Guidelines for Writing a Successful Proposal*

Writing a research proposal will help you clarify your project and will give you valuable experience for any proposal writing you may do beyond Rensselaer. All proposals submitted to the Undergraduate Research Program are read and scored by a selection committee made up of faculty from each of the schools on campus. Someone in your school will read your proposal, but faculty members who are not familiar with your discipline will also read it. For this reason, a successful proposal should be written in such a way that an intelligent reader who is not familiar with your field could still understand the research question you are proposing and the significance of this research in a larger context.

Proposal Contents

The effectiveness of your proposal will depend on your ability to explain the nature, context and scope of the project. The selection committee will also be looking for an indication that your project will be more than just a learning experience-what does it contribute to your field that we do not already know? Your proposal should include the following information:

Abstract: A summary of your research question and your project design. Researchers typically write the abstract after they have finished writing the rest of the proposal. Include it as the first section on the first page of your proposal.

Research Question and Significance: What is the question that you want to explore in your research and why is this an interesting and important question? In thinking about the significance, try to take the position of an average newspaper reader. What is the background for this problem? What work has already been done? If she or he were to see an article about your research in the paper, how would you explain why this is an interesting project? Discuss any background research you may have already done.

Project Design and Feasibility: How will you go about exploring your research question? What will be your methods and timetable? What is your research plan?

Background: What courses or work experiences have prepared you to undertake this project?

Presentation and Evaluation: What form will your final report take? Who will evaluate your project and according to what criteria?

Dissemination of Knowledge: How will you share the results of your project? Will you participate in a conference, write a paper with your advisor or other students, or participate in a poster session.

Proposal Format

Your proposal may be up to three pages in length. Put your abstract at the top of page one. Print single sided sheets only (double sided copies will not duplicate and the committee will not receive your full proposal). We recommend at least a 12-point, serif font (such as Times or Palatino), justified left (right ragged). Illustrations may be used in the body of the proposal but should duplicate well on a copier. If you are using color graphs or illustrations, please submit five complete copies of your proposal for the selection committee. Do not include a cover sheet, resumes, or any other attachments: they will be discarded. Instead, include any relevant information in the body of your proposal. Remember to spell check! You are asking for money and your proposal should be a reflection of your commitment to the project.

Review a Draft

You are highly encouraged to work closely with your faculty advisor on your proposal at least once prior to submitting a Summer Undergraduate Research proposal to review a draft.


This document borrows heavily from Carnegie Mellon’s Office for Undergraduate Research Initiative’s “Guidelines for a Successful Proposal”. The assistance of Dr. Janet Stocks, Director the URI at CMU, is greatly appreciated.