The proposal is one of the most important forms of writing engineers do. Successful proposals lead to jobs, products and profit. Unsuccessful proposals lead nowhere. This document presents the basics of proposals:

  1. The Goal
  2. The Audience
  3. The Structure
  4. The Use of Research

1. The Goal: While style and structure of proposals vary, successful proposals require attitude. A successful proposal convinces the reader that:

  • The proposal is good (scientifically, economically).
  • The writers are qualified to accomplish the task.

“Convincing” makes many engineers uncomfortable because they think good science should convince by itself; however, you must still persuade the reader that your science is good. Convince the reader that you have thought through the problem and have a workable solution.

2. The Audience: No one ever paid a consultant to tell him what he already knew. Your audience needs to know something. You need to explain the problem clearly, and to provide full background to give context to your solution. Remember that readers need:

  • To know that you know what you are doing
  • To understand your approach

3. Structure of the Proposal: There are six basic elements to a proposal.

i. The Executive Summary: The executive summary is a short, information-packed summary of the proposal. In one or two paragraphs, state a) the purpose of the proposal, b) the essentials of the program, c) the total expense of the budget, and d) the qualifications of the team presenting the proposal. This should not exceed one page. A reader should finish the summary knowing the basic information. Only an interested reader needs to read more. Write the executive summary after you have finished the rest of the report.

a. Purpose: The purpose can be described any number of ways. Here are two:

  • State the problem or need you are prepared to address. Many proposals are responding to problems that need to be solved. e.g. A part of a product wears out too soon. How can we make the product work better?
  • Explain the goal of the proposal. Sometimes a proposal is to develop a new product or idea. In this case, you are not solving a problem. Still you need to explain why you want to develop the proposal. (See the sample below for an example of this).

However you describe it, you need to clearly and simply explain what the proposal is for. The executive summary needs to be aimed at a general audience – typically managers – so this is not the place for technical detail. It is the place, however, for considering the company and its requirements

b. Program: At the proposal stage, students will rarely have a fully-worked out solution. That is expected for research-based projects. (Many proposals in industry will be able to present a full solution because the proposal is to implement previously developed technology.) Regardless, the executive summary needs to include a brief statement of what you think you will do. In one or two sentences state at least one of these:

  • What will take place
  • Benefit of the project
  • How and where it will operate

c. Funding Requirements: State the bottom line. If an explanation of the figure is required, make that as concisely as possible.

d. Qualifications: Briefly state your name, history, purpose, and activities, emphasizing your capacity to carry out this proposal.

Sample Executive Summary (slightly modified from the original), with Commentary:

(1) Memory management is a crucial factor in operating system and application performance. (2) The purpose of this project is to study of the relative merits of the best fit and worst fit selection algorithms used in memory management. (3) The first goal of the project is to produce a reference table with the test sets and results for software developers using algorithms. (4) The second goal is to develop a very specific set of rules for when to use each algorithm. (5) The results will be valuable to software developers when choosing between the best fit and worst fit selection algorithms. (6) While the first goal can be attained in the ten week period, attaining the second goal will depend on the results of the data. (7) Consequently, the second goal may be unreachable, or require further research. (8) The cost for the ten week period is $7500.


  • The first sentence gives some context by defining terms. It could be improved by adding the simple word “computer” to separate this study from something in cognitive ergonomics.
  • The project’s goals are clearly stated in the second, third and fourth sentences.
  • The value of the project is outlined in sentence five.
  • The limitation or scope of the work is presented in sentences six and seven.
  • The cost is explained in the last sentence. Note that the cost is for ten weeks regardless of whether the second goal is attained.
  • This summary does not include the writer’s qualifications, presumably because the writer is a student who has no experience in this kind of work.

ii. Introduction: One major problem students have is blurring Executive Summaries and Introductions. NEVER assume that the reader of the introduction has already read the executive summary. In other words, the executive summary just repeats.

  • State the purpose (make it clear that you are proposing something). Define the opportunity or problem. Usually, you need to begin by explaining the situation: what circumstances led to the proposal (e.g. an industrial sponsor’s problem)? Consider the following:
    • Decide what facts best support the project.
    • Determine whether it is reasonable to portray the need as acute.
    • Explain how your project relates to similar projects that preceded it.
  • Avoid circular reasoning.
  • Explain useful background. e.g. What engineering principles will guide your solution? Even if you think your reader knows this information, show the reader that you understand it too. (Sometimes, background is separated into a separate section. If you do this, put the background after the overview.)
  • Give a brief overview of the contents of the whole proposal. (For example, in the introduction to the “structure of the proposal” here, six basic elements are listed. These are then elaborated in later sections. A similar kind of brief sketch will help a proposal reader.)
  • This is what a first draft of an introduction might look like (if you were working on MIE 240 in Fall 1998). Notice that there are a number of questions (in square brackets) that, if answered, might help develop really good opening context.

Introduction: The market for backpacks is huge. Students throughout North America from ages 5-25 carry backpacks to school. [find out sales figures?] Many need to replace their backpacks each year due to frayed straps or broken zippers. [survey users to discover complaints about existing backpacks?] Therefore, any company that can produce and market a product that is cheap and/or high quality will be able to find a market niche. [analyze what determines cost? materials? place of manufacture? distance to market?] This proposal will outline a product that will fill the need for a high quality yet affordable product appropriate for university students.

iii. The Project Description or Program:
State explicitly what you propose to do. Some also include a “scope” statement ÷ an explicit statement of what you will not be doing to help limit the task. Explain your approach to the problem in detail. Some of the following questions might be useful:

  • What are the technical specifications for the proposed piece of work?
  • How will current research -such as recent articles on the subject or other projects of a similar kind – be used to help solve the problem
  • How does your work fit into a larger project?

Included in your program you should have three subsections: a) objectives, b) methods, and c) evaluation. You do not need to use these sections as subheadings, but you do need to clearly explain all three aspects of the project.

a. Objectives: Your objectives must be tangible, specific, concrete, measurable, and achievable in a specified time period.

Currently, software developers have only a general description and understanding of how the algorithms work in deciding which algorithm is more appropriate for their application. I propose to quantify the performance of each algorithm given varying sets of memory requests. This data will allow developers to compare the performance trade off of each algorithm based on the expected memory request set for their application.

Objectives can come in several varieties:

Behavioral – A human action is anticipated.

Software developers will be able to compare the performance trade off of each algorithm based on the expected memory request set for their application.

Performance – A specific time frame within which a behavior will occur, at an expected proficiency level, is expected.

Software developers will be able to compare the performance trade off of each algorithm based on the expected memory request set for their application. This efficiency will cut the time for testing new applications by 40%.

Process – The manner in which something occurs is an end in itself.

Product – A tangible item results.

The first goal of the project is to produce a reference table with the test sets and results for software developers using algorithms. The second goal is the development of a very specific set of rules for when to use each algorithm. While the first goal can be attained in the ten week period, attaining the second goal will depend on the results of the data.

b. Methods: In your program, you need to do the following:

  • Describe the specific activities that will take place to achieve the objectives, that is what will occur from the time the project begins until it is completed.
  • Enable the reader to visualize the implementation of the project.
  • Match the previously stated objectives.
  • Provide the order and timing for the tasks.
  • Defend your chosen methods, especially if they are new or unorthodox.

c. Evaluation: Building evaluation into a project is an important part of engineering design. You need to consider how you will evaluate whether the project is successful. How will you measure whether the project meets its goal? By including a mechanism for evaluation in your proposal, you indicate that achieving objective is a serious goal. You also provide the best means for others to learn from your experience. Two types of Formal Evaluation are common:

  • Measuring the product (e.g. test a computer program’s performance under various conditions for versatility, accuracy, speed, etc.)
  • Analyzing the process (e.g. analyze the milestones such as the ability of a prototype to integrate with other components of a project)

Either or both might be appropriate.

iv. Timeline or Milestones and v. Budget: Often, these two sections use a short paragraph or two to introduce graphical elements, such as Gantt Charts, Tables, etc. to represent the proposed schedule. If necessary, rationale for the schedule or budget can also be presented in this section.

vi. Qualifications: This section presents another argument for why you should be allowed to undertake the project, usually by identifying academic qualifications, experience, and attributes (less important) that make you (or your team) a suitable candidate for carrying out the plan.

4. The Use of Research: See Using and Conducting Secondary Research in Engineering and our pages on Accurate Documentation for information about how to integrate research into your documents.