How Do I Craft a Strong Application? 

This post is part of a series outlining NIGMS research priorities, funding opportunities, and the grant application process. You can read more posts in this series and sign up to receive all future posts delivered straight to your inbox.

You’ve determined that you’re conducting research related to the NIGMS mission and have found a notice of funding opportunity (NOFO) you’d like to apply to. Now it’s time to craft your application.

There are many resources providing guidance on what to include in an NIH funding application. We recommend reviewing our grant writing webinar series, which discusses faculty readiness and submission considerations, as well as determining whether a funding opportunity is right for you and writing a competitive application. NIH’s Write Your Application webpage also includes valuable guidance.

In this post, we offer additional pointers on timing and planning your application, soliciting feedback, and writing with your reviewers in mind.

Timing and Planning

To craft a strong application, reflect on the writing process and how it fits your schedule. It takes time to write, collaborate, get feedback, revise, proofread, and finalize an entire application. You may also want to consider allowing time to resubmit, if possible (see the NIH blog post “Are You On the Fence About Whether to Resubmit?”).

Thus, it’s important to understand timelines. First, be aware of all deadlines. Here are some important deadlines to plan around.

  • NIH grant application deadline: You can find this under “Key Dates” of a NOFO; it’s typically 5:00 p.m. local time of the applicant organization. However, it’s always a good idea to submit earlier than the deadline date, allowing time to fix errors that the system may catch.
  • Internal organization deadlines: These are often necessary to get requisite signatures and approvals from your administration. Establish early communication with your sponsored programs (or similar) personnel, as well as offices at any collaborating institutions, to understand expectations.
  • Letter deadlines: If the NOFO requires letters of support or letters of recommendation, make sure you request these well in advance.
  • Self-imposed deadlines: Develop a schedule to reach writing milestones. Include time for reading, writing, receiving peer feedback, and revising.

We also recommend considering how you write best. Blocking out time on your calendar might help, as could forming a writing group to help you stay accountable, maintain a schedule, and share experiences.

Finding Feedback Support

Forming a feedback team of people who support your success can be beneficial to your process. A feedback team can help you polish ideas, strengthen specific areas in your proposal, and edit and proofread drafts. It’s better to have your team identify areas of concern before your reviewers do! Build a multifaceted feedback team of subject matter experts and nonexperts. Make sure some people can read multiple drafts.

You may ask your feedback team to focus on specific questions, NOFO review criteria, or self-identified weaknesses. For example, ask the subject matter expert to comment on the significance of the proposal to the field or whether your work shows rigor and reproducibility (per NIH guidance). On the other hand, you can ask a nonexpert  to focus on whether the application is clearly and logically written.

Seeking input throughout the entire writing process can help to ensure the feedback is meaningful and actionable. A common mistake is to wait until a near-final draft is ready before asking for feedback. This is unproductive if comments point to major changes to the questions, aims, or writing. For more information, check out our brief videos on forming a feedback team and getting helpful feedback.

Writing With Your Reviewers in Mind

Expert scientists called a scientific review group (aka a study section) will review your application. Scientific review officers (SROs) assemble a review panel that will score your application, and this panel might span a wide range of scientific knowledge, academic backgrounds, and expertise. SROs instruct reviewers to use the published review criteria in the NOFO to guide their critiques, so always consider the NOFO guidance carefully when writing.

One reviewer is assigned multiple applications. Panelists are just like you; they have their own research priorities, teaching commitments, and personal considerations. Therefore, a well-written, well-planned application that emphasizes your points clearly is more likely to resonate with a reviewer.  See our short video, Getting Reviewer’s Attention: Practices for Effective Grant Writing, for more.

NIH’s Center for Scientific Review (CSR) reviews many research project grant applications and has posted mock panels that illustrate how reviewers will discuss your application. In addition, CSR has a program that allows early career investigators to be a member of an NIH review panel, and NIGMS just launched a reviewer volunteer form. Our short video, The NIH Funding Decision Process, provides a great summary of what happens as your application goes through review.   

Finding What Works for You

Planning around important deadlines, soliciting feedback early and often, and constructing a clear, well-written application with the NOFO and reviewers in mind can help you craft the best application. Use the resources we’ve shared, follow best practices, and discuss with colleagues throughout your writing process. And we can’t emphasize this enough: Start early!

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