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A Guide for Developing Successful Grant Proposals

Before You Start

Before you start putting together an application, consider a few things:

Eligibility Criteria

Are you eligible for the particular scholarship program? Each scholarship program has a set of eligibility criteria for applicants, based on the study level (Master's/PhD), disciplinary area, immigration status, etc.


Make sure you have enough time to put together application materials. Aim to complete a draft research proposal at least a few weeks before the due date if you plan to seek feedback (always recommended). Referees will also need time to write a recommendation letter. Finally if you need to order official transcripts, allocate sufficient time for this.

Evaluation Criteria

This is what the reviewers are instructed to follow when assessing the merit of your application. As an applicant, you need to ensure that each component of your application highlights your strengths in these evaluated factors. Academic excellence and research potential are often two important criteria, but they are not the only ones - some competitions place an emphasis on leadership skills, or ask you to highlight your previous research or current training environment.

Tri-council Doctoral and CGS-Masters evaluation criteria, the most common scholarship programs for York graduate students, are listed below:

Tri-Council Doctoral Scholarship Evaluation Criteria

Research ability & potential, which includes:

  • Quality of research proposal;
  • Relevant training and experience;
  • Quality of research contributions (publications, presentations, other outputs);
  • Enthusiasm for research, originality, initiative and relevant community involvement;
  • Ability to communicate clearly in written and oral formats.

Relevant experience & achievements obtained within & beyond academia:

  • Scholarships, awards and distinctions;
  • Transcripts and other academic records;
  • Professional, academic and extracurricular activities.

CGS-Master's Evaluation Criteria

Academic excellence:

  • Academic record;
  • Scholarships and awards held;
  • Relative standing (if available).

Research Potential:

  • Quality and originality of contributions to research and development;
  • Relevance of work experience and academic training to field of the proposed research;
  • Significance, feasibility and merit of the proposed research.

Personal characteristics & interpersonal skills:

  • Work experience;
  • Leadership experience;
  • Ability to communicate clearly in written and oral formats.

Putting Together Your Application

Developing A Successful Research Proposal

Regardless of the scholarship program to which you are applying, your research proposal (also called program of study or a research statement) should demonstrate the merit and potential of your research.

If this is your first time writing a research proposal for funding, you should keep in mind that the purpose of this document is different from academic essays, articles, or thesis proposals. A grant proposal should be clear, concise and engaging. It must persuade the reviewers that your research plan is significant, solid, and worthy of funding in view of the evaluation criteria. Typically, your application will be reviewed by a multi-disciplinary committee of reviewers who are knowledgeable about research but likely not familiar with your particular research area.

A well-organized research statement typically includes the following components (often but not necessarily in this order):


Provide background for your research topic. Situate your proposed research in relation to a topic of general interest that will immediately grab a reader’s attention (current issues, health, environment, immigration, etc.). Keep it relatively brief (1-2 paragraphs, depending on the overall length of the proposal).


Be clear and specific. Explicitly outline your research questions early in the statement.


Why is your proposed study important? What gap in current knowledge does it aim to address? What impact will answering this research question have on the field, on the community, on the world?


Reference the most important scholarly literature on the topic in order to set your topic, question, and justification in its proper context. The context demonstrates that you know the terrain of your field and the area in which you seek to make an original contribution. It also provides non-specialist adjudicators with necessary background and context.


It is critical that the research method you have selected demonstrates your superior research ability, potential and vision. It must be appropriate to your field and project, and it must also come across to adjudicators as realistic and doable. Adjudicators are looking to see if your method allows you to effectively answer your research questions within the scope of a thesis or dissertation. In social science research, the research method may be framed in a particular theoretical perspective. In science research, the methodology may be preceded by hypotheses.


Indicate the significance and/or implications of the research. Why are you pursing answers to this research question, and why do those answers matter? To what or whom do they matter, and what will change—in the field, in the community, in the world—once you’ve answered this question?

To put it differently, any compelling proposal has to provide a clear description of the following:

The What

The argument. What exactly are you proposing to investigate?

The Where

In which context(s)? Readers need to understand the fit with the field.

The Why

Rationale or justification for why such an investigation/idea should/must be proposed, i.e., what is lacking in the field currently?

The So What

The significance of the argument and what it proposes. Why does your research matter and in what ways?

The How

Methodology—what you are going to do to answer the proposed questions? Why have you chosen this method (which can be related to “where” in the field, i.e., what else has been done already in the field?)

A clear statement of any skills and qualifications possessed or required essential to your methodology; for instance, you may describe your previous research and training, language requirement, equipment/facility, or access to research participants, all of which should show that you are well equipped to undertake the project.

It is common that your proposal goes through multiple draft – review – revision cycles. Plan to prepare your first draft well ahead of the deadline.


Documents for grant applications are generally single-spaced, written in Times New Roman or another standard font, size 12, with sufficient margins (a minimum of 2 cm). It is also a good idea to number pages and include your name in the header. Review the program guidelines to see if there are particular presentation standards for the scholarship you are applying for. A few tips:

  • if references must be included in the page limit, a smaller font can be used for them.
  • consider organizing your pages by using headings, bolded or underlined fonts for keywords, as appropriate.

Making Use of Every Component of your Application

Depending on the scholarship program you are applying to, you are required to gather additional information relevant to your research such as your other research contributions, past achievements, professional experience, and your training environment. If a CCV (Common CV) is required, then this document should include most of your academic and professional background. Reference letters and transcripts are also often required.

To ensure your application is as competitive as possible, it is critical that you review the evaluation criteria and the format of the application and highlight areas that matter to the reviewers in the most organized way, following specific application instructions.


List all contributions, starting with most recent (unless otherwise specified in the instructions)

    • Published or accepted articles in peer-reviewed journals
    • Submitted articles to peer-reviewed journals
    • Other peer-reviewed contributions (communications, conference proceedings, posters)
    • Non-refereed contributions (publications, presentations, reports)
    • Contributions from professional or industrially relevant research & development activities
    • Creative outputs may be included if relevant to your research


    • Relevant work experience
    • Academic, professional and non-academic research experience
    • Teaching, mentoring, supervising and/or coaching
    • Participating in science and/or research promotion, community outreach, volunteer work and/or civic engagement
    • Chairing committees and/or organizing conferences and meetings
    • Participating in departmental or institutional organizations, associations, societies and/or clubs


A complete list of past awards, prizes, and other recognitions, including non-monetary prizes or awards you declined.

Reference letters form one of the most critical components of any scholarship application. The letters are used to:

    • Distinguish between first-class applicants—for prestigious scholarships such as the Tri-council, most applicants have excellent grades and a strong research track record, so the letters become crucial in setting you apart;
    • Gain a sense of the applicant as a person and a researcher;
    • Highlight the significance of your research from an expert point of view, and how qualified you are to take on the research;
    • Provide additional information about your strengths in relation to the evaluation criteria;
    • Confirm and reinforce what you’ve indicated in your application—don’t get caught in a lie! Applications that fail immediately are those in which an applicant has indicated X (# of publications, for example) and the referee mentions something that leads a committee to believe that X is untrue. For example, if you have a significant award or research contribution you describe in your application, it would be good to have it mentioned in the reference letter to reinforce the value of the accomplishments;
    • Sometimes, you may not be able to include all relevant information you wish to present in a given application format (such as a prominent leadership role you have played that does not fit in the research contribution nor employment sections of the application). Your referees may write about it in their letters to supplement the information in the rest of the application;
    • In some cases, it may be useful for the referee to mention how you fare in terms of your research contributions/output. In some disciplines, it is typical for a graduate student not to publish until later in their doctoral studies, while in others, a few peer-reviewed publications are expected in the doctoral scholarship application. Referees can indicate the norms in your discipline or field. They can also write about the importance of conferences (national, international) at which you have presented material, if applicable.


Reference letters should be written by someone who is familiar with your qualifications and research interests. Typically, this is your previous or current supervisors (and this is a requirement for some scholarships), or other faculty members who are able to comment on your academic and research strengths. Approach potential referees well in advance and make sure they agree to write a strong letter for you.


Adjudication committees want to see letters that speak to the specifics found in your application. They assess how your qualities and experience align with the scholarship and look for convergence in what you bring as an applicant and what they are looking for in the selection criteria. Vague letters, no matter how praiseworthy, are generally ineffective and can hinder a committee’s ability to judge the applicant.

It is important to provide your referees with all of the information they need to write a strong letter. You aren’t looking for a good letter; you’re looking for a strong letter that helps set you apart from the other applicants.

Provide your referee with the following:

    • Your CV;
    • Any statements you’ve been required to write (e.g., Research Statement, Leadership Statement, Research Contributions, etc.) Selection criteria of the scholarship and applicable weightings, if available;
    • List of activities that highlight strengths in the evaluation criteria, including academic distinctions, research experience, communications and leadership skills.

Additionally, you may provide your referee with the Guide for Writing Reference Letters for Scholarship Applications as a resource to consult.

Tips, Common Questions And Other Resources

Summary of Key Items

Below is a summary of key items to remember while working on an application:

Start Early

The process almost always takes longer than you think. Start working on your draft early, contacting referees and arranging transcripts at least a month in advance. The more time you and your referees have, the more likely that you are able to take the necessary time to develop and polish your application materials.

Follow Instructions

Every year, a small number of applications are disqualified because they are ineligible or incomplete. Common errors include missing materials, missing or illegible transcripts (or a missing page or two), and exceeding page limits. No matter how strong your application is otherwise, incomplete and ineligible applications are not forwarded to the adjudication committee. Make sure your application is completed according to the instructions.

Know Your Audience

Already mentioned earlier, but it’s worth stressing this point. Remember that reviewers are likely not familiar with your particular field of research. Use clear and concise writing and avoid jargon and technical terms. If technical or discipline-specific terms need to be used, describe what they mean.

Seek Feedback

Starting your application early will allow you to spend more time on revising and polishing before the final submission. Your supervisor or program may have a review session for you to seek feedback on your draft. Your program-level graduate student association may oer support in this area as well. You may also seek feedback from other faculty members or your peers. Remember each person who reads your proposal should be able to understand your research questions, what you plan to do and the potential impact.

Highlight Your Research Contributions Properly and Appropriately

Demonstrating solid research contributions in your application can set you apart from your peers. If required or suitable, describe your role in the contribution (whether you are the sole author, or if it is a collaborative project, your specific role in the research team). You may ask your referee to comment on your research output relative to the discipline-specific standards (for example, in some disciplines, having one publication at the doctoral level is considered remarkable).

Frequently Asked Questions

It depends. For Tri-council doctoral awards, there are no longer minimum GPA requirements, while CGS-Masters and OGS continue to require a first-class average, generally considered to be A-. Still, for most selective scholarship programs, strong academic records are expected whether there is a stated requirement, unless you are able to demonstrate that they do not reflect your actual current strengths (such as you completed your previous degrees a long time ago and you have accumulated relevant experience since, or that your grades were temporarily impacted by medical or other reasons beyond your control).

Since major scholarship applications come early in your studies (or sometimes before you begin), you may need to think about what your project will be like and how you may approach it. It is useful to build on previous research you have done, rather than to start from scratch. And yes, while you are expected to propose a solid research plan, it is also expected that your ideas evolve over the course of your studies and you are not confined to the proposed plan. In other words, you will not be penalized for changing your research plan after your scholarship submission, as long as you still pursue a similar line of inquiry or an eligible field of study.

Other Resources

Tips and myths to consider when preparing your SSHRC application

Making your application stand out (video produced by NSERC)

Contact Us

If you have questions about putting together an application, we are here to help! Often, your graduate program is the first place of contact and they may also provide support in the form of a workshop or peer review session. Please contact the Research Officer or Scholarship and Awards Coordinator by visiting our FGS Staff Directory.