How to Read an RFP

June 3, 2015

For a graduate student who is new to grant writing, or even a seasoned grant writer, an RFP (Request for Proposals) can be intimidating. Every organization arranges the document differently and the language used is often abstruse. Depending on the agency, there may not even be a single document but a scattering of information across webpages. This GradFunding article will help you navigate RFPs, in whatever their form, and get the information that you need. 

One way to approach an RFP is to use it to answer a set of questions. The first time you sit down with the document, search for the answers to the following questions:

Initial questions to ask of an RFP

1. Am I eligible?
Eligibility criteria occasionally change slightly from year to year, so do not exclusively rely on the criteria of previous competitions. If you have any question about eligibility, often it is best to contact the organization to which you are applying rather than asking someone outside of the organization.

2. What is the purpose of this fellowship? Is this a good fit for me?
I recently suggested that a student apply for the American Association of University Women dissertation fellowship. After some consideration, she wisely decided not to apply – the fellowship clearly aims to support women who plan to teach at the university level and she has other goals. Fellowships are competitive; if a particular opportunity is not a good fit then you should probably spend your time elsewhere.

3. What is the deadline? What is required for an application?
Make sure that you have time to do all that you need to do to apply. For more about planning out the application process, see my previous article on the topic. If the deadline has recently passed, then check your eligibility for the subsequent year.

4. How do I apply?
Can you apply individually? Do you need to be nominated by someone? Does the university or a professor apply on your behalf? Do you need to go through Sponsored Projects? The answers to these questions will influence both your application process and your deadline.

5. Is this worth my time?
Ideally, you will apply for all awards that are a good fit for you. But because you have a finite number of days to live, you probably want to ask some of the following questions: How many awards are made? How many people apply? What is the monetary benefit of the award? What are the other benefits? Keep in mind that even though an award may not be worth a lot of money, it can be worth your time for other reasons.

6. What is the review criteria?
Sometimes students are undertaking research that is appropriate for a particular fellowship but we discourage them from applying because we know they will not meet the review criteria. For example, some fellowships almost exclusively value a high GPA. Other fellowships emphasize fluency in a language of research that must be different from the researcher’s native language. If you know you will not meet the review criteria, it is usually not worth applying.

Further questions to ask of an RFP

If you apply to a fellowship, you DO need to read the RFP in its entirety. I will repeat that again, this time in italics: You DO need to read the RFP in its entirety. First of all, reading it will help you prepare a better application. And, secondly, there is no better way to exasperate the people who want to help you, including your professors and the people in the Office of Fellowships, than to ask them questions that are clearly answered in the RFP.

Additionally, there are often multiple sources of information for a fellowship. Search for information from several sources. Talk to people – former applicants, former reviewers, program officers, etc. Search websites. However, if you find conflicting information, always return to the RFP.

1. How should I structure my essays?
Often the RFP will give you a clear outline for your essays. Follow it.

2. What should I emphasize in my essays?
Usually, the RFP or the organization’s website, will plainly state the purpose of the fellowship. Make sure that your essays demonstrate how you will fulfill that purpose.

3. What are the formatting guidelines?
Be very careful to follow these.

You should read the entire RFP when you begin the application, in the middle of the process, and before your submit the application. The document might seem intimidating. But the best and most beneficial piece of advice in grant writing is easy if you read the RFP and impossible if you do not; follow the directions!

The GradFunding Newsletter is a service of the University of Arizona Graduate College, Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement. You may reuse this article but please acknowledge Shelley Hawthorne Smith and the University of Arizona Graduate College Office of Fellowships and Community Engagement.