Writing For Reviewers

Remember the Review Criteria 

  • For more information on the scoring criteria and how reviewers use them please see Scoring and Summary Statements 
  • For more insight into what reviewers expect to find in your application, please see NIH Review Guidelines for the given grant type and the Review Criteria.

Remember the review criteria when writing an application. Take special note of any opportunity-specific criteria or statements in Section V of the chosen notice of funding opportunity.

As you write your application, think of it as an integrated whole. Reviewers mostly focus on the Research Strategy, but other sections count too.

Your overall impact score will reflect reviewers' judgment of two broad concepts: importance and likelihood.

  1. Importance—the significance and innovation of the research problem—whether the scientific question is justified and able to move the frontier of knowledge forward.
  2. Likelihood—the ability that the Principal Investigator(s), can achieve the ends, as judged by the experimental design, the rigor of that design, the expertise of the team, and the resources available.

Together, importance and likelihood form impact.

Your Reviewers Are Your Audience

For more details about the review process please see Understand the Review Process

For more details about how reviewers assess rigor and transparency, see Reviewer Guidance on Rigor and Transparency

Study sections usually have about 20 peer reviewers, but not all reviewers have the same role. As a study section can have dozens or even hundreds of applications; not all reviewers read all applications. Instead, the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) assigns a small number of reviewers to assess the application and relies on the expertise of the assigned reviewers to focus the study section’s discussion of the application. Applications are assigned primary and secondary reviewers plus at least one additional reader, because their expertise is closest to the application field. Do not expect the other members of the study section to be experts in the field or familiar with the specific science in your application.

The assigned reviewers read the application thoroughly, write a critique before the meeting, and assign preliminary scores for each review criterion as well as an initial overall impact score. The primary reviewer presents an application's topic, strengths, and weaknesses to the group, and other assigned reviewers may comment. Write and organize the application so the primary reviewer can readily grasp what you are proposing and be well poised to explain it to the others. These initial remarks launch the group discussion, the basis for the overall impact score that each of the reviewers gives an application. More than anything else, the impact score sets up the percentile or ranking of an application, which has a significant impact on the application's funding fate.  Note that all reviewers will score the application—even those who weren’t specifically assigned to the application. Read more at NIH Center for Scientific Review. 

Writing for the Reviewers

In the various parts of the application, use different approaches to reach out to the audience to accommodate different levels of knowledge about your techniques and field. Assigned reviewers are often at the top of a given field, they will know where the opportunities are, and have strong views about what research should be conducted to move the field forward. Looking at their research and talking to other experts in the field can provide insight on how to meet reviewer expectations. However, it is critical to not neglect the other reviewers by writing at a level they will understand. Addressing all your reviewers is key if you're proposing highly innovative research.  

By describing how the research gap is critical and the outcomes of the proposal are high-impact will demonstrate to reviewers why NINDS should prioritize the application. Describe the strong potential for the application to have a high impact on its field of science; that the approach is logical, rigorous, and innovative; and the required expertise, resources, and intuitional support are present. Citations and other references in the Approach should highlight expertise of the team. Emphasize the project's significance and (to a lesser extent innovation) in several places to meet the needs of the full reviewer audience.

Help the assigned reviewers advocate for the application by organizing and writing so the assigned reviewers can readily find and understand the goals, significance, robustness, and feasibility of the application. Emphasize critical points that the assigned reviewers can convey to the study section. Assigned reviewers will review your entire application to make this assessment. However, for non-assigned reviewers, the Abstract, Aims, and Significance section of the Research Strategy along with the figures contained within are often the most utilized source of information regarding your application. Be sure your application is cleanly written, free of typos, and that critical points are emphasized and understandable by reviewers who are experts in other fields. It may be beneficial to ask investigators working in a different field to read the application and provide feedback on readability well in advance of the submission date.

Study Sections and Members 

NIH Matchmaker
The NIH Matchmaker tool can be used to search for funded projects and the study sections that reviewed related applications (plus Institute and Program Officers).
CSR Assisted Referral Tool
The Assisted Referral Tool (ART) was developed by the NIH Center for Scientific Review (CSR) to recommend potentially appropriate study sections for your application.

For investigator-initiated R01, R21, and R03 applications, NIH encourages applicants to request a study section they feel would be most receptive to the application. Study section assignment requests are made using the PHS Assignment Request Form. You can also note what expertise are needed to review the application and identify any reviewers who should not review the application. Do not request reviewers by name, as this may lead them to be disqualified. Please note that assignment to a requested study section is not guaranteed, particularly:

  • If using continuous submission to apply outside of standard due dates, NIH may refer the application to a relevant study section or to a special emphasis panel.
  • If a standing study section member has a conflict of interest, NIH may refer the application to another study section with the expertise to review the application fairly. If no such study section exists, NIH may use a special emphasis panel for review.

After identifying a proposed study section, determine how its membership may affect the presentation of your proposed research. The reviewers need to share the perspective that the proposed work is vital to the field. It's critical to choose a study section that would embrace both the field and the direction of the proposed research. Review the study section roster, identify the reviewers who are most likely to be assigned to your application, and research their work to better understand how they may perceive your application.

However, if the study section has appropriate expertise but there is concern about a particular reviewer, inform the Scientific Review Officer when applying. NIH will ensure all applications receive a fair review. 


Want to contact NINDS staff?
Please visit our Find Your NINDS Program Officers page to learn more about contacting Program Officers, Grants Management Specialists, Scientific Review Officers, and Health Program Specialists.