What happens to your application after you press “submit?” Does it disappear into a black box that processes your materials according to some complex algorithm and spits out a list of winners automatically after a predetermined waiting period? Does it even matter, since the application is beyond your control by then anyway? In fact, the review process for your award program is probably not all that mysterious after all, and it literally pays to understand it before you submit the application- or even before you write it!
There are three common types of details that you should look for when investigating this process: review criteria, audience, and steps. Review criteria constitutes the specific ways in which your application will be judged, and are often the most easily distinguished of the three types of details. Review criteria may be explicitly listed on the award website or guidelines, and are sometimes packaged with eligibility criteria or embedded within the program goals (i.e., an award program intended to support evolutionary biology likely evaluates grant applications largely on the proposed research’s capacity to advance current debates or concerns in evolutionary biology). If the review criteria are not listed, and the award program does not explicitly state its purpose, you will need to go deeper to understand your funder as a whole to decipher what they are looking for.
The review audience for a proposal is a critical concern from the author’s perspective, since the application should be easily understood by, and should appeal to, the people reading it. Some award programs maintain a review committee, some or all of whose identities may be posted on their website. Other funder guidelines describe the general profile of a typical reviewer, such as distinguished scholars in Early American Studies, faculty from a variety of social science and humanities disciplines, professionals and policy makers in agriculture, general members of a women’s organization, or even the executors of an estate. Even if the website does not give specific details about the reviewers, you may be able to make an educated guess about who is likely to read your application. For example, if you are applying to an archival grant program at a specific library, reviewers are likely to be archivists or scholars affiliated with the institution.
Finally, the review process may involve more than one discrete step, each with different relevance to the way you prepare your materials. For example, if an award program prescreens applications to make sure that each has a question and hypothesis, you will want to use bolding or underlining to be sure that your question and hypothesis cannot be missed. If a set of short-answer questions are evaluated first, and only high-scoring applications are forwarded for review of the proposal itself, you will want to make sure you devote as much effort to the short-answer question responses as you do to crafting the proposal. If the application is reviewed first by panels in your field, and then by an interdisciplinary panel, GradFund suggests tailoring your introduction and conclusion to the interdisciplinary audience, and the middle of the proposal for readers in your field. Sometimes the steps of the review process are mentioned on the website or guidelines, and sometime not.
If any of these three types of details are not given in the application materials, or if you have any questions about your understanding of them, you should definitely contact the program officer, program administrator, or other program official to ask. Then, keep this deep understanding of the review process in mind as you draft your application, and be sure to explain it to everyone who gives you feedback on the documents you have produced, including your faculty advisor and your GradFund Fellowship Advisors!