The Award Lifecycle

Abstract (also Project Summary or Executive Summary)

Introduction: Whether it’s called an Abstract, a Project Summary, or an Executive Summary, a good abstract summarizes the full proposal, is hypothesis driven, contains goals and objectives, and outlines a solid plan of action. It guides reviewers as they read to pay special attention to what you want them to notice and helps them to recall these points clearly when they think about (and judge) your proposal later on. In general, an abstract should address:

  • what do you intend to do (the topic of the project, broad goal, specific objectives)
  • why the work is important or needed (what is the problem or the issue to be addressed)
  • how you are going to do the work and how will you measure success (methods, procedures, evaluation)
  • who will benefit from the project (what is the target population, group served or studied)
  • when will the project take place (dates or duration)
  • significance—the “so what?” of the project (what is the significance, outcomes expected)

Most importantly, search the RFP or the Call for Proposals to determine if the sponsor requires the Abstract to include certain elements. Some federal agencies are very specific in the content of the Abstract. Some may require you to designate the topic, goal, or track of a certain competition, the number of participants to be served, and your collaborating partners, for example. 

Format: Refer to your RFP for specific formatting including margins and fonts.  Abstracts are usually one page and often single-spaced, but the RFP should contain specific formatting information that must be followed precisely.

Tips and Suggestions

  • Write the abstract last so it reflects the entire application
  • Be succinct and explicit in describing what you propose to do, the abstract is often your first opportunity to capture a reviewer’s interest
  • Avoid jargon and discipline specific references as reviewers may include the lay public and professionals who are not experts in your field
  • Use all of the space provided
  • Do not include proprietary or confidential information as abstracts generally become public information

Specific agency guidance

Public Content: Many federal agency websites publish the abstracts of awarded projects on their websites, so this will be the public summary of your proposed work.

Agency specific guidance for Abstracts  Some agencies have specific requirements for Abstracts.  Below are the general requirements for NIH and NSF. 


Purpose: The purpose of the Project Summary/Abstract is to describe succinctly every major aspect of the proposed project. It should contain a statement of objectives and methods to be employed. Members of the Study Section who are not primary reviewers may rely heavily on the abstract to understand your application. Consider the significance and innovation of the research proposed when preparing the Project Summary as these are core elements of the NIH review criteria.

Format: The Project Summary must be no longer than 30 lines of text, and follow the required font and margin specifications.

Relevance: The Project Summary must indicate the relevance of this research to public health. Use plain language that can be understood by a general, lay audience. The Project Summary should not contain proprietary confidential information.


    • a brief background of the project;
    • specific aims, objectives, or hypotheses;
    • the significance of the proposed research and relevance to public health;
    • the unique features and innovation of the project;
    • the methodology (action steps) to be used;
    • expected results; and
    • description of how your results will affect other research areas.


    • Be complete, but brief.
    • Use all the space allotted.
    • Avoid describing past accomplishments and the use of the first person.
    • Write the abstract last so that it reflects the entire application.
    • Remember that the abstract will be used for purposes other than the review, such as to provide a brief description of the grant in annual reports, presentations, and dissemination to the public.


At NSF, the Project Summary consists of an overview, a statement on the intellectual merit of the proposed activity, and a statement on the broader impacts of the proposed activity. Some specific NSF program competitions, however, require additional elements that must be included in the Project Summary. 

Writing Style: The Project Summary should be written in the third person, informative to other persons working in the same or related fields, and, insofar as possible, understandable to a scientifically or technically literate lay reader. It should not be an abstract of the proposal.


    • The overview includes a description of the activity that would result if the proposal were funded and a statement of objectives and methods to be employed.
    • The statement on intellectual merit should describe the potential of the proposed activity to advance knowledge.
    • The statement on broader impacts should describe the potential of the proposed activity to benefit society and contribute to the achievement of specific, desired societal outcomes.

Format: It should be no more than one page in total length (4600 characters, including spaces, or 51 lines).  The proposer may determine how many characters to use in each of the three sections.

FastLane includes three separate text boxes in which proposers must provide an Overview and address the Intellectual Merit and Broader Impacts of the proposed activity. There is an exception for special characters (see Fastlane) but font formatting does not qualify as special characters.