Biographical information is important but should be easy to skim. Nearly all grant applications require you to include biographical information and/or your CV. Reviewers tend to glance over this biographical information, mostly to confirm that you and your team have the knowledge and experience necessary to complete the proposed course of research. Guide their skimming by keeping your personal narratives short. Use bold, bulleted headings to identify key contributions to science. Emphasize the strong match between the researchers and the proposed research, rather than focusing on awards or accomplishments.

It’s not such a small world, after all. As the principal investigator for the grant, you will lead a research team. That team plays an integral role in establishing the feasibility of your project. Some new investigators — hoping to boost their funding chances — try to give their proposal added weight by bringing in a senior scientist to the team. They mistakenly assume that name recognition or senior rank will help carry the proposal. That approach often backfires. First, reviewers outside your field won’t recognize the “big name.” And those who do recognize the name may know the professor well enough to recuse themselves from the review and the panel discussion of your grant proposal. More important, adding senior scholars can make a project seem top-heavy, diminish the role of the lead investigator, and make the team feel out of sync with the goals of the project.

You are writing for three different audiences: program officers, primary reviewers, and panelists. Best practice says you should build relationships with agency program officers to improve your chances of getting a grant. Program officers guide research toward their agency’s funding priorities. Yet it may surprise readers to know that program officers often do not participate in — and may not even be present for — panel review. As reviewers, we are not privy to your conversations with program officers; our focus is on scientific advancement, societal impact, and feasibility, rather than programmatic relevance. In practice, what that means is that a program officer may encourage you to propose a certain line of research because of its importance to the agency. However, grant reviewers may think your team is not equipped to pursue that particular area, so you won’t get a grant. If you are feeling like your conversations with a program officer have pushed your proposal too far away from your original interest and expertise, that probably means you should look elsewhere for funding.

In your budget projections, aim for alignment over a bargain. It is not uncommon for investigators to fret over their research budgets. If you’re a new investigator, you may think that proposing an austere budget will give you a competitive advantage over more lavish, spendy proposals. Yet that’s not really how the process works. Budget considerations arise generally after the conclusion of scientific evaluation. Sure, reviewers may look at your proposed budget to ensure that you have accounted for all necessary supplies, equipment, personnel, participant incentives, and data-processing and management fees — without indulging in wasteful spending. But in practice, the money matters come after the science. And program officers often pare down budgets for funded proposals, so make your budget request align with what you think you’ll need, not what you think will appeal to grant reviewers.

Highlight any connections between the proposed project and the agency’s goals. Every grant proposal is submitted to a specific agency, often in response to a specific request for proposals. The agency’s RFP describes the purpose, the type of research being solicited, and the criteria by which projects will be evaluated. The RFP may be the only information the agency gives reviewers, regarding what to look for in a grant application. And yet some reviewers still won’t bother reading the RFP. So if a key selling point of your proposed project is how closely it aligns with the agency’s RFP, spell that out clearly and prominently.

Applicant pools and reviewers vary, and sometimes you’re just unlucky. New grant-proposal reviewers are required to attend a two-hour training in which, among other things, we are told not to rank-order a batch of grant proposals. Rather, we are encouraged to begin evaluating each application with a midlevel score, and then note features that caused us to raise or lower that score. One problem with this approach: Some reviewers start with a higher average score than others; to remedy that, some agencies try to standardize reviewer scores. But that raises yet another problem: You might be unlucky enough to have your application fall into a batch of high-quality proposals. Other agencies leave reviewers’ scores alone, leaving the possibility that a project won’t get a fair shake, owing to a curmudgeonly reviewer. The practical takeaway here is: Be sure to resubmit a proposal you are excited about, even if it does not score well on its first outing. It may fare better in a different mix of applications and reviewers.