Write a Strong Proposal That Addresses Review Criteria

Developing a Compelling Grant Application

Section 4

Write a Strong Proposal That Addresses Review Criteria


Marcel Salive, MD, MPH

Wendy J. Weber, ND, PhD, MPH


Contributing Editor

Karen Staman, MS

If responding to a specific RFA or PAR, tailor the application to address all of the FOA-specific instructions and review criteria. NIH recommends that investigators read and reread the FOA to be sure they address all the requirements. Within the FOA, there are portions describing the general purpose and type of research that the FOA will support, instructions for developing the application, and review criteria that will be used to evaluate the application.

When writing the grant application, investigators should simply and clearly explain the pragmatic trial and justify the need for why this design will best address the research hypothesis. The application should clearly describe what elements of the study design are pragmatic (or not) and justify the design choices to balance the important issues of generalizability and rigor of the pragmatic trial. Remember that the goal of the application is to convince the reviewers that the trial is worth doing and feasible. Include a logical plan for how the planning and implementation of the trial will be conducted. For FOAs that request application in a phased manner (e.g., mechanisms UG3/UH3 or R61/R33), the activities that will be conducted in each phase should be clearly described. The application should highlight strengths and identify weaknesses and strategies to overcome them.

Before submitting the grant application, it is highly recommended that you obtain feedback about the proposed study from stakeholders, including health system partners, statisticians, and other collaborators. If the proposed study meets NIH’s definition of a clinical trial, investigators should utilize the NIH Human Subjects and Clinical Trials Information Form for the application to describe all of the elements of the study design. Investigators can use eRA Commons to submit the application and track the status of the application through review.

Dos and Don’ts of a Compelling Research Application




  • Justify the research
  • Skip any steps (such as the literature review)
  • Include pilot data
  • Use a dense or confusing writing style
  • Address potential overlaps
  • Use appendix inappropriately
  • Reduce complexity
  • Include untestable aims
  • Ensure aims are capable of advancing the field
  • Include non-relevant aims or fishing expeditions
  • Choose appropriately expert personnel for a multidisciplinary team
  • Assume that prior collaboration is irrelevant
  • Link data collection and analysis to aims
  • Justify the use of multiple sites and sample size

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this chapter should not be interpreted as representing the official viewpoint of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the National Institutes of Health, the National Institute on Aging, or the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health except where noted.




Building Partnerships to Ensure a Successful Trial

This Living Textbook chapter describes stakeholder roles throughout the ePCT life cycle, including grant development. Healthcare systems leaders can provide valuable advice regarding topics and grants for ePCTs.

Strengthen your research plan for a better score – Dos and Don'ts 

This blog post from the National Institute on Aging provides some useful dos and don’ts.

Version History

February 11, 2020: Added resource: Building Partnerships to Ensure a Successful Trial (changes made by K. Staman).

Published December 13, 2018


Salive M, Weber W. Developing a Compelling Grant Application: Write a Strong Proposal That Addresses Review Criteria. In: Rethinking Clinical Trials: A Living Textbook of Pragmatic Clinical Trials. Bethesda, MD: NIH Health Care Systems Research Collaboratory. Available at: https://rethinkingclinicaltrials.org/chapters/design/developing-a-compelling-grant-application/write-a-strong-proposal-that-addresses-review-criteria/. Updated February 21, 2020. DOI: 10.28929/114.