The Most Common Errors Made in Research Proposals and Applications

Ineligible Proposal

The research subject falls outside of explicit program guidelines. When subject criteria are clearly delineated, this is an inexcusable error.

Failure to persuade the funder of three factors:

  1. what you want to do
  2. why you are qualified to carry out your research design
  3. why the topic is meaningful, of interest to the funder, and/or innovative

Deadlines weren’t met

This should be obvious. It is the responsibility of the candidate, not the funder, to ensure that materials are promptly submitted. Don’t assume that application deadlines are malleable unless explicitly confirmed by staff.

Instructions were not followed and/or all questions on the application form were not answered

Assume that instructions and questions are included for specific purposes and are not arbitrary. OBEY ALL PAGE LIMITS. For example, if the application instructions ask you to “summarize briefly your professional/academic activities,” don’t include a multi-page vita.


The funder is not convinced that the applicant knows what s/he wants to investigate. This is often indicated by the vagueness in the research questions posed or even the absence of research questions within the abstract and/or the body of the proposal.

Lack of clarity

Proposal is too wordy or too long. Jargon may be overused or misused.

Weak recommendations

Funders become cautious when letters of reference indicate that the writer is uninformed about the substance of the project and/or uses vapid, “boilerplate” language. Since most recommendations are confidential, this is the area of an application over which an applicant has least control. S/he can, however, take steps to ensure that her chosen recommenders are familiar with both the content of the proposal and his/her qualifications, thus enabling them to write intelligently — albeit no less critically — about both.

Lack of sufficient advance planning regarding funding schedules by candidate

Applicant’s proposal requests almost immediate funding with insufficient lag time. The result: by the date of award notification, the research project will be all but completed. Most foundations want to fund ongoing research, not retroactive reimbursement for work already finished.

Budget problems

. . . such as lack of specificity about expenses; unrealistic costs (either over- or under-budgeted); improper hidden expenses (e.g. for capital equipment); or a budget that “asks for the moon.”

Omitted or irrelevant supplementary materials

Applicant forgot to include essential supplementary materials (e.g., abstracts, charts, tables) to support the application or provided a surfeit of supplements. Applications fail when such material overwhelms rather than convinces the reviewer.

Sloppy presentation

Neatness counts! Your proposal represents you to the selection committee, particularly in instances (most often) where no personal interview occurs. The grantmaking organization may infer an incoherent mind from a scattered or messy proposal, so avoid the risk.

With the exceptions of the first three errors, none of the above items will eliminate your chances for a successful application. By paying careful attention to the issues mentioned above, you can maximize your chance at the “brass ring” while avoiding some of the mistakes commonly made by grantseekers.

Adapted from How to Get Money for Research, by Mary Rubin, The Feminist Press, 1989.