Pavithra Madamarandawala

Tips for Writing a Successful Grant Proposal

By Pavithra Madamarandawala

Developing a successful grant proposal is challenging. One must know how to sell the idea to the reviewers using a logically organized story. Over the past few months, I submitted several grants. In preparation, I listened to many webinars, YouTube videos, read articles, and talked to experts. Here are the top tips I learned during the process.

Read the guidelines multiple times

Depending on the grant awarding institute, the guidelines may contain links to additional information. Be sure to follow and read these as well. Careful reading of all the guidelines and taking notes is one of the top recommendations of previous grant winners. While going through the guidelines, here are some criteria to consider before investing your time on writing the grant.

  • Eligibility: Even though the scope of the grant perfectly aligns with your idea, it might be open only to a certain subset of people. Therefore, eligibility is the first criteria one should check out.
  • Ask yourself if your idea fits well into the opportunity and is competitive enough: See if the impact of your work can contribute to the mission of the grant awarding institute. Unless you have a strong hook(s), it might not be worth spending time on something where you have to forcefully fit your idea into the application.
  • Time check: Check the deadline and think carefully whether you and other third-party personnel associated with your grant have sufficient time to prepare the documents needed.
  • Resource check: Some grants may provide total expenses, however, some do not. You should think whether you or your team have resources (including experienced personnel) to complete the proposed work including those not funded by the grant.
  • Clarify questions: If you have questions, clarify them well in-advance by contacting the grant awarding institute. Also, consider getting advice from previous winners of the grant you are applying to. If possible, request and read their grant proposals. Even if you do not have questions, go through the ‘frequently asked questions’ section, if available. This might resolve any misunderstandings or raise further questions.

Have brainstorming sessions with experts and non-experts

Your idea might be impressive. However, others can help provide additional perspectives. Discuss it with your colleagues or experts in the field. They will check if the science is right and help you to identify errors that you have not previously encountered. They may also help assess if you are being too ambitious.

 Allocate time

A grant application is not just the main grant proposal. It may require additional material such as letters of recommendation, your resume, signatures and/or letters from university or third-party personnel, proof of resources, career development plan, and timeline. Your grant submission may be considered incomplete if any of the requested material is missing. Make sure that everyone involved knows what they have to do and when they have to do it. Also, reserve time in the schedule to collect feedback from others and proof-read the grant. Send your final draft to experts and non-experts well in advance to give them enough time to provide good feedback.

Make your proposal presentable

Reviewers are busy people. They are likely reading many grant proposals and would appreciate an easy-to-read document. Below are useful tips for writing a winning grant.

  • Before writing, set up the word document to match the required formats (font size, spacing, margin etc.) to avoid any issues that may arise at the end such as page limit.
  • Build a story. Consider including preliminary data and/or previous research which may add strength to your story. The reviewers will also look for expected results, whether you have considered potential problems and alternative strategies.
  • Add headings and sub-headings.
  • Use logical numbering to call-out objectives and goals.
  • Bring the important facts (such as hypothesis, research question, significance, innovativeness, and evaluation criteria) into attention of the reviewer by either underlining them, using italics or bold font.
  • Short sentences are easier to grasp.
  • Include figures and/or tables where applicable.
  • Be consistent. Specially in the usage of abbreviations and tense.
  • Do not crowd the document. Allow adequate space between paragraphs/sections and consider bullets rather than a text heavy paragraph.

Re-assure the completeness and correctness of the application before submission

  • Proof-read before submission! The final documents should be free of typos and punctuation errors. Consider sending your final draft to experts and non-experts to get feedback on the correctness of both science and grammar.
  • Make sure that you have met all requirements and used the correct format. Use the evaluation criteria as your final checklist.

Want to learn more?

NIH grant writing guidelines

Punctuation cheat sheet


Pavithra Madamarandawala Pavithra Madamarandawala received her BS in Microbiology in India, MS in Biotechnology and MPhil in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Sri Lanka. Currently, she is a PhD student majoring cell and molecular biology at University of Missouri – St. Louis. Her research focuses on the regulation of Parkinson’s disease associated genes by Pumilio proteins and microRNAs.