9 ways to Kill a Grant

Avoid these Top 9 Pitfalls of Unsuccessful Grant Applications


A 2012 study calculated that it took an average of 34 working days of researcher time to prepare a grant application.

That is a lot of time out of actually doing research! Combined with the increasing competitiveness and abysmal success rates, it is absolutely imperative that your grant application must stand out above all the rest.

It is easy to pick out the funding applications that will be unsuccessful.

9 sure-fire ways to ensure that your grant application is unsuccessful.

1. Ignore the Rules and Guidelines

The absolute #1 way to be unsuccessful is to ignore the funding rules.   You don’t’ need to give the reviewers any reason to exclude your application.  Don’t run the risk of having your application not meeting the eligibility rules.   Many times, these issues could have been fixed – if only the applicant had read the Rules/Guidelines.

Tip 1:

Take thirty minutes and read the instructions and scoring criteria.  Check the guidelines for any eligibility issues – age, experience (i.e. years post PhD), location etc.  Make sure your application ticks of all the requirements.

2. Start Late

Most funding deadlines are announced at least 6 months before the date and the major grants are normally always the same time every year.  One week before the deadline is not the time to find out that your premise or methods are deficient – or that you need an additional collaborator in an area where your expertise is lacking.

Tip 2: 

Start planning your outline of the grant proposal early.  Line up your collaborators that you will need to demonstrate expertise.

 3.  Let the reviewer figure out what your proposal is about.

Imagine trying to pick out a book to read with neither a title nor a synopsis on the back cover.  This is effectively what many grant applicants do.  Let’s just make the reviewing job even more difficult.

Oh excellent “No title”, said not one reviewer EVER!

Many applicants avoid a title because the title line uses up one whole line of text.  A title is the reviewers’ first impression and should summarise the proposal and contain the main keywords associated with the research.  The best applications repeat words or concepts in the title throughout the application, thereby driving their message home.

Another no-no is to take the reviewers on a journey through the nine+ pages of your proposal while they try to figure out why you are requesting funding. Your reviewer would be much happier (happy reviewer = better chance at funding) if they knew in the first 2 minutes of reading what the application is about.

Use the first paragraphs of the first page of your proposal to spell it out for the reviewers.   You need to “sell” your project to the reviewers!  Treat the application as a document in which you are marketing both yourself and the science.

The first third of the page should introduce the problems you are addressing, the overall hypotheses, why the work is important, the general experimental plan and the overall “big picture” impact of the research.  A perfect “abstract” would only be a few hundred words.

Tip 3:

Make sure the reviewer “gets it” and is excited about what is proposed, rather than infuriated by having to read to page 5 to find out what you are doing.


4.   Use up all the white space on the page with words and complex sentences

The success of funding is NOT directly proportional to the word count of a grant proposal.

Removing white space and having a densely worded proposal makes reading and understanding the text extremely difficult.  Reviewers’ eyes wander, they lose interest and they will move onto another proposal that is easier to read.

“A picture is worth a thousand words” so discuss with your graphics designer whether a simple graphic could easily convey your message.

Be succinct and elegantly present the concept in clear language.  This is not about “dumbing down” so your Grandmother can understand but writing in a manner that a colleague from an unrelated field will understand.

Most of your reviewers will speed read your proposal.  Complex sentences (more than 30 words or containing multiple verbs) are difficult to interpret and the reviewers may not understand your message.  Use shorter sentences that focus on one main idea.

Another sin is the overuse of BOLDING.  Bold or italicized text should be used to guide the reviewer to recognise important points.  If your page is full of bolded words- nothing stands out.

Tip 4:

Try to make your proposal pleasing to the eye.  Leave white space, limit complex sentences, use graphics where possible and use clear language.


 5.   Write only for the expert in your field. Use jargon, technical words and specialised acronyms

Assume that your reader knows everything you know, including all the specific jargon and technical details. It’s not your job to educate the reviewers or make the text easy to read.

This assumption will generally increase your chances of an unsuccessful funding result.

In reality, reviewers may be experts in their field but that does not mean that they are experts in your particular niche.

Acronyms are the enemy of grant reviewers.   Reviewers do have the time nor the patience to search through the text the acronym definition.  If it is an uncommon acronym, either spell it out again or don’t use it.

Tip 5:

Make your proposal as easy as possible to read.


6.   Ignore background information

You have decided to skip over the background information as you assume the reviewers are familiar with all the ins and outs in your research niche.

This is a fatal mistake.  Assume that your readers are uninformed but intelligent.

Your grant proposal is a very high-level sales plan.  You need to educate the reviewers and guide them slowly through the entire proposal.

Tip 6:

Provide enough information on “why” and “how” your proposal fits in with the current knowledge.


7.  Give the reviewers a mishmash of non-connected and over-ambitious aims

You are going to wow the reviewers with your extremely ambitious project and in five years you will single-handily cure cancer, eliminate infectious disease or solve world hunger (perhaps you are doing all 3??)

Proposals fail because:

i.     There are too many questions being answered

ii.    There is no connection between the hypothesis and the aims.

iii.   There are several aims none of which connect or relate to the questions.

iv.    The aims are overambitious.

These issues indicates to the reviewers that the project has not been thoroughly thought out and they may question your ability to achieve the outcomes.  According to the NCI, successful applications have on average two to four specific aims.

iv.    If Plan A Fails, Here Is Plan B…and Plan C and Plan D …

The aims should be related but independent of the successful outcomes of the previous aim.  Reviewers will not fund a project whose entire 2-5 years of work hinges on the success of Aim 1.

Tip 7: 

Define your aims. Develop your hypotheses to fit with your realistic aims. Design experiments to test your hypotheses within your budget and time allowed.


 8.  Annoy the reviewer with sloppiness and poor grammar

A sloppy, incomplete application – full of typos, grammatical or formatting errors gives the reviewers the impression that your research will be done in the same way.

Editing is crucial to polishing a grant application.  You have just spent months doing the last preliminary experiments, planning your proposal and writing the document.  Do not skip out on the editing and review process.  Have your colleagues read it. Have a family member or friend read it.  Get non-experts in a related field to read your grant to make sure they ‘get it’! Look into professional grant writing or editing services.  Have your proposal read by as many people as possible.

Editing is one crucial step that should not be ignored.  It’s more that than just dotting “i’s” and crossing “t’s”.  This step will ensure that your proposal meets all the eligibility criteria that it’s formatted correctly and will pick up any inconsistencies and redundancies.  The editing process should also correct any issues with the content, clarity, logic and flow.

 Tip 8: 

Remember this is a sales pitch.  The application needs to be polished.


 9.  Ignore constructive criticism and lash out at reviewer’s feedback

No one likes to be criticised.  But it is better to know the weaknesses of your application so that there is an opportunity to improve it.

If a colleague, research office staff or editor highlights an issue- don’t just dismiss their suggestions.  If they did not understand a concept, there is a good chance that one of your reviewers may have the same issue.  Try to re-write to clear up any misunderstanding.

If the funding body offers you the option of a rebuttal, you should consider your response as an important step of the application process.  Preparing a response is not about refuting every criticism or establishing intellectual superiority over the reviewers. You need to sift through the comments and identify the ones that matter. 

 Tip 9:

Have your application reviewed by colleagues and use their feedback to clear up any misunderstandings.  

Rebuttals can influence a panel, so make it count.


Why it’s important to “Sell” your grant. 

Grant funding is becoming more and more competitive, and the quality of your application can make or break your success.   

In the increasingly competitive world of grant funding you must “sell” your proposal.    



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