Keys to the Castle? Strategic Use of Sample Proposals

On more than one occasion during my time as a GradFund Fellowship Advisor, I have met with students who seem to hold winning sample proposals from previous competitions to an almost mythical regard. By cracking the code, analyzing the formula, figuring out the secret of these documents, these believers expect that they can surely unlock the key to their own success. Fortunately or unfortunately, there is no magic fairy dust attached to a winning sample, and making strategic use of such a document can be far less straightforward than some might imagine. The guidelines below will help you make the best use of sample proposals in your application writing process!

First, a few caveats:

Goals, guidelines, and prompts can change

Remember that the documents produced by an applicant for a previous year may no longer be appropriate during the following year’s competition. Award programs often change the guidelines given to applicants and reviewers from one year to the next, and may eliminate one essay or short answer prompt in favor of a new one. Even the goals of the award program can shift significantly over the life of a program due to changes in funding streams or funder priorities.

Competitions may vary

The number of awards given, number of applications received, or competitiveness of the applicant pool can change dramatically from one award cycle to the next. While program officers can sometimes alert applicants ahead of time to changes in the number of awards, the number and competitiveness of applications received in a given year is much more difficult to predict. Thus, while a given proposal may have been funded one year, the same proposal wouldn’t be guaranteed to win the next!

Applications include more than just a proposal

In many cases, the sample proposal you have available may only include the narrative itself. Responses to short answer questions, other supplemental materials, and especially the letters of recommendation attached to a proposal carry significant weight in the review process. In some cases, proposals that win don’t follow best practices, and proposals that don’t win, do.

Now, a few suggestions:

Evaluate structure and flow in context

One great way to approach understanding a sample proposal is to begin by reverse outlining the document. Consider the purpose of each individual paragraph by itself. Then, take a step back and consider the linkages between paragraphs and sections, and the overall structure and narrative flow. Consider all these elements of content and style in the context of the research proposal itself. How does the author build an argument for the value of his or her work, and appeal to the goals of the funder? How might you be able to construct an argument for your own work in a unique way, both step-by-step on a paragraph level, and through the overall document?

Consider a range of strategies

Grant applicants bring individualized strengths to their research projects, such as specialized training, interdisciplinary experience, language skills, preexisting collaborations, and so on. Similarly, each project may have strengths and weaknesses as well. Therefore, the strategies employed by one proposal writer to appeal to the funder’s goals may be completely different than those used by another, equally successful, applicant. While reading a sample proposal, consider what strategies the author has employed and why. Then, consider why those strategies work well in that specific context. Finally, begin to brainstorm your own unique strategies that will fit your own strengths and allow you to appeal to the funder in your own way!

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