Why Isn’t There a Common App for Grant Proposals?

Not that I resent answering the same questions over and over and over …

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

October 10, 2016

In the waning days of summer I did what thousands of other academics do (besides bemoan what I did not get done in July and August). I wrote grant proposals. To escape the tedium of it (Just how many times do I have to fill in a box about where I received my Ph.D.?), I began to mull a larger philosophical question: Why isn’t there a common application for grants in the humanities and social sciences?

Why was I not out in the sunshine, or creating new thoughts, instead of changing my proposal from 500 words, to 300 words, to 1,500 words, to 1,000 words to fit this or that grant agency’s needs?

More than 50 years ago when I was applying to college, I typed application essays over and over, answering different questions from seven universities. In 1975, the admissions directors of a small group of colleges decided to ask for a common application that could be copied and sent in. From that beginning came what now is known as the Common App. Today students fill it out online, and it’s accepted by nearly 700 campuses. Some institutions of course ask for supplemental information, but 17-year-olds are no longer painstakingly explaining in seven different essays why they learned so much from the service trip to Bali, or how they were affected by the death of their grandmother, or which historical figure they want to have dinner with. Instead, they write one essay, get the parents or college adviser to read it over, and push "send."

Presumably my four decades in academe puts me in a different category. I am not a forlorn 17-year-old trying to wax philosophical about my short life. No, I am an aging academic. Yet I do not get to write one essay for all of my grant applications.

As a historian of medicine, I won a grant from the National Library of Medicine for my last book, after crafting a proposal that was pages and pages long, with an extensive budget. This year I applied to several smaller foundations in the humanities and resident fellowships. They all asked almost the same questions: What is my project? Why is it significant? What approach am I taking? Why am I qualified to write on this topic? And how far along am I, really? Each application had a slight twist along the lines of why do I want to be in this city or that, or which resources at this library or that archive will I need to use. Otherwise the applications were all pretty much the same.

Except each required a different word length. So I spent hours trimming words from one application — changing "in the 1960s" to "1960s" (two words down!) — and then adding them to another. I stared endlessly at the word count at the bottom of the Word document to see how close I was coming to my goal, or how far over my verbosity had taken me. Could I cheat in the word count by using the historians’ crutch — footnotes?

In sum, I wasted my time.

With a grant common app, we all would spend less time writing grant proposals and more time doing research, writing, preparing new courses, or updating old ones.
I’ve reviewed grant applications myself at differing points in my career, so I know it’s never a three-minute task — unless the proposal is really dashed off purely to fulfill some university requirement. Reviewers examine the grant proposals slowly and carefully in weighing who will get a grant and who won’t. But that doesn’t answer my query: Why are there different word lengths required from one funder to the next?

Maybe it is because grant agencies and foundations do not talk to one another and are not in one big organization. Perhaps each agency figured out decades ago how many words and forms of questions it was fair to ask for, and stuck to that as we moved from answering its questions via handwriting to typewriting to word processing to software programs?

Or maybe the whole convoluted grant system is just a weeding-out process? If you, the applicant, can keep the various application rules and deadlines straight on an Excel sheet, submit all the right documents, make sure colleagues write the references, then that’s a good sign you have a fighting chance to finish your project, and the funding agency can bask in the glory of your accomplishment.

Which brings me to my modest proposal for a solution (at least from the supplicant’s perspective) to this problem: a common app for nonfederal grants in the humanities, social sciences, and even in the sciences.

I would be glad to write a grant proposal (any length) to hold and chair a meeting on this — in, say, somewhere lovely like Bellagio — with the heads of grant-selection committees from across the disciplines, from the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the Stanford Humanities Center to the American Association of University Women and Guggenheim fellowship programs.

We could easily decide what information is needed in a common grant application. We could determine how many words. We could allow supplementary questions of 200 words (Why do you really want to be in such-and-such place to advance your research?) or additional examples of previous publications. Then every funding institution would put a link on their website to the grant common app, and applicants would have to really write only one proposal.

Such a process would be fairer since it might give more academics a chance at getting support. With a grant common app, we all would spend less time writing grant proposals and more time doing research, writing, preparing new courses, or updating old ones. Grant writing would not be such an enormous time sink as each of us learns whether to use DOCX or PDF, to figure out whether there can be footnotes, or how to manage the 30-page instructions.

I cannot be the only person who has thought of this. In fact, the U.S. government has already consolidated its grant-application process for 26 federal agencies on one website, I suspect there are multiple problems with the idea of a common app for nonfederal grants. I imagine that, just like the Common App has made it easier for students to apply to more colleges (if they can afford the $60 fee for each institution), would a similar version for grants mean that faculty members would apply to more and more sources of funding? A flood of applications would be a burden both on the foundations and their reviewers. One possible solution: Limit the number of grant agencies you can apply to using the grant common app (say, up to 10).

How would all of this work?

There could be a website with links to all the participating foundations and grant agencies, and they, in turn, would link back to the app. A drop-down menu on the common app would list the funders you are choosing to apply to. Perhaps there would have to be standard application fee to cover the cost of running the website and the hosting server, or all the funding agencies could pony up the costs.

This is just a preliminary proposal, needing some kind of "proof of concept" to become operationalized. So if you are the head of a grant agency or foundation, consider writing to me. I’d be glad to meet with you on Lake Como and try and work this out. Just let me think about how many words should be in your proposal to me, and why each proposal should be different. Meanwhile, I’ll be doing my writing and editing — and hoping that at least one of you will award me a research grant for the next academic year.

Susan M. Reverby is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Wellesley College. She can be reached at