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 Cover Letters Help Us Refer and Review Your Application

Guidance for applications submitted on Forms-C application packets  for due dates before May 25, 2016
NIH encourages you to submit a cover letter with your application. The information included in the letter can help in referring your application to a particular review group and give us other information that will help us conduct the review. A majority of applicants now take advantage of this opportunity. The cover letter is only for internal use by referral staff and Scientific Review Officers, and we do not share it with reviewers or other NIH staff.

Popular Reasons to Use a Cover Letter


Our scientific staff members make the final assignment decisions after they carefully consider your suggestions and explanations in light of NIH policies and referral guidelines.   

 Suggesting a Study Section

We designed our study sections to have a deliberate amount of overlap, so more than one study section may have the expertise to review your grant application. You may express a preference, and we will try to accommodate your request if it is appropriate and possible.  The review location for some applications is predetermined, such as those submitted a request for applications (RFA). 
  • Consult our online study section descriptions to identify a review group you think is best suited to review your application. 
  • Examine recent study section rosters to help you gauge the scope of our study sections.  But note that CSR study section rosters can change significantly from round to round since we recruit reviewers for a meeting based on the specific scientific content of the applications to be reviewed. 
  • Consider seeking guidance from the CSR scientific review officer of a study section you think could best review your application.
  • Also consider seeking guidance from an NIH Institute or Center program officer. These individuals usually attend CSR study sections in their areas of interest and may be able to guide you. 
  • Check out the NIH Reporter database of funded grants. Some applicants also use this database to identify study sections that reviewed successful applications in their fields. If you do this to help you suggest a study section for your application, please pay attention to recent applications and be aware that we frequently update our study section guidelines. 

Requesting Assignments to NIH Institute(s) and Center(s)

You can also request that your application be assigned to one or more NIH institutes or centers you think would have the most interest in your research.  It’s usually a good idea to contact one or more NIH program officer(s) to get guidance before you submit.  You can identify program officers via the NIH Institute and Center staff listings on their respective Web sites. You should also look at the funding opportunity announcement (FOA) you will use to submit your application. Applications cannot be assigned to an Institute or Center that does not support a particular FOA.

Helping Ensure Your Review is Appropriate and Unbiased 

  • Note essential expertise needed to evaluate your application in your cover letter.  You should not, however, list the names of potential reviewers. 
  • Identify potential reviewers you think might be in conflict with your application.  Tell us if you know of a potential reviewer who you believe could not provide an impartial review, such as someone with whom you have had a longstanding scientific or personal disagreement. Let us know even if the individual isn’t on an earlier roster.  However, a researcher in your field who holds a different scientific opinion or does research in an area similar to your research isn’t automatically considered biased. These individuals usually provide excellent reviews because they understand the scientific issues debated.  
Your scientific review officer (SRO) will consider the situation and make the final decision.  If he/she agrees there is a conflict, the reviewer will not be assigned to your application and will not be in the room when it is discussed. Rosters are typically posted online 30 days before your review meetings, and if you see a reviewer on it who could be biased, contact your SRO as soon as possible.
Learn more about the different kinds of conflicts NIH considers on our Web site.

Other Things to Raise in Cover Letters (as Appropriate) 


  • Explain why your application is a late submission.
  • Note your eligibility for continuous submission of applications
  • Explain that your application is part of a set of collaborative applications.
  • Explain any subaward budget components that are not active for all periods of the proposed grant.
  • State that you have attached any required agency approval documentation for the type of application you’re submitting, e.g., NIH approval for submitting applications seeking $500,000 or more or for seeking a conference grant or cooperative agreement.

Suggested Cover Letter Format 



  • Note the funding opportunity announcement
  • Give the application title
  • List one request per line if sending multiple requests
  • Separate positive and negative review requests
  • Separate positive and negative IC requests
  • Include name of IC and study section  followed by dash and acronym; do not use parentheses
  • List individuals who you believe should not review your application and why
  • List disciplines involved if multidisciplinary
  • Provide explanations for each request in separate paragraphs
  • Indicate you have agency approval documentation for the type of application submitted if required. 





Sample Cover Letter

Please assign this Phase I SBIR application “Drugs for Retinoblastoma Treatment” (RFA-CA-00-000)
to the following:
National Cancer Institute
National Eye Institute
Scientific Review Group
Cancer Drug Development and Therapeutics SBIR/STTR Special Emphasis Panel
     Please do not assign this application to the following:
     Scientific Review Group
          Biological Chemistry and Macromolecular Biophysics
     This study focuses on a new in vitro model for testing drugs for treatment of retinoblastoma,
     not the synthesis of new chemotherapeutic agents.  

Examples of Other Reasons for Submitting a Cover Letter  


  • Explaining a Late Submission: This SBIR application is submitted one week after the standard due date because one of the PD/PIs (Dr. XYZ) served as an ad hoc reviewer during the submission cycle. 
  • Identifying a Potential Reviewer with a Conflict: Because of a long standing scientific disagreement that has been publically discussed at several scientific meetings, we request that Dr. ABC not be involved in the review of this application.

Learn More About Cover Letters in the NIH Grant Application Instructions