I recently had the opportunity to serve as a peer reviewer for a national fellowship competition. It was an interesting and even enjoyable experience and in this post, I would like to share with you some of the things that I learned while serving as a reviewer. Every review process is different and there are many things that I encountered that are unique to the program. Here, I would like to share with you some generalizable points about the process that should be useful to you as you craft your application materials.
Keeping in mind that every review process is different, when you start to work on an application, it is always a good idea to talk with the program officer and to ask about the review process: What is the process? Who serves as a reviewer? What are the evaluation criteria? Is it a multi-tier process? Answers to all of these questions will help you to better understand your audience and how to most effectively present your materials.
There are some key points that you should always keep in mind about the review process while you are crafting your application materials. These include understanding the mechanics and logistics of the review process and what the reviewers are looking for in an application.
The Mechanics and Logistics of the Review Process
When I agreed to serve as a reviewer, it seemed like a great idea: give back, learn, see what the students are doing. In reality, suddenly, at the end of the semester I received an email with detailed instructions on how to start the on-line review process. And then reality sunk in: I don’t have time for this activity. Additionally, the process looks complicated and now I have to figure out how to use their system and everything is online. The reading, rating, and critiquing of the applications. It is all online!
Fortunately, the instructions were detailed, well done, and after an hour of carefully reviewing the instruction and video tutorials, I was ready to read my first application. It took some time to acclimate working in a fully on-line environment but overall, the process was clear and easy to use.
Many funders will provide reviewers with a review metric. This may be some general guidance about the goals of the program or it could be very detailed. In my case, the guidance was very detailed which was helpful. It told me what to look for and when I found it and how it should be scored. This means that there were some applications that I read and was very enthusiastic about and then when I reviewed the scoring metric, realized that the applicant did not address the review criteria in a way that warranted a high score. And there were other applications that I was less enthusiastic about but after reviewing the scoring metric, realized that the application deserved a high score. As an applicant be sure to review your guidelines carefully and when you are told what the review criteria are, make sure you address them clearly and directly in your application. Don’t make the reviewer look for the answer and do not assume that they will be persuaded by the elegant nuance of your narrative. If you do not explicitly speak to the review criteria, you may not get credit for it.
The most successful applications where the ones that offered a strong narrative that was clear, concise, and compelling. Like many applications, the one I reviewed was a combination of biographical data, short answers, and short essays. Supporting documents included letters of recommendation and transcripts. The applications that were most effective were the ones that clearly answered the question at hand and also contributed to a larger narrative arc for the application. All of these elements pointed to why the student needed this fellowship, how they were qualified to do the work that was required, and what the transformative potential of the fellowship on the student’s scholarly development and future career would be.
As with most applications, this one required letters of recommendation. I can say, in many cases, the letters swayed my overall assessment of the applicant and aligned with the advice we routinely share with letter writers. The more detailed a letter writer can be as they discuss the student and how this fellowship will make a difference for them, the more compelling and effective the letter will be. A general letter that does not speak in detail about the student, their academic potential, and motivation for the fellowship will not serve you well. A letter from a well-known person that is general and does not speak to the fellowship criteria is less effective than a letter written by a lesser-known, junior scholar that provides the compelling details.
Finally, it is important to remember that lots of good applications will not be funded. I read many good applications that I scored high. With each application I had to write a justification for my score and I am sure both my scores and narratives will play a big role in the final adjudication. I am also quite sure that many meritorious applicants will not be selected due to the limited number of funding lines available. This is not to discourage you from applying but rather to encourage you to apply for funding as an ongoing activity. If you do not apply, you will not secure external funding. If you do apply, you may or may not succeed, and if you are unsuccessful in one round, do not be discouraged. Lots of meritorious applications are not funded on the first round. It is worthwhile to revise and resubmit. Whether you are working on a first time submission or a revision, it is always worthwhile to spend some time learning about the review process and thinking about how to incorporate that information into your writing process.