The fact is, there are a lot of good grant proposals out there. Usually, there are many more good proposals submitted for any particular competition than there is funding to cover them. Because of this fundamental imbalance, the granting agency must figure out some fair way to decide which few among all the great proposals submitted will be selected for funding. Happily for us, they usually explain the review criteria they will be using. Your chances of getting funding for a grant application are substantially increased if you design your proposal with the grant review process and criteria in mind.

For most grant opportunities, the review criteria will be explicitly described (or at least referenced) in the grant guidelines. Read these criteria carefully, and keep them in the front of your mind when you’re designing your grant program. When writing, look for opportunities to showcase how this element or that outcome is exactly what the agency is looking for. Use key words and phrases from the grant guidelines and review criteria to help the tired reviewers easily find evidence to support a good score for your grant proposal.

General Grant Review Process for Federal Grants has a great overview of the federal grant review process, which we’ve summarized here.

After the deadline, the agency will initially screen each submission to check that it includes all required proposal elements. If anything is missing, the proposal will very likely be rejected – you won’t get a chance to fix the error until the next round of submissions.

It will then be reviewed for quality and impact. Exactly how this review is structured depends on the grant type, but usually there’s some panel that has a defined set of review criteria. Often, several individuals will evaluate the proposal independently, then present their evaluations at a group meeting. These scores are finalized and combined in some way to determine the final score of the proposal. They also review your budget to make sure it’s reasonable and not violating any policies.

Finally, the federal agency decides who to award, and notifies them.

Look in the table of resources below for links to resources about the grant review process specifically for NIH grants or NSF grants.

Review Process for Other Grants (not federal)

There’s a wide variety of granting agencies that are awarding funds that are not federal, and each can determine their own criteria and process for reviewing and selecting grants for funding. Even so, it’s always important to identify three pieces of information: 1) the review criteria (look on the agency’s website if it’s not in the guidelines); 2) the goals of the grant program; 3) the mission of the agency. If the rest of your grant is competitive, being able to clearly demonstrate how your proposed program intersects with each of these elements will help yours stand out among other great proposals.

If you really want to understand – be a reviewer!

In science, grant proposals are almost always awarded after selection from a peer review process. This process therefore requires a plentiful supply of “peers” willing to contribute a fair bit of time to grant reviewing. As you likely tell your students – you understand a process best when you do it yourself. So, volunteer to review grants.

The Chronicle of Higher Education published an article about becoming a grant reviewer – it’s old, but the information in the article is still relevant. Additionally, there are links in the table below with information about becoming an NIH or NSF reviewer.

We will continue to be developing this post for more content and resources about the grant review process. If you know of resources you think should be represented here, please email Sara at

 Resource for Grant Review Web Links
 “Application Review & Award Announcement” – an overview of the general federal grant application process from Link
 “How to Become a Grant Reviewer” – The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 2008) Link
 Becoming an NIH Peer Reviewer Link
 Becoming an NSF Peer Reviewer Link
 “Inside the Peer Review Process: A Panel Discussion with George Washington University Study Section Participants” (video of panel discussion from 2012, 48 min)” This includes panel reviewers for NSF, NIH, and DOD study sections. Includes lots of grantwriting tips, both general and specific to the granting agencies. Link
For NIH Grants
 “NIH Grants 101: Funding Mechanisms, Peer Review Mechanisms, Peer Review, and Strategies for Success” – Dr. Sharon L. Milgram (Feb 2011) Link
 NIH Grants Process Overview – NIH website(updated Aug 2014) Link
 NIH Peer Review Process – NIH website (updated June 2014) Link
 NIH Review Criteria at a glance – for all mechanisms of funding Link
 NIH Grant Reviewer Orientation – provides instructions for NIH grant reviewers (6 pg, from March 2015) Link
 NIH List of Reviewer Documents Link
For NSF Grants
 NSF Grant Proposal Guide – NSF Website (this link always goes to the most current guide) Link
 “How to get NSF funding: a view from the ‘inside’ “ – great overview of NSF review process and do’s and do not’s for PIs Link
For Other Grant Sources
 Peer Review of IES Grant Applications – Institute of Education Sciences website Link
 NIFA Peer Review Process for Competitive Grant Applications – USDA/Nat’l Institute for Food and Agriculture (updated Feb 2015) Link
 Apply For a Research Grant – American Cancer Society website Link


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