This July I participated in a “multi-tier” review of grant applications for the U.S. Department of Education. It was a great experience! I learned a lot about how grants are reviewed at the Federal level and would like to share those processes and some advice with you.
Under a multi-tier review, the required proposal elements are divided into sections and reviewers assess and score specific sections of the proposal. Reviewers are assigned to different tiers based on their level of expertise. At the end of each tier of reviewing, the highest scoring applications move on to the next tier for additional review. Checks-and-balances are built into the entire process to ensure that the entire review process is fair and equitable.
For example, I was a Tier II reviewer and the applications had already been scored on four proposal elements. The Tier II reviewers read and scored the applications for two additional sections: the research foundation of the application and proposed evaluation activities (we did have to read the entire proposal, but scored only those two sections). After reading the assigned applications, I participated in a conference call with another reviewer assigned to the same applications and a panel monitor (an employee of the U.S. Department of Education). During the conference calls, the reviewers discussed the merits and challenges of each application and how well each met the scoring criteria. The reviewers also worked towards aligning the assessments so that we were consistent in our application of the review criteria for all of the applications.
Grant Application Advice
Three key themes emerged from my review:
1 – Make sure the application covers all of the required elements outlined in the RFP.
One of the proposals I read did not include background research or theory in the narrative. As a result, the reviewers scored that section quite low. Although this advice may feel self-evident, it’s a pretty good bet that elements listed as ‘required’ in the RFP will be included as scorable criteria in the review phase. It is very important and very beneficial to have someone read the application and verify that it covers all required elements before submitting it.
2 – Ensure space and point allocations are proportional to application pages.
One of the applications I read included more than five pages describing background research (worth up to 10 points) and but fewer than five pages describing the proposed evaluation (worth up to 15 points). While the research section was very detailed (and was scored highly), the description of the proposed evaluation was very short and the lack of detail resulted in a lower score for the proposed evaluation section. When writing a grant application, it’s important that sections that are worth more points be allocated more space in the proposal than sections worth fewer points. This is especially true when there is a page limit to the proposal!
3 – Review, re-read, and edit the application to ensure an appropriate breadth and depth of the narrative.
Several of the applications I scored included descriptions of proposed evaluation activities that were so broad and sweeping it was difficult to determine what the evaluation would be. With highly competitive grant competitions such as the one I reviewed for, it’s very important to give the reviewers enough breadth and depth in the narrative so they get a sense of proposed program activities, why the program is needed, when the program has been successful in the past, and how the proposed program will be evaluated.
I hope this information is useful to you and your agency when you prepare an application for a grant. Please comment below or email me if you have any questions or would like additional information!