- Rhodes Scholarships: 12,000 applications, 99.3% rejected
- National Science Foundation: 11,447 applications, 82.7% rejected
- National Institutes of Health: 55,038 applications, 79% rejected
- Nonprofit grants: too many to count, but one professional grant writer estimates 90% get rejected
These applications are hefty. Before you even start applying for an NSF grant, you should probably read the 79 pages of instructions. The NIH helpfully provides a 10-part instructional video series. Rhodes Scholarships require a mind-boggling eight letters of recommendation. I tell college seniors to expect fellowship applications to be a six-month part-time job.
All this applying doesn’t just burden applicants. Professors run themselves ragged writing recommendations. The NSF relies on volunteers to complete 240,000 reviews every year. Entire university offices exist just to manage the paperwork that grants generate; universities bill this back to funders in the form of “indirect costs,” which at Harvard go as high as 70% of incoming grant funding. Grant agencies seem not to realize that by making everything about their grants burdensome, they allow universities to spend much of the grant money managing the grant itself!