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Developing Strong Project Proposals

For many fellowships programs, the proposal is the most important part of the application. Here, you must explain what you aim to accomplish during the fellowship, delineate the project’s parameters, and answer questions that reviewers are likely to have about your proposal.

Throughout the essay, your goal is to convince your reviewers of two things: that your project is feasible and that it aligns well with the overarching goals of the fellowship in question.

By the end of the essay, reviewers should understand clearly what you want to do, how you will do it, and why it matters. They should be satisfied that the funding they provide would be put to excellent use if you received the grant.

A few general tips….

  1. Decide on a logical structure. Keep in mind that you have a lot of ground to cover in a limited space. What will readers need to know first? What will engage their interest in the first paragraphs, so that they read on? What will you need to explain first in order for subsequent details to be understandable? Write an outline and stick to it.

  2. Go for a strong opening that immediately communicates important information. The first paragraph of your proposal should be interesting and engaging to the reader, with some indication of why your project is worthy of our attention. But you need to move swiftly to the most crucial and basic information: what you are proposing to do, where, with whom, when, and why. The opening paragraph should function like the lead paragraph of a newspaper article or the abstract of a scholarly article. Give us the broad sketch of your project, and then flesh out the details in the remainder of the essay. Remember that your reviewers are very busy people with many other applications to read. They will want to know at a glance what your project is all about; don’t bury the key details in the middle.

  3. Keep the big picture in mind. In addition to the basic journalistic details (who, what, where, when, why), there are other important components that are common to most proposals. As you write, keep these questions in mind: What is exciting, new, unique or significant about your project? How will your project contribute to the larger goals of this fellowship program? What are your goals for the project? Why is it important to do this project in this location at this time? What motivates you to do this project? What work have others done in this field? What contribution do you want to make? What methodology will you use to carry out your work? How will your project further your academic or professional development?

  4. Explain why your project is feasible. Think through the mechanics of how you plan to conduct your project, and visualize what carrying out your project will mean on a day-to-day basis. What challenges do you foresee? What steps will you take to ensure that you complete the project in the time allotted? How will you gain access to the contacts and resources you will need to do it? How can you demonstrate that you have the skills, knowledge, experience, and temperament required to carry out the project? Every project will have some feasibility concerns. Your job is to explain how you plan to overcome the inevitable obstacles. If you ignore these feasibility concerns, then reviewers may mistakenly believe that you haven’t considered them. Don’t give them that impression; anticipate and address feasibility concerns head on.

  5. Remember your audience. The selection committee ultimately gets to decide who receives the fellowship, so it’s important to keep their priorities and concerns in mind as you write. For some international fellowships, the final decision will be made by committees of academics and government officials in the host country. If you are writing for such an audience, it is especially important that you display some knowledge of the culture and avoid saying anything that might be culturally insensitive. Even for U.S.-based programs, you cannot predict who will be sitting on a given selection committee, so try to avoid overly pointed critiques. Maintaining a positive tone is often best.

  6. Keep it engaging and reader-friendly. Use clear, concise writing that is jargon-free and intelligible to those inside and outside your field of study. Find the balance between packing in information, giving a coherent overview, and arguing persuasively. Make every sentence and every word count.