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Signposting for Success: Writing Tips for Funding Applications

by | Feb 20, 2017 | Advice, How to Write a(n)..., NSF, Nuts and Bolts, Proposal Writing 101, Proposal Writing Advice, Revising Your Proposal

No one likes being lost. Whether it’s looking for a classroom in a new building, visiting your great aunt in Pittsburgh for the first time, or trying to track down the fabled secret bowling alley in the basement of Loree Hall on Douglass Campus. After enough time searching, anyone is bound to get frustrated and give up. It’s important to remember this feeling when preparing a funding application, because it’s the last thing you want any member of the review panel to experience. All too often, if a reviewer doesn’t quickly understand how your proposal addresses the evaluation criteria of their award, it might not be long before he or she tosses your application onto the rejection pile. This is why signposting is so crucial to making your funding application competitive.

Any search—physical, intellectual, or otherwise—is better facilitated by clear and accurate signs that explicitly direct us to our destination. In the same way that street signs and GPS directions might help you find your way through an unfamiliar neighborhood, written “signposting” techniques will help reviewers navigate their way through your application by clearly describing your aims and explicitly outlining how your own work addresses the award’s evaluation criteria (also known as review criteria). To this effect, good signposting consists of phrases and formatting that highlight the most pertinent aspects of your application and address a reader’s questions before they turn into concerns.

Here are some words or phrases that might help signpost your application:

  • “This study aims to….”
  • “This dissertation argues that….”
  • “The main question addressed in this research is….”
  • “My research will begin by …. It will then go on to …. Ultimately, ….”
  • “This study addresses the role of [topic] by investigating ….”
  • “This research seeks to evaluate the impact of [your topic] in relation to….”

Other signposting techniques might include the following:

  • Creating headings that clearly articulate the main point of a section or paragraph.
  • Placing keywords in bold or italics to emphasize their importance. (But avoid using highlighting or unusually colored text, which can make your writing seem unpolished or unprofessional.)
  • Numbers (e.g. 1., 2. 3.), lists (e.g. First,… Second,… Third,….), or bullet points  to clearly present a set of arguments, goals, or accomplishments.
  • Spaces or indents, strategically placed, to create a sense of division or emphasis in your writing.

Where should the signposts lead the reader?

Remember that, unlike your academic papers and dissertation, the primary goal of your funding application is not necessarily to persuade readers why your work makes a meaningful contribution to the scholarship in your field. It is, instead, to persuade readers that your work matches the evaluation criteria of the funder and deserves to be funded. (Of course, many funders’ evaluation criteria might also require you to demonstrate how your work makes an important contribution to your field, but this factor should only be addressed if it is specifically required by the award.)

For this reason, it is imperative that you meticulously study the evaluation criteria of the funder to whom you are applying. Often these can be found on GradFund’s Knowledgebase, but to guarantee you get an up-to-date list of the evaluation criteria, you should visit the website of the funder itself or track down the solicitation it sends out several months before the application deadline. All your signposting should clearly point to one or more of these criteria.

As an example, take the National Science Foundation’s “Graduate Research Fellowship” (NSF GRF). If you navigate to the award website, you will find that it lists the following merit review criteria:

  • Intellectual Merit: the potential of your work to advance knowledge.
  • Broader Impacts: the potential of your work to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

If you are applying for this award, most of the signposting you use in your application documents should in some way help the reader understand how your work applies to these points.

Therefore, you might think of labeling one of your headings Intellectual Merit.Or perhaps you might start your paragraphs with topic sentences such as: “This study promises to have a broad societal impact by….”

Whatever you do, remember that your main goal is to be as clear as possible about why your work overlaps with the goals of the funder.

Good luck and happy signposting!

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