Seven Easy Writing Moves to Bias Reviewers of Program Applications in Your Favor

Persuasive writing

Reviewing applications to a program that supports applied research, commercialization, or startup acceleration is serious business. Organizations that manage funding programs go to great lengths to make the vetting process as impartial as possible.

At the same time, there’s no way to completely remove subjectivity from the review process. No matter how precise your evaluation criteria, no matter how much anti-bias training the reviewers take, individual readers will still differ in their ratings, sometimes dramatically.

But this doesn’t mean you should throw your hands up in the air and despair of accessing that funding or growth opportunity that would propel your research or startup forward. Quite the opposite. The inescapable element of reviewer subjectivity comes with a silver lining.

Without doing anything unethical, you can easily predispose reviewers to view your application favorably, simply by making seven moves with your writing. Each of these moves will sound familiar because you use them already as a scholar and teacher. You just need to adjust your approach slightly to succeed with reviewers from outside your circle of academic peers.

Move #1: Answer the application questions. When you prepare students for an essay exam, you probably remind them to read each exam question carefully and answer the question that’s being asked. Otherwise, we know what happens: you get essays that touch on the topic obliquely but don’t demonstrate the knowledge you want the student to show.

Those kinds of exam responses are frustrating to read and tough to evaluate. In the same way, an application response that doesn’t directly target the application question, or address the list of required topics, will miss the mark.

This holds true even if the applicant answers Question A while responding to Question B or C. Most reviewer panels use a rating matrix that rates individual questions rather than the application as a whole. If you miss your shot on one question, you can’t necessarily make up for it in a later section.

The good news here is that most application forms provide strong hints concerning the exact information—and even language—the reviewers want to see. Follow the directions precisely, and your responses will likely score well.

For example, if the application form asks you to “explain how your research is innovative,” then your response might include a paragraph that begins like this: “The proposed research is innovative because…”  If you’re asked to “indicate the Technical Readiness Level (TRL) of the prototype,” be sure to use the acronym “TRL” and the word “prototype.”

Yes, this will mean tailoring the description of your research to each application you complete. But careful customization pays off. When you reduce the effort required for reviewers to rate your application, you make it easy for them to justify giving your submission high scores.

Move #2: Align with program priorities. Have you ever seen a program with the slogan “We fund interesting research”? Not likely.

The program you’re applying to exists because it targets a specific set of issues. For example, it might aim to fuel economic growth through innovation. Or its mandate might be to empower health care practitioners to improve the ways they treat patients.

If the application form doesn’t clearly state the goal(s) of the program, check out the program’s website. Even better, get in touch with a program administrator and hear their first-person perspective on the objectives. (Making that call also enables you to start building a relationship with the program team, and that may further help your chances as an applicant.)

Once you’ve identified the program priorities, echo them, verbatim, in your application. If one of the priorities is “maternal health,” for instance, don’t just refer to “women’s health.” Be sure to include the exact phrase “maternal health” and close synonyms, such as “the health of mothers.”

It’s not enough, though, to give lip service to the program’s key concerns. You must do your research so you can show a direct connection between the outcomes you envision and the outcomes the program targets. In some cases, this may mean doing research outside your usual domain. To argue a convincing case for the merit of your research on the program’s terms, you may need to delve into fields such as economics, business, or sociology.

Again, this work will reap rewards. The more closely you align your research with the program objectives, the easier you make it for reviewers to give you high ratings.

Move #3: Focus on a clear, relevant thesis. Although a typical program application is divided into sections, it’s similar to a scholarly article in that it must make a persuasive argument. And as you well know, a strong argument is rooted in a strong thesis, which serves as the governing idea for the entire article, essay, or grant application.

As you approach the application form, consider how you would complete this sentence: I deserve a spot in this program because…

Now, rule out all these possible endings:

  • I have done brilliant research and will do more of it.
  • I have won significant awards for my research.
  • I am passionate about my research.
  • My research has the potential to make a significant contribution to the academic field.

Such endings create a weak thesis because they focus on what matters to you, not what matters to the program managers and, therefore, the application reviewers.

To craft a more relevant thesis, articulate a governing idea that relates your research to the program priorities. For example, you might deserve a spot in the program because:

  • Your research is multi-disciplinary and will advance three of the five program objectives.
  • Your research will help the program drive economic growth in your region.
  • Your research will produce measurable impacts on the population the program wants to benefit.

Once you’ve arrived at a clear, relevant thesis, restate this idea in each section of your application. Some reviewers will read your application from top to bottom while others will rate it one section at a time. For the latter group, you want to make sure they don’t lose track of the main idea you need them to understand and keep top of mind.

By now, I’m sure you’re seeing my key theme: the easier you can make it for reviewers to evaluate your application against the review criteria, the greater your chances of success.

Move #4: Provide evidence (and cite your sources). As we’ve seen, depending on the program priorities you’re targeting, you may need to muster evidence from outside your academic discipline. As you stray into fields new to you, such as market research, remember that the same conventions of academic research in terms of identifying your sources.

I’ve read many program applications that make grandiose, sweeping statements about a potential market for commercialized research, citing statistics from unnamed sources. Here’s a representative, but fictional, example: “The market for lobster-based adhesive is estimated to be $3 billion by 2027.”

As Shania Twain would say, that don’t impress me much. Where does that statistic come from? How was it derived? Why should I take it at face value?

Yes, you’re working with tight word limits when you’re crafting an application. But that doesn’t mean you can let your scholarly integrity lapse. Cite your sources so that your reviewers see them, and you, as credible. Keep in mind that your reviewers must be able to justify their ratings. Give them all the information they need to explain why your application should go to the top of the review pile.

Move #5: Use paragraphing (please!). Reviewing applications is time-consuming, tedious work, a lot like marking a stack of end-of-term papers or exams. In many cases, applicants make the work much harder than it needs to be by failing to organize their writing.

If you do just one thing to rectify this common problem, break each section of your application into paragraphs. Just because the application form provides you with a single, defined space for a response doesn’t mean you should fill that space with a single paragraph. Please, please have mercy on your reviewers and chunk your response into short, cohesive units of meaning.

A paragraph is one kind of such unit. So is a bulleted list or a table. Within the application form, you have the latitude to arrange and present your ideas in the most readable way you can manage. Trust me, your reviewers will appreciate your effort!

Move #6: Teach specialized vocabulary. When you’re applying to an innovation-related program, it’s possible that some of your reviewers may be non-experts. For instance, they may be program administrators, civil servants, or researchers from outside your field. In other words, depending on the program, you may be writing for people who have a level of technical knowledge similar to students in a 101 class. Treat them accordingly.

If you were teaching a class of students brand-new to organic chemistry, you wouldn’t dive into a complex chemical process without first introducing some key terms. In the same way, before you go into your research methods in detail, be sure to orient your readers to any vocabulary they’ll need to follow your train of thought.

You might even go one step further by avoiding jargon and using an ordinary word instead. If it’s possible for a reviewer to grasp your meaning without having to learn new language, then don’t burden them with that extra task.

When you keep your language simple, you lessen the cognitive load for your reviewers, freeing up mental space so they can focus on evaluating your ideas, not just deciphering them.

Move #7: Use editing software. With all the AI-driven tools available, there’s no excuse for submitting slovenly writing. An application that contains grammar glitches and wordy sentences creates the impression that the writer is sloppy in their thinking as well as their written presentation.

Create a positive impression with your reviewers by crafting your writing with care. Even though reviewers strive to read applications objectively, well-groomed writing may create a kind of “halo effect,” causing them to prejudge your ideas favorably.

It’s a competitive world out there, whether you’re applying for a grant to support curiosity-driven research or you’re trying to pitch your way into a program that funds purpose-driven research. To give yourself the best possible odds, put yourself in the reviewer’s shoes and make it as effortless as possible for them to vet your application and award it a winning score.


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