A Look Inside A Federal Grant Review Panel
A Look Inside A Federal Grant Review Panel

A couple of times each year, I have the opportunity to participate in the peer review process for federal granting agencies. While time-consuming, it’s an invaluable way to get a sneak peek at the decision-making process for the grant applications that we spend months putting together. Today, I’m sharing some important considerations, tips, and surprises (!) about this process for grant seekers.

First, a bit about the process. Most review panels – particularly those for the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) – are focused specifically on creating a “summary statement.” A summary statement is a report of the reviewers’ feedback of strengths and weaknesses of each application by section, and the review sessions are often structured around this format.

In many panels, each reviewer reads 3-5 proposals but scores 15-20. This means that they may know several applications really well, but rely on peer discussion – including presentations of summary statements — to score the others.

Despite the importance of the summary statement, just because there are few strengths or weaknesses in your summary statement that doesn’t mean there wasn’t considerable debate among the review panel. In most cases, reviewers are instructed to only provide strengths for items that go above and beyond the requirements and weaknesses for those that don’t meet the requirements. That means that it’s not a strength to simply meet the requirements, but you could also get a 100% without a single strength (but you also wouldn’t have any weaknesses).

Now, to the all-important tips! First, write to the reviewers. Although it may seem obvious, it is critical to heed the review criteria listed in RFAs (which can be in a separate part of the document from the instructions) and format the proposal accordingly. Reviewer score sheets are typically created directly from the reviewer criteria sections.

Next, don’t assume all reviewers are familiar with the subject matter and your lingo. Write to a layperson to ensure that you don’t get dinged just because a reviewer wasn’t familiar with your insider speak.

Third, in most cases, it’s okay to cross-reference or, if your page count allows, repeat information in multiple sections (though not verbatim please). Reviewers score proposals by section, so even if you addressed a point in one section, it’s okay to address it again in another section if the information is required twice.

Another item to put in the obvious column: proofread! While reviewers can’t ding proposals for poor writing, flow, typos, etc., it makes an application harder to read and follow. As a result, it can inherently make reviewers want to do whatever they can to lower the score.

Don’t bother with table of content pages in your narrative. We used to do this as a nice stylistic touch, but it’s just not necessary and takes up valuable space in the page count.

Bottom line: make your proposal as reader-friendly as possible!

When all is said and done, always ask for the reviewers’ comments. You should receive them when you receive your notice, but if you don’t, ask. In most cases, federal agencies are required to provide them.

Of course, the best way to gain insider perspective on the federal grant review process is to be a reviewer yourself. Check out the links below for information on each agency’s peer review process.