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Sponsored Project Administration - SPA

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The Office of Sponsored Programs is grateful to our colleague for preparing and allowing us to present his article on proposal writing:

Dr. David R. Hemenway
Professor Emeritus
University of Vermont
Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

How to Improve Your Score When Submitting a Grant Proposal

How would you like to improve you priority score by 50 to 100 points or more?? The following commentary is based on factors totally unrelated to the science of your proposal but which will definitely cause your priority score to deteriorate unless you pay heed to the items listed. Ignore them if you like, but it will still impact (negatively) on your priority score.

Note: All word processors come with spell checkers. Use them!!! Poor grammar and mis-spelled words indicate a sloppy proposal and possibly sloppy work during the investigation.


1) While there is a space limitation, be reasonable in attempting to squeeze in as much information as possible. As an example, don't use 8 pt or even 10 pt proportional fonts and run tight to the margin limitations. Instead, reword the abstract and try to use 12 pt proportional type. It is more important that the abstract be readable and have a good general description which agrees with the body of the proposal rather than have every last, detailed fact included.

2) Try to avoid using first person pronouns. Instead of saying "I (we) will measure the efficacy of ..." try rewording the sentence structure to read "The investigator(s) will measure the efficacy of ...". The above two comments apply to the body of the grant as well.

3) It doesn't hurt to restate, in shortened format - if possible, the specific aims or objectives of the project in the abstract even though you will be stating them in the body of the proposal.


Numerous problems occur with grant budgets with the predominate feature: lack of justification in both the budget justification pages AS WELL AS in the body of the grant. Remember, the budget justification can be carried over on to continuation pages and does not count towards the page limitations in the body of the grant

I. Personnel:

If a person is listed under the personnel section of the budget then you should devote at least 2-3 sentences telling why this individual's time commitment is absolutely essential. Don't bother to include administrative assistants or secretaries since these persons will probably be automatically rejected by the reviewers unless there are highly extenuating circumstances. If a person is listed as an investigator then (s)he must have a BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH using the NIH format in the proposal. As an example of a poor justification: "Dr. Johnson will analyze all data associated with the investigation." A better justification might read: "Dr. Johnson (10% effort requested) will be directly responsible for statistical analyses of data collected in experiments 1-3 which are directly tied to specific aims 3 & 4. Dr. Johnson will also be responsible for writing all progress reports and supervising the laboratory technician." The second example clearly ties the investigator and the technician into key aspects of the investigation.

II. Consultants:

Be sure that there is a letter from each consultant on letterhead stationary agreeing to specifically participate in your project. The project title should be directly mentioned in the letter. It also helps to include a Biographical Sketch of the consultant even though this is not required in some types of proposals. By adding the Biographical Sketch you will provide the reviewer with the better information as to why this person is qualified as a consultant on this project.

2) Justify the consultants. Why do you need 100 hours of the consultant's time - why not 50 hours? What is the basis for estimating this time commitment? Will the consultant be used in all years of the project (why)?\ 3) Generally investigators from the same institution cannot be paid as consultants (i.e., extra salary compensation) for investigations originating from the same institution.

III. Equipment:

This is an area which is typically poorly addressed in most proposals. The equipment request must be seen as clearly needed for this investigation and essential for the conduct of the investigation. Forget office equipment. If you want a computer, which is a reasonable request, don't ask for a $15,000-$20,000 workstation if all you are doing in the body of the scientific investigation is occasional word processing or plotting data once in awhile. Remember that the resources section should list what you currently have for equipment which is directly relevant to the proposal. Therefore, why do you need a new computer, spectrophotometer, etc. when you clearly have access to one otherwise how did you type the proposal or obtain the preliminary data? Why do you need that $6,000 computer with 64 mB of RAM, 2 GB hard drive and 200 MHZ PentimumPro. processor when you don't clearly demonstrate in the body of the grant that you will be handling anything more significant than typing a few papers and plotting a few graphs. Similar comments apply to printers and other equipment. A good approximation is: what would you make your son or daughter provide you with information before you would give them that amount of money?

IV. Supplies:
Requested supplies should be broken into categories and justified both in the justification page(s) as well as by description within the body of the proposal. Be sure that the numbers in the budget request agree with what's in the body of the proposal. For example:
  • 120 rats @ $15.60 ea. = $1872
  • Animal housing (120@$0.60/day*50 days)=$3600.00
  • Amount Requested = $5472.00

"120 Fischer 344 male rats from Harlan-Sprague Dawley, Fredericksburg, MD (purchase price 100-125 g = $13.50 ea. plus insurance and shipping @ $2.10/rat = $15.60 ea.). These animals will be used for specific aims 1,2,3-6 with 60 experimental and 25 controls and 5 for health status assessment. Estimated, average stay in animal facility is 50 days (range from 2-15 weeks - make sure these times agree with the time frames specified in the experimental design of the proposal)". In general, you don't need to break the categories down to anything less than $1,000-$500. Just listing a bulk-figure request leaves you wide open for suggested budget cuts by the reviewers.

V. Travel:

Do not bother to request funds for multiple investigators to attend national meetings. You will automatically be reduced to $1,200 for one investigator for one year. Local travel must be justified by indicating the mileage, trips and average costs for meals and motels in the area. Requesting highly inflated figures will probably result in the reviewers removing more than you want. Travel overseas as well as local travel should be clearly demonstrated as essential to the specific aims of the project. Why can't this investigation be carried out locally, i.e., no travel?

VI. Other:

Do not bother to include requests for telephones/FAX unless, in the body of the proposal, you clearly show that you will be performing extensive telephone interviews, transferal of data between multiple sites, etc. Costs for publication charges should be kept within reason based on your past publication rate and journal charges. What is the justification for publication charges during the first year if it will take you most of the year to get everything running and generate reliable data? If you request funds for maintenance contracts then it should be clear exactly what proportion of the maintenance contract is dedicated to this project. In other words, if the GC mass spec will only be used for 10% of the time for this project don't try to obtain 50 or 100% of the maintenance contract.

VII. Subcontracts:

The same degree of justification as used for the main budget should apply here. Do not bother to include travel for investigators to national meetings in the subcontract since it may generally be recommended for removal by the reviewers.

Biographical sketch:

The NIH format used for the Biographical Sketch is standardized and commonly used by many granting agencies. Be sure to list year degrees were granted. Reviewers tend to pay little attention to conference proceedings, attendance at meetings. The greatest weight is applied to refereed journal publications that have BEEN PUBLISHED or are IN PRESS in good quality publications which are directly related to the proposed research. If you claim 150 papers then you should certainly provide a list of more than 10 refereed papers in recent years. Papers in recent years (general rule of thumb, within the past 5 years) even when not relevant to the investigation are important to list to clearly demonstrate productivity and the willingness to get results into print.

Other support:

It is essential that you list other support for all existing and pending grants and contracts. In many cases reviewers may be aware of your participation in a project (because a co-investigator may have submitted a project which has wound up in the same study section for review). It then becomes highly suspicious when an investigator is near or over 100% commitment to existing and pending grants and "forgets to list a few". Be sure that you address issues of scientific or budgetary overlap, specially if you are showing a potential for greater than 100% commitment if you should be so lucky as to have all your projects completely funded.


It is rare that an investigator's resources are found to be inadequate for the conduct of the investigation but it does happen. List all equipment that is available which will be essential for the conduct of the proposed investigation. You may wish to further indicate availability such that it supports equipment requested in the budget. For example: "Beckman XXX UV-Vis spectrophotometer is available on a temporary basis. However, it is committed to projects OH00341 & ES00952 - see Other Support pages - and will not be available for the time necessary for this project except in emergencies." It is not necessary to list every piece of glassware, thermometer or chemical available in your lab.

Body of the grant:

All grants must start from a set of fundamental research objectives that represent a new, scientifically sound investigation. The following are some general do's and don'ts.

1) There is a page limitation on most grant proposals. Do not try to push the page limit by:

a) using appendices to extend your proposal;

b) using small, proportionally-spaced type, single spaced with imbedded graphics and the text at the limit of the margins and graphics or tables.

Appendices should be used to attach papers that are not yet published or papers that are in somewhat unavailable journals. Including additional data, graphs, descriptive test, etc. gives the appearance of attempting to by-pass the limit. Reviewers may choose to legitimately ignore appendices taking the tack: if it isn't in the body of the proposal, it doesn't exist. All reviewers are human (strange as it may seem) and find it very irritating when a proposal attempts to squeeze in too much text in the page limitation. As a result, your priority score may suffer. You are far better off using a more comfortable to read 12 point font with indented paragraphs.

2) Not all grants get funded upon first submission. If you decide to resubmit a proposal it is absolutely essential that you provide a discussion of each point raised in the "Pink" sheets. Any changes in the resubmitted project should be either bold-faced, underlined, or italicized or set off from the surrounding text in a clearly delineated fashion. It is best to list each point, accept/reject the recommendation and discuss why and indicate where appropriate changes have been made in the proposal. The importance of this aspect cannot be adequately emphasized! You would be astounded at how many proposals are resubmitted without even acknowledgment of the previous review.

3) Clearly state the goals, objectives, and hypotheses at the earliest possible point in the proposal. It doesn't hurt to highlight them (i.e., bold-face, italics, etc.). Then be sure to show how the methods will be linked to obtaining data related directly to the specific objectives.

4) All measurements typically involve variability. Whether these are measurements of exposure to Polycylic Aromatic Hydrocarbons or personal questionnaires assessing individual perceptions of an event or activity. As a result, one of the weakest sections of most proposals is the statistical experimental design to assure adequate number of samples will be evaluated. While it is difficult to predict the exact number of experiments needed in an investigation where the results of the first series of experiments will determine which or what experiments will follow it is essential to estimate the overall numbers of measures to be made. This is vital for justifying the time line of the investigation as well as demonstrating to the reviewer that you are clearly aware of the extent and problems of the experiments to be undertaken. Do not assume that because you have had a statistics course and have a statistical software package on your computer that you have either an adequate statistical experimental design or have determined the correct statistical procedures for evaluation of your data. The following is obvious but suprisingly common: if you have a statistician on the proposal as a consultant or co-investigator be sure (s)he reads the grant before it is submitted.

5) Clearly show a time line. It is best if you can, in the body of the proposal, indicate which experiments would be made during which months/years of the investigation and then summarize these with a table or bar diagram showing the time line referenced to the specific goals.

6) Be as logical and "linear" in the presentation of your specific aims, goals, hypotheses and the methods necessary to provide the data needed to meet the aims and the anticipated results. Reviewers tend to downgrade a potentially good idea if the investigator(s) fail to provide a logical sequence of events; proposals which are presented as a random order of events or procedures typically receive much worse scores than proposals which are clear how and WHY the investigators are going from step A to step B to step C.

7) If you are going to work with hazardous materials or procedures it is essential to discuss how you will protect yourself and your personnel. This specific area can directly result in a non-fundable priority score.

Human subjects:

Of the many pitfalls in writing a grant another major one is the failure to adequately address the involvement of human subjects and a correlated one is related to adequately addressing the distribution of minorities and women in the project. Failure to address this specific topic will automatically eliminate any possibility of funding regardless of how outstanding the research and grant proposal may be! If you are even going to talk to a human subject you must undergo IRB approval. If you are going to just look at data and there is even the remotest chance that a specific individual can be accidentally identified within the data set you must have IRB approval. If you are developing a exposure sampling methodology and plan to field test it by having the device worn by a worker you must have IRB approval. If you are in doubt, seek IRB approval just in case. Assuming that you have human subjects then you must deal with the issues of recruiting women and minorities into the study section. It is not adequate to state that "no individual will be discouraged from participation in this study based on race or sex". You must estimate the number of potential males and females within the study population as well as the number or percentages of individuals in the various racial groups. Obviously there is very little that can be done to recruit Afro-Americans in a study of workers in china. Nor is it appropriate to attempt to recruit women into an epidemiological study on prostate cancer. However, you must still state the percentages and then state the obvious (i.e., who you are going to recruit, why and how).

Last modified June 22 2011 02:04 PM

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