Grant Proposal: Avoiding Common Errors

By April 18, 2019 April 21st, 2019 Grant Writing, Health Sciences Research

Over the years obtaining research funding has become increasingly tough and competitive what with the limited grant availability and bombardment of manuscripts and proposal applications. Nonetheless, it is important for an investigative scientist to secure grant support in order to establish a successful research career.

In today’s competitive research environment, however, just a novel or creative idea will not secure the funding for a research project. Most funding agencies, such as the National Institute of Health (NIH), require researchers and scientists to submit grant proposals describing the aims, goals, data, detailed methods as well as potential impact of their project on healthcare (Chung and Shauver, 2008). An investigator’s proposal, therefore, must stand out of the rest and convince the reviewers it will produce the meaningful results benefitting the medicinal, clinical and biomedical research as a whole.

Writing a flawless grant application is fundamental to making an impact because certain types of deficiencies and mistakes negatively influence grant scores and can seriously hamper your odds of being funded. Evidence shows that grant reviewers do not want to struggle with a poorly-written grant because they are time-consuming and, simply put, annoying. The reviewer would simply move on to the next and better application. (Chung, Giladi and Hume, 2015).

Common Grant Writing Errors you need to be mindful of:

1.     Formatting Errors – When You Forget/Neglect Reading Formatting Guidelines of the Funding Agency

This is one of the most recurring errors. At times, a grant applicant may write the application haphazardly ignoring the formatting and organizational, and aesthetic guidelines stipulated clearly by the funding agencies.

The NIH, for instance, has set basic rules on the page margin, font sizes, and figures, which you should see before writing the proposal.

These instructions are so simple and legible, yet most grant writers fail on the basics. As a result, it accounts for most of the application rejections. The viewer will not even bother reading your proposal if it fails to meet the basic format rules.

Some of the most common organizational errors are:

  • Irregular Font: such as small or compressed font to save space
  • Long, Unbroken Paragraphs: with information overload and no breathing spaces
  • Illegible Figures or Tables: where illustrations are so minimized, it becomes difficult to review them
  • Use of Jargon: such as complicated technical terms, non-spelled acronyms, vague claims, and trendy vocabulary. This one is an unpardonable sin in grant writing and definitely does not impress the reviewer.

The NIH has specified the:

  • Font to be at least 12 point
  • Page margins at least half an inch
  • Figures large enough to be legible and decipherable
  • Information organized into several sections
  • Prose to be simple and story-like

The NIH has even set page limit and word count for Fellowship (F-series), Individual Career (K-series), Training (T-series) and Research (R-series) awards to make things simpler and understandable.

All in all, the application should not be an eye-sore. It should look neat, organized and aesthetic. Furthermore, it ought to have an outline, where information is presented in a logical train of thoughts. This will make it easier for the reviewer to navigate through the application, find the key information and absorb the crux of the proposal.

2.     Uncertainty, Vagueness & Dullness – Your Application Being Too Bland & Insipid & Lacking Clarity

A well-written grant proposal tells a bewitching tale that captivates the reader. The reviewer, being the reader, should be curious about what happens next. The “Background/Significance” of the proposal should reveal the plot of the story making the reviewer dig deep to find out more. The questions you propose in the “Specific Aims” should give away parts of the story and reveal the context.

Bare the details of the story in the heart of the application – “Research Design and Methods.” By the time the reviewer reaches this section, he will be prepared for the most technical part of the proposal appropriately and neatly structured and assembled for him.

Your application is your story; tell it interestingly.

String it like beads in a rosary so that it has a natural rhythm and cadence to it. The ultimate goal of your application is to convince the reviewer that you have what it takes to conduct fruitful and meaningful research with the potential to contribute to healthcare. You should be able to sell and market your story. Work on it.

Some of the common mistakes grant applicants make are:

  • Providing detailed and exhaustive information in the “Background & Significance” section. The reviewer is not impressed by the depth of your knowledge, but by your thinking and prioritization.
  • Listing parts of application irregularly. If parts of the story do not fit together to make a great tale, it loses the audience.
  • Cluttering the application with details. Too much information distracts and annoys the reader.
  • Making “Specific Aims” section unnecessarily long. The NIH states clearly this section should not be longer than a page.
  • Being too dull with the “Statement of Need.” If there is one place for earnestness and passion in the grant application, it is the Statement of Need. The reviewer wants to see how passionate you are for your research and career. Show your true colors and vigor here. If you do not sell your story convincingly here, chances are you may not be funded no matter how articulate or factual rest of your proposal is.

On its website, the NIH has provided a clear roadmap to develop a strong and high-quality grant application to catch the reviewer’s eye. Following these form-by-form and field-by-field instructions step by step will surely increase your overall impact score.

3.     Not Defining the Problem Clearly or Talking Mainly about the Problem, Not the Solution

Despite application outlines stipulated clearly by the funding agencies, many grant seekers miss out on one thing or another and get disqualified. A little research into it reveals that the mistakes are actually minor and can easily be avoided in the first place by getting a peer- or editorial review. (Buckeridge, de Oliveira and dos Santos, 2017)

One obvious problem is ambiguity; many applications are unfocused, ill-defined or non-specific with the problem not well-articulated or explained. It fails to provide a clear picture. This lack of coherence does not bode well with the reviewer who is looking for a strategic and well-thought-out plan and solution to an exasperating clinical condition.

Another problem with many applications is that applicants start educating the reviewers. This is a fallacy that you need to be mindful of. The reviewers are highly educated and practicing professionals with knowledge far more than you. Your proposal should show that while you are aware of the problem, you are more focused on the solution. It is your plausible solution that will ultimately win you the award.

At times, the applicants get too emotional or lengthy about the problem and not the solution. The success rate of the application depends more on the clear-cut solution and not on the detailed problem.

4.     Application Lacking Preliminary Data (PD)

Save a few (such as R03 and R21); most grant applications require preliminary data. The preliminary data demonstrate the feasibility of your research and make your case strong, particularly for R01 grant seekers. It has two purposes:

  • To support the scientific basis of a project
  • To demonstrate that the researcher possesses the capability of conducting the research

Problems arise when applicants:

  • Fail to provide a clear source of data. Applicants sometimes confuse between data in the ‘Preliminary Data’ section and ‘Background and Significance’ section. For R-series, research data should be mentioned in the PD section. This data should come directly from your own laboratory. For K and F series, the source of data should be the laboratory of the mentor.
  • Include Complicated Figures/Tables: As a general rule, the more the tables and figures, the better the application. However, the problem arises when the applicant inundates the application with complicated multiple-armed figures, tables, and illustrations making multiple points. This is frustrating to the reviewer who extracts most of the information from the figures. The figures and tables should be many but simple and legible.

5.     Miscellaneous Problems with Different Sections of Grant Application

The NIH has enlisted some of the most common grant application mistakes linked with specific parts and sections of applications. A quick look will help avoid them altogether.

Majority of the rejections occur when specific data are missing in the following sections:

  • Specific Aims: lack clarity and goals or are overambitious, unfocused, and uncertain
  • Significance: study or proposal does not offer a valuable addition to science or lacks impact
  • Investigator(s): lack expertise, a history of publications, or collaborators
  • Innovations: study or project not innovative
  • Approach: impractical approach, cluttered information application lacking alternate hypothesis, preliminary data, and interpretation of data
  • Environment: lack of necessary equipment, institutional support or collaborators. Institutional support is paramount to securing grants. It demonstrates that your project will be sustained and supported in the future.
  • Budget: use of incorrect modular budget form, inadequate budget plan, unjustified budget shifts

Furthermore, proofreading is absolutely necessary and should be the final step of writing the grant application. Making a proofreading checklist will help to omit even the minutest error. The list should verify:

  • Grammatical or typing mistakes
  • Whether facts support the statement of need
  • Whether the project plan syncs with your goals
  • Whether titles and headings go with the scope
  • Whether references and citations are accurate

Finally, all investigators planning or submitting their applications to the NIH or other funding agencies should go through online forums discussing causes of grant rejection. By thoroughly addressing the common mistakes, they will be able to craft an immaculate application and increase their chances of obtaining funding.


  1. Chung, K.C., & Shauver, M.J. (2008, April). Fundamental principles of writing a successful grant proposal. J Hand Surg Am, 33(4), 566-72.
  2. Chung, K.C., Giladi, A.M., & Hume, K.M. (2015, February). Factors Impacting Successfully Competing for Research Funding: An Analysis of Applications Submitted to The Plastic Surgery Foundation. Plast Reconstr Surg, 135(2), 429e–435e.
  3. Buckeridge, M.S., de Oliveira, D.M., & dos Santos, W.D. (2017, February 2). Ten Simple Rules for Developing a Successful Research Proposal in Brazil. PLoS Comput Biol, 13(2), e1005289.

Author Shuhan He MD

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