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Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding. Link to Part 1. Qualify for NIH Funding.Link to Part 2. Pick and Design a Project.Link to Part 3. Write Your Application.Link to Part 4. Submit Your Application.Link to Part 5. Assignment and Review.Link to Part 6. If Not Funded.Link to Part 7. Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Write the Research Strategy   ·   Strategy to Prepare the Forms and Just-in-TimeNext page in Strategy.

Master the Application

Make sure your application is formatted correctly and is visually appealing. Learn how to avoid application problems.

Before reading the information in this part, you may want to first read about planning the application in Part 2.

While this document is geared toward the basic research project grant, the R01, much of it is useful for other grants.

Table of Contents

Just the Facts

(This section has factual information only; for advice on this topic, go to Our Advice below.)

Follow all instructions in the SF 424 Application Guide—go to NIH's SF 424 (R&R) Application and Electronic Submission Information for the generic version or use the link in your funding opportunity announcement (FOA).

And always read the NIH Guide announcement, which has additional information you need. Should it differ from the generic SF 424 instructions, go with the Guide.

If you're applying in response to an RFA or institute-specific PA, make sure your application meets the initiative's objectives and special requirements.

Also know that your application must meet the initiative's objectives and special requirements. NIAID program staff will check your application, and if not responsive to the announcement, your application will be returned to you without a review.

NIH strictly enforces formatting and other requirements and may return applications that don't meet them.

Our Advice

(This section has advice only; you should also read the factual information above at Just the Facts.)

Follow Instructions

One of the most important pieces of advice we can give you when writing your grant is this: read and follow instructions to a tee. (Read more under Just the Facts above.)

NIH is on the lookout and may return your application to you if you try to evade page limits.

Show Good Form-atting

Because NIH may return your application if it doesn't meet all requirements, be sure to follow guidelines, including those for font and page limits.

Font. When it comes to font, legibility matters. Your application must be readable for both reviewers and electronic converters.

Here are the NIH requirements for PDF attachments:

  • Font size must be 11 points or larger (smaller text in figures, graphs, diagrams, and charts is acceptable).
  • Type density must be no more than 15 characters per linear inch, including characters and spaces.
  • Line spacing must be no more than six lines per vertical inch.
  • Text must be black (color text in figures, graphs, diagrams, charts, tables, footnotes, and headings is acceptable).

Page limits. Though you could probably go on and on about your research, you don't have that luxury here. You have limited space, so get to know your page limits, which you can find in the SF 424 Application Guide.

For an R01, the Research Strategy can be up to 12 pages, plus one page for Specific Aims. Don't pad other sections with information that belongs in the Research Plan. NIH is on the lookout and may return your application to you if you try to evade page limits.

For more advice on formatting, read the instructions. To get more help, contact the, one of NIH's Service Desks. If that's not enough to get you on your way, reach out to the person listed as the peer review contact in the FOA.

Does It Look Good?

Your reviewers have a multitude of applications to evaluate, so they'll appreciate one that's visually appealing and super user friendly.

You have just a few seconds to make a great first impression.

At the first glance, reviewers know whether they eagerly anticipate or dread reading your application. All the more reason it should be neat, well organized, and easy-to-read.

Keep in mind that your reviewers have a multitude of applications to evaluate, so they'll appreciate one that's visually appealing and super user friendly. Here's how to do that.

Divide into sections. Use headers to create structure and white space. Also, try breaking up text since blocks of uninterrupted text are depressing to look at. See for yourself at Example of Text Without Formatting in Part 3.

Guide with graphics. Graphics, timelines, and other visual elements help reviewers grasp a lot of information. Be aware, though, that some application parts, i.e., Project Summary/Abstract and Project Narrative, should be text only.

Label all materials clearly. Make it easy for reviewers to find information.

Edit and proofread. Your presentation—writing and appearance—can make or break your application, so eliminate typos and internal inconsistencies. And, since two or more sets of eyes are better than one, ask other people—including nonscientists—to read your application.

Head Off Problems

Make your application clear so your reviewers can understand what you're getting at.

Having a good presentation is important, but it'll get you only so far. As extra insurance, anticipate other potential hiccups that could stymie your application's success.

Here are some hurdles to keep in mind as you write.

Reviewers May Not "Get It"

Peer reviewers are knowledgeable, experienced scientists, but they don't know everything. Make your application as clear as possible so they can understand what you're getting at.

Problem: They may not get the significance of your proposed research.
Solution: Write a compelling argument.

Problem: They may not be familiar with all your methods.
Solution: Write to the nonexpert in the field.

Problem: They may not be familiar with your lab.
Solution: Convince them you can do the job.

Problem: They may get worn out from reading many applications.
Solution: Write clearly and concisely, and make sure your application is neat, well organized, and visually appealing. Leave out anything that is not absolutely critical.

Avoid Common Missteps

Who better than our peer reviewers to point out mistakes applicants make? Here are their lists.

Top Ten Reasons for Application Failure

  1. Poorly formatted, typographical errors, grammatical errors, lack of proofreading, or unappealing presentation.
  2. Insufficient preliminary data, or preliminary data do not support project's feasibility.
  3. Overly ambitious Specific Aims or Research Strategy.
  4. Unimportant question; lack of significance to the field or public health.
  5. Lack of investigator expertise or collaborators on the team.
  6. Lack of innovation or new ideas.
  7. Lack of a strong, original hypothesis and Specific Aims.
  8. Failure to identify potential pitfalls and lack of alternative approaches.
  9. Failure to demonstrate knowledge of the field (didn’t cite relevant papers or account for alternative viewpoints).
  10. Failure to request a study section or get advice on study section choice (so the application ended up in the wrong study section).

Here are some more mistakes that could cause your application to fail.

Design Issues

  • Methods unsuited to the objective.
  • Lack of focus in hypothesis, Specific Aims, or Research Plan.
  • Study not likely to produce useful information.
  • Problem more complex than investigator appears to realize.
  • Proposed project is a fishing expedition lacking solid scientific basis, i.e., no basic scientific question being addressed.
  • Insufficient statistical expertise either to design the project or conduct the research.
  • Proposed model system not appropriate to address the proposed questions.
  • Relevant controls not included.

Writing and Presentation Issues

  • Rationale for experiments not provided, i.e., why they are important or how they are relevant to the hypothesis.
  • Too little detail in the Research Plan to convince reviewers the investigator knows what he or she is doing.
  • Direction or sense of priority not clearly defined, i.e., experiments do not follow one another and lack a clear starting or finishing point.
  • Not clear which data were obtained by the investigator and which were reported by others.

You may also want to read our list of potential failures that can happen when your application arrives at the NIH Center for Scientific Review at NIH Checks Your Application in Ensure You Get the Right Assignments in Part 5.

Related Links

Strategy for NIH Funding
Navigation for the Strategy for NIH Funding.

Previous page in Strategy.Write the Research Strategy   ·   Strategy to Prepare the Forms and Just-in-TimeNext page in Strategy.

See the other sections of
Part 3. Write Your Application

Table of Contents for the Strategy

We welcome your comments, questions, or suggestions. Email

Last Updated April 22, 2016

Last Reviewed December 01, 2011