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Common Mistakes in Writing Applications

The five review criteria for most NIH grant applications are: significance, approach, innovation, investigator, and environment. Common problems with each of these criteria are listed below. Be sure to avoid these problems when preparing your application. Refer to the Instruction Guides for these areas at:

Review Criteria

  1. Problems with Significance:
    • Not significant nor exciting nor new research;
    • Lack of compelling rationale;
    • Incremental and low impact research.
  2. Problems with Approach:
    • Too ambitious, too much work proposed;
    • Unfocused aims, unclear goals;
    • Limited aims and uncertain future directions;
    • Too much unnecessary experimental detail;
    • Not enough detail on approaches, especially untested ones;
    • Not enough preliminary data to establish feasibility;
    • Feasibility of each aim not shown;
    • Little or no expertise with approach;
    • Lack of appropriate controls;
    • Not directly testing hypothesis;
    • Correlative or descriptive data;
    • Inadequate consideration of power;
    • Experiments not directed towards mechanisms;
    • No discussion of alternative models or hypotheses;
    • No discussion of potential pitfalls;
    • No discussion of interpretation of data.
  3. Problems with Innovation:
    • Not clearly addressed in application;
    • Not innovative.
  4. Problems with Investigator:
    • Inadequate demonstration of expertise or publications in approaches;
    • Low productivity, few recent papers;
    • No collaborators recruited or no letters from collaborators;
    • Need a more senior collaborator.
  5. Problems with Environment:
    • Little demonstration of institutional support;
    • Little or no necessary equipment;
    • Little evidence of effective collaboration among institutions, if applicable.

Additional Criteria

  1. Problems with the description of Human Subjects or Animal Subjects protections.
  2. Problems with the description of:
  3. Problems with Budget.
    • When submitting a composite categorical budget for future years, if greater than 3% escalation is requested per year, be sure to provide justification for each year explaining the additional costs.
    • When requesting a fringe benefit rate increase in future years, the rate must be in the grantee organization's rate agreement, otherwise the rate at the time of the award will be used.
    • When applying for a modular award, $250,000 or more in direct costs, consortium/contractual Facilities & Administration (F&A) costs are no longer factored into the direct cost limit. If this amount is exceeded only by the F&A costs on the consortium, you must still use the modular format.
    • Be sure to submit a separate detailed budget for each participating consortium/contractual organization and a checklist form page (PHS398).

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