Proposal Writing


Hear some great advice from Northwestern students who have had experiences just like you. They (and Academic Support and Learning Advancement) are here to help!


Proposal Writing Is Its Own Genre

The writing required for a research proposal is not like other, more familiar, forms of writing. Readers of your proposal want to know:

  • The questions you hope to answer.
  • How your project relates to other work that has already been done on the topic.
  • Your plans for answering these questions.
  • Particulars and details that show you are well prepared and likely to complete this project.
  • How you plan to spend the money. Find information about budgets. (Note: A budget is not submitted for Summer Undergraduate Research Grants, which are lump-sum living stipends.)
  • Specifically for URG applications: the expectation is a two-page, single-spaced research grant proposal (1" margins, Times New Roman 12 or Arial 11), and proposals that do not meet these formatting expectations will not be considered by the review committee.  We realize that writing a grant proposal is a new experience, and we have many resources, including one-on-one advising, to help teach you this skill.


The Keys to Success

  • Start early! Writing a good proposal takes time.
  • Read examples of successful proposals.
  • Get lots of feedback. From your faculty, and also from the advisors at the OUR, who are happy to read through drafts.
  • Be prepared to write multiple drafts.
  • If you are struggling with jargon, try this nifty resource!

What To Include

You proposal should be clear, concise, and based on specifics. Make it easy for the person who reads it to understand your point right away, and they are more likely to look favorably on your application!

While every grant application will have its own quirks and expectations, there is a foundation on which most will be based. The basic structure of the grant proposal stays the same, no matter what your project is about or what discipline you are based in.

Your proposal should clearly answer the following questions:


Why is this project needed?

In the first section of your proposal, you need to justify that the topic warrants the work you intend to do. What needs to be known in order to understand the value of what you want to do? Show what is already known, how your project fits in, and how it will move the research further down the field.

There are two ways you demonstrate the project is needed. One is the intrinsic value of it ("I am going to discover something that will help the world!"). Most projects are small enough that they probably don't have a very compelling intrinsic value. The other way to demonstrate the urgency of your project is to show the contribution it will make to an existing academic discussion or area of study. 

To make this second case, you need to demonstrate that there is an existing conversation going on about the broader topic, and your project will make a contribution to this conversation.

  • Read up on what academic work has already been done in this field.
  • Show how your project fits in to this conversation.
  • Show why your project will produce new knowledge.
  • Make an argument (don’t just make a list of sources).

 Leave the reader thinking, "Yes, this project needs to happen."


What’s the plan?

Talk about the questions you hope to answer. Make your questions SMART:

S = Specific

M = Measurable

A = Achievable

R = Results-focused

T = Time-bound

Talk about your action steps, from data gathering through to analysis. Remember that it is not enough to gather lots of data: you then have to show how you will use this data to reflect back on your original question.

  • How long will each step take?
  • What’s the reasoning for your approach?
  • What will you do with your data?
  • Be as specific as you can. How many people will you talk to exactly, or how many times will you run an experiment?

If your plan includes interviews, explain:

  • Why these people?
  • How will you recruit them?
  • What will you ask them? Why?

Do you have approval from individuals or organizations involved?

Leave the reader thinking, "This project can work. If s/he follows those steps, s/he can potentially answer those questions." Make sure you include a plan for analysis!


Are you qualified to do it?

We don’t need a list of everything you have ever accomplished in your life.  Instead, we want to see that you have the specific skills needed to do what you describe. In this way, this argument needs to be based upon the methodology you laid out in the previous section.

  • Based on your project plan, talk about your related skills and experience.
  • If you don’t currently have a required skill, describe how you will get it in time to successfully complete your project.
  • Talk about how this project will help you meet your academic or professional goals.

 Leave the reader thinking, “S/he can successfully do this project. This project has meaning for her/him.”


What about an introduction?

A proposal introduction is part abstract for your entire project and part commercial pitching its value.  The most important issue to remember is that we must learn what you are specifically proposing in your opening paragraph.  Do not leave it until after your context and literature reviews, as we won’t know why they are (or aren’t) relevant.  You must set the frame for the entire proposal, but naming and claiming your project at the very top.

Wait to write your introduction until after you complete the three arguments above.

Pull the best bits of your three arguments to write a single opening paragraph. Most importantly: Tell the reader what you specifically propose to do; tell the reader why this matters to you and to the world.


Resources for Specific OUR Programs

Use the resources below to demystify the process and put together the strongest possible application.


Common Criteria for Evaluating Proposals

  • Is the idea relevant and timely?
  • Does the topic break new ground?
  • Is the focus narrow enough?
  • Has the student provided sufficient sources to justify the project?
  • Is the plan doable in the proposed time frame?
  • Does the student have specific background or experience with the topic?
  • Will the project help the student achieve her/his goals?         


Need Help?

Regular meetings with your faculty sponsor/advisor are your greatest resource for valuable feedback and advice as you refine your project and proposal.
Advising at the Office of Undergraduate Research – for general questions or specific advising for Office of Undergraduate Research programs.  (The Office cannot provide advising for applicants to other programs.)
The Office of Fellowships offers guidance on applications for programs external to Northwestern.