or subsections of the proposal. As this step involves annotation, it’s best to have a printout or digital copy that you can mark up.

Grant writers typically present core themes in an expected and strategic order. For instance, consider the specific aims from an NIH application, examples of which can be found on the websites of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the US National Cancer Institute. Most compelling Specific Aims documents convey to the reviewers that the proposed research is important and necessary, that the goals are appropriate for the principal investigator or team, that they address specific questions and that the expected return-on-investment is high. As you examine the proposals in your library, note where these ideas are addressed. Examine how much space the authors dedicate to each idea.

Now, drill down further. Inspect one aim in the Specific Aims. Although these are discipline-specific, each aim probably has a title that stands out with bolding or italics and starts with a verb (“assess”, “determine” or “define”, for instance). The text of the aim might include background information, a hypothesis, preliminary data, approaches and expected outcomes. This structure is likely to be repeated for all the aims.

See whether you can identify patterns for sections that have similar structures across several proposals. Although different funders have specific requirements, you will find that proposals are often similar at this elemental level, and you should seek to emulate this in your own proposals.

Assess word choice

Finally, give the text a closer read. Remember that top-tier grant writers can explain even complex ideas to non-experts. So, if you’re having trouble understanding the proposal, that’s probably a reflection of its quality rather than of your scientific comprehension. You will want to examine several proposals to identify a few that you find compelling and others that you find more difficult to read. Ask yourself: why is one easier to understand than others?

Look closely at word choice, such as the authors’ use of jargon and field-specific acronyms: both can make applications unapproachable and difficult to read. Do the authors use active verbs to convey their research goals, such as “determine”, “identify”, “define” or “discover”? Active verbs convey precision and action, which is important in science. Notice also how much more compelling “I will” is over “I plan to” or “I hope to”. Plus, it uses fewer words. For any data that are included in the proposals in your library, do the authors clearly explain how these data support their hypothesis or demonstrate that an approach is feasible? Effective grant-writing provides the reader with clear take-away messages.

For some funding opportunities, such as fellowships and career-development awards, it is crucial that you use “I/my” over “we/our” so that the reviewers unambiguously understand your contributions in the context of the wider project. Do the proposals you read make those distinctions clear?

Our experience suggests that following these steps leads to improved grant-writing and more compelling — and more frequently funded — grants. They should work for you, too. Good luck!