Tips & Tricks for Writing a Competitive Grant Application

1. Consult with your Research Officer early

The Research Officers (RO) in LA&PS are some of the most experienced research grant writing specialists at York. If you are planning to apply for external research funding, you should be in contact with your designated RO as early as possible in the application process, so they can help you prepare a competitive application. Your RO can guide you in the process of applying for external research funding, review application drafts, advise you on budget planning, help you target your proposal to the specific opportunity, identify special requirements for the application, and connect you to additional resources and research support personnel on campus, as needed.

2. Tailor the grant proposal to the specific opportunity

It is important that you ensure your grant application is tailored to map onto the specific evaluation criteria outlined by the funder, that your research aligns with the mandate and/or mission of the funding organization, and that it is targeted for the specific funding opportunity. Spend some time getting to know the funder’s aims, values, and priorities and invoke that language in your application.

3. Familiarize yourself with the grant guidelines and follow them

Once you confirm your eligibility for the funding competition and determine that your research matches the priorities of the funding body and/or the specific opportunity, familiarize yourself with the requirements and components of the application and follow them to the letter. Pay close attention to everything in the guidelines, including basic formatting, the sections required, the directives for each section, the evaluation criteria, and the adjudication process.  Grant writing is not a creative writing exercise and reviewers are often tasked with reading several grant applications at a time, so be kind to your reader(s) and they might just return the favour!

4. Know your audience and write the grant for them

Avoid jargon-filled language, arcane terms, and the overuse of acronyms in your proposals. Grant adjudication processes generally involve multi-stage review by both subject matter experts and a multidisciplinary panel, the latter of which makes the ultimate recommendations to the funder. This group can include academics from outside your discipline, as well as research experts from the public, private and/or not-for-profit sectors. It can be difficult to strike the right balance for each of these audiences, so having your RO and other non-expert colleagues read and comment on your proposal drafts will be invaluable for helping you communicate effectively with all these audiences.

5. Propose something that is novel and exciting

Clearly and succinctly convey the problem that your research addresses and how you will go about achieving your project’s aims and objectives. Make a compelling case for funding by telling the story of what is original about your research and why it matters. Emphasize its timeliness and relevance and how it will advance research, change thinking within or beyond your discipline, and be of value to potential users.

6. Align your objectives, with your activities and your budget

Take care to demonstrate that your research team, methodological and theoretical approaches, detailed work plan, and budget are suitable for helping you achieve your overall goals and objectives. Be explicit about plans during the various stages of the project and the steps you will take to ensure the project’s objectives are met. The increasingly competitive funding landscape in Canada means that funders are looking for a reason not to give you the funding, so taking the time to properly assess your resource needs and the associated costs is also critical. Present a budget that demonstrates sound project planning and justifies how the resources will help you achieve each objective of the proposed project. When budgeting, it is also essential that you carefully consult the funder guidelines on eligible expenditures, so that you avoid having your proposal deemed ineligible based on a technicality.

7. Be clear, concise and comprehensive

Write for clarity and concision, using topic sentences that clearly signal to the reader where you are going and what you will be doing. Grant writing is very different than academic writing for peer-review publication and you have very little space to communicate your pitch for funding, so every sentence needs to pull its weight and directly tie back to what is being proposed, why it is important, and how the work will be done. To make comprehension and assessment easier, you should also ensure that the proposal is presented in a visually appealing format that includes headings, lists, visuals, and charts, where appropriate.

8. Learn from your colleagues

Consult with colleagues who have applied successfully for research grants and/or who have experience reviewing grant applications (ideally for the same funding body or program). This will help you gain insights into how to write a successful grant, the grant review process, and the expectations and idiosyncrasies of the funder.

9. Expect to write multiple drafts of the application

Sometimes grant writing can feel more difficult than conducting the actual research! The key to producing a competitive application is to give yourself adequate time for multiple revisions, and for seeking out and being open to constructive feedback and advice from specialists in your field, non-specialists, research administrators, and friends or family who will review your grant proposal for clarity and feasibility.

10. Expect to be rejected sometimes and be prepared to learn from it

Even the most experienced researchers and grant writers are rejected sometimes, so you are not alone. While it can be disappointing having your application turned down after working so hard on it and waiting several months for the result, the best way to deal with the sting of rejection is to take pause, read the feedback you receive (or request some if it isn’t initially provided) and learn from it.  It is possible that with the right revisions you will be successful with the same funder in another year, or it may be that you determine your work is a better fit with another funder or funding program.