How to impress your reviewers

One of the most valuable things I do for my clients is to put myself in the shoes of their reviewers. I usually don't have the discipline-specific scientific expertise of their peers, but I end up being a sort of general reviewer. This has two advantages:

1. I notice logical leaps that someone in the field might miss

2. I assess their proposal against the same criteria that the actual reviewers do (and I make suggestions for strategic improvements)

I give the same advice to my clients, whether it’s a sub-$10K submission or a multi-year, multi-million dollar grant proposal. It doesn’t even need to be a grant proposal! It could be a submission to a peer-reviewed journal, or a conference abstract. The advice is the same:

Give the people what they want.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But the art is in the execution. Giving reviewers what they want means giving them a) what they ask for and b) any other relevant information that will help them make a decision.

Here’s what to do:


Read (and use!) the evaluation criteria

Most granting agencies give you a cheat sheet for your grant proposal: they publish the evaluation criteria that reviewers use to assess your grant. They tell you what reviewers are looking for when they read your grant. THEY TELL YOU WHAT THEY’RE LOOKING FOR. So give it to them!

They might not offer specific criteria for each section of the grant, so make sure that you address the criteria in the most obvious place. For example, the reviewer might need to assess whether the goals and objectives of your project are appropriate. So: make sure you’ve included goals and objectives in the same place you’re describing the project for the first time.


Make it easy for the reviewers to find what they’re looking for

The evaluation criteria usually ask the reviewers to look for something specific. So make sure you highlight those in the proposal by using the exact (or similar) language. You want to make it easy for the reviewers to check off all the boxes.

Let’s use the same example of goals and objectives. If that’s what the reviewer needs to assess, make it easy for them to figure it out by using the terms goal and objective to describe your project. You don’t want the reviewer to hunt for the answers.


Point out what's unique about your project

If something is a big deal, make sure the reviewers know it—even if you think it’s obvious. Are you working with a big shot in your field? Did you get an award that’s related to this work? Do you have a unique approach or theory? Highlight it. They might not know who's a big shot, or what counts as prestigious, or what strays from convention. It's okay to point this out if you do it carefully.

BUT. It can be tricky to do this well. There are slimy ways to do this, and there are artful ways to do this. The bottom line is that you want to make sure that the reviewers know you have some kind of advantage. But you need to do this without sounding like a giant a-hole about it—either by pointing out something too obvious (e.g., “not many people know this, but the Earth is actually a sphere”) or by bragging (e.g., “Dr. Famous Scientist was so impressed by our preliminary results that he begged us to be part of this project”).

This takes some skill. So be careful.

So there you have it. Give the people what they want, and they're more likely to give you what you want: funding to carry out your project.

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    What else could you do to give reviewers what they want? Tell me in the comments!