Writing a Proposal for a Senior Synthesis Project

What is a Senior Synthesis Project?

At Stanford, we use the term "Senior Synthesis Project" to refer to a senior capstone project that does not readily fall within the category of a research or creative arts project. A senior synthesis project draws on your first three years of undergraduate experience, focusing on your academic work but perhaps also integrating your other interests. This is a capstone project that you envision will complement, build upon, or react to those recent experiences

Possible products of a senior synthesis project include:

  • a reflective essay
  • a prototype
  • documentary journalism
  • a presentation, workshop, or event
  • a poster at SURPS



Goals and Objectives: As concisely as possible, what do you hope to accomplish? Be clear about your aims for this phase of your project, and how those aims will help further your broader intellectual aspirations.

Significance: Why have you chosen this intellectual goal? Describe the different intellectual aspects of your undergraduate academic and extra-curricular experience and how your proposed project will allow you to integrate these components. Fundable proposals will reflect on the first eight quarters (or more) of your undergraduate work to illustrate what inspires and informs the way you are integrating these ideas. What is the relationship between your project idea and what others have done or discussed (a literature review may also be relevant)? Why will your mentors, advisors, teachers, and peers be interested in what you are doing?

Project Plan: What will you do? What are the steps that will allow you to complete the synthesis and reflection you’ve described above? When will each of these steps be completed, and how will you gauge your progress? How will you reflect on your project experience and share those reflections with others? What form will your final product take, and how will it be shared with the Stanford community? Will you earn academic credit for any part of your project?

Preparation and Mentoring: What skills (from the classroom or from somewhere else) will you bring to bear on this project? What courses provided you with the most important intellectual background? Do you have hands-on experience that will be valuable? Why are your mentors and their expertise a good fit for this project? How have they helped you so far, and how will they continue to mentor you as your project unfolds?

  • Focus and scale of the project objectives: Open your proposal with a crystal clear one- or two- sentence statement of your objective. This helps reviewers orient themselves, and prepares them to read the rest of your proposal more effectively. By carefully articulating specific and well-honed goals, you reassure reviewers that your project will meet with success, and that your final product will exhibit real depth and sophistication.
  • Significance: Probably the single most common deficiency in student proposals is the inadequate rationale for doing the project at hand. When we ask for a “critique” (of published literature, or of recent creative work, or of your personal experiences) we do not mean a list, or a cursory description. Rather, we expect you to select from a broad range of influences or papers with which you are familiar, and critically analyze these key works and experiences to show how these have shaped your proposed project and how you will contribute to the developments in your discipline.
  • Scholarly significance of research projects: When we ask about your research project’s significance, we mean “intellectual significance to members of your discipline”. We do not mean “importance to your educational development” or “importance to a humanitarian or ideological cause”. This is almost always best demonstrated through your literature review, and there is always peer-reviewed literature that discusses some of the theoretical or methodological background to your research question.
  • Balance of independence and collaboration: Write your project plan in the first person. Reviewers want to see what you will take responsibility for, and what you will be doing with the assistance of others. If you write that “... the data will be gathered and analyzed using a statistical model”, you are providing much less information than if you had written “... I will gather the data and analyze them using a statistical model devised by a graduate student in our research group”.
  • Preparation: Give a concise outline of specific courses that directly shaped your approach to your topic, and are foundational to your project’s success; or state when you will complete such courses before the start of your project. If your project involves the use of human subjects, state when you submitted your Human Subjects Protocol (at the latest, you would submit the protocol to the IRB at the same time as you submit your grant proposal).
  • Mentoring: Provide an account of the interaction between you and your mentor(s) to date, and your plan for continued interaction. Describe how your mentor’s area of expertise will support your work. Your proposal and the mentor’s letter of recommendation should make clear the balance between independence and assistance you can expect from your mentor.
  • Internship vs. independent project: Many successful projects involve interacting with non-profit organizations, government agencies, clinical facilities, or private businesses. It is critical that your proposal draw a clear line between your agenda and your other responsibilities in the organization. A volunteer internship hastily married to a thin research question is not likely to be funded; a carefully designed, intellectually rigorous study that leverages your contacts in a particular organization is much more compelling. Reviewers will look closely at how you distinguish between these two kinds of projects.


If your project takes place off-campus, you will need thorough and rigorous preparation, including specific methodological coursework and training in the cultural and ethical aspects of working away from Stanford. A travel safety plan is also required. See Go Apply-Special Requirements for more details.

If your research project involves human subjects (or information or materials from human subjects), you and your faculty sponsor should submit your protocol to IRB by the first of the month of your grant deadline, at the latest. You will need to have Human Subjects approval in hand before funding can be approved. For more information, consult Go Apply-Special Requirements and the Institutional Review Board’s website at http://humansubjects.stanford.edu.


The Student Grants Website contains detailed information on grant types, deadlines, and eligibility criteria. The site has a comprehensive Go Apply section with a Checklist for complete applications, Grant Writing Timeline, and links to the online Grant Application Portal.