Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Writing the Perfect Rejection Letter

I need to write some rejection letters soon. There are nice ways and not-nice ways to write these, but there seems to be no perfect way. I tend to write personalized rejection letters so that each candidate knows their application was carefully considered, but I wonder if that makes the rejectee feel better or worse. That is, is it better to be rejected in an impersonal way, as if by a committee or department, or is it better to be rejected by someone who thought about your application but still doesn't want to hire you?

I don't go on and on about each rejected candidate's application -- I keep it short -- but I do like to show that the application was read and considered.

For those candidates who applied even though they had absolutely no expertise relevant to the position, it is easy to explain that we hired someone with the required expertise and credentials. For those who were excellent candidates, the rejection letter is more difficult to compose, as it makes the decision seem arbitrary: i.e., you're great but you're not great.

And then there's the question of how to close the letter. I have personally hated (irrationally, I admit) the 'best of luck with your career' kinds of letter closings, but I can see why people use these as a way to lessen the abruptness of the closing of the letter. And of course in some cases the sentiment is sincere.

Has anyone ever received a 'good' rejection letter? If so, what was good about it?

40 comments:

Aaron said...

I've never been personally rejected on anything I've applied for, of course, but a guy I know assures me that he appreciates the personalized rejection letters the most, particularly when the rejecters give some indication of why his application was rejected, rather than the usual impersonal blanket excuses. In general, he says, the more constructive the rejection, the better he thinks of the rejecters.

Rebecca said...

I received a very nice rejection letter when I applied for a certain postdoctoral fellowship. I actually felt better about myself after reading it! I have it in my files, somewhere, because I plan to use it as a model someday. (Unfortunately I do not have it with me here.)

The fact that the position went to somebody else was handled matter-of-factly and not apologetically at the very beginning of the letter. In the remainder, I think he really focused on the fact that I was among the final candidates and that he was quite confident I would have a successful career.

I later met the man, as we were both getting off an international flight on our way to a conference, and blurted out, "You sent me the nicest rejection letter ever!" which kind of embarrassed him, but at that conference I got to know him better and he turned out to be a really nice guy. I've seen him several times since then and he's always been just very warm and fun to talk to.

Anonymous said...

When applying for faculty positions, I got a rejection letter--one of the canned ones. But before I physically received it, they first asked me to ignore the rejection, and then they said they wanted to make me an offer! For a while I saved the rejection and unrejection, but I don't know if I still have them. I know this doesn't help you, but it is kind of funny ;-)

Go generic, chances are yours won't be their only one.

dropout said...

I received a rather lengthy rejection letter from a science prof once. It was about a page long and extremely personalized. There was a lot of you are great, full of potential, blah blah blah. And reasons why I was rejected that had nothing to do with me. And there was a lot of I'll do anything I can do to help you in your career just let me know blah blah blah.

While the rejection letter was highly personalized, full of praise and encouragement, and obviously the prof took quite a bit of time to write it, it was still a rejection letter. I guess it was better than a form letter but there really is nothing good about rejection unless you interview and decide the position isn't for you in the process.

But having said that, I do remember that personalized rejection letter , what it said, and that the prof took time out of his day to compose it. The science world is a small community and people remember you. I look at that prof a little bit different because he did take the time out to compose a personalized letter.

So rejection sucks no matter how you put it. I'm not sure how much personalized rejections help the people being rejected. But writing personalized rejection letters might help you when you have to interact with that person down the road.

Kea said...

I received a nice one, saying how wonderful I was and it would be great to work with me etc. ... but the university would never accept me because I was too controversial. I thought that was really nice.

Ianqui said...

I too was impressed by a personalized letter that I once got. It was short, but it referred to characteristics of my application and said something about thinking my research program was exciting. It was my first application process, and I felt like the person really took time to think about me, as opposed to summarily dismissing the file.

Stephan said...

I was rejected from a summer research program as an undergrad with the personal note that I would almost certainly get into that graduate school if I applied. That was encouraging.

Anonymous said...

Describing why a candidate was rejected in a letter does _absolutely_ nothing but bring resentment (usually entirely justified). The only reason I ever write rejection letters is if we decided to hire a candidate in a completely different area due to outside issues -- where obviously there was nothing the candidate could have done to change things -- and I encourage the applicant to apply again when we have another search in his/her area. Otherwise I don't write them at all. It is better that the candidate believe (often the case) that the committee just made an incorrect decision. Note that if he/she wasn't good enough to be on your faculty, you shouldn't have put him/her on your short list in the first place -- the fault lies with the committee, not with the applicant.

Dharma said...

I've received at least one very nice rejection letter. First, the writer fawned over me and my qualifications, said the decision had been difficult, but that they chose ____. (Oddly, they told me this person's name, but I think it was a public position.)

The closing was warm, it was written by the person who had interviewed me, made liberal use of my first name (the interview had been casual), and just felt sincere.

I came away feeling like I could greet this person warmly at a party, and I didn't take the rejection personally.

It could say more about my frame of mind at the time, but the kind letter was appreciated.

Am I a woman scientist? said...

I can't say I've ever received any rejection letters other than the impersonal (even when I've made the final 3 and was brought in for an interview). But I have to say that I really appreciate it when they tell me how many people applied for the job, and which characteristics the finalist had that they prioritized (i.e., grant money). It helps me understand what the competition is like and how I could improve my future chances... gives me some data and feedback about what I'm up against, I guess.

Dr. Brazen Hussy said...

I posted the nicest rejection letter I ever got here.

Journeyman Scientist said...

I have to take issue with the anonymous poster who suggests not sending a rejection letter at all. This is the norm in my country when applying for faculty positions and it makes me quite angry. By not sending a rejection letter you are basically conveying the message that you think the applicant is worthless and are also condemning them to limbo until they discover the outcome.

I also don't understand the comment "that if he/she wasn't good enough to be on your faculty, you shouldn't have put him/her on your short list in the first place". Any decent department would interview a number of suitable candidates and would not employ all of them. Giving feedback can help them in future applications.

When not constrained by university administrative procedures, I write some sort of letter/e-mail if I reject someone, including prospective graduate students. I think that people prefer to be treated as human beings, even if it doesn't really soften the blow of rejection, and compared to other admin activities, it doesn't take very long...

Anonymous said...

In my field getting a rejection letter at all is a miracle (most groups don't even bother letting people know). So getting a letter just so that you can delete that section of your file is good.

Getting a letter with some words of encouragement, and some hint as to what you could have done better/ where you need to get more experience is fantastic, and I have always thought extremely well of the groups and profs who do this.

And then there are the groups who send really horrible rejection letters - or don't even reply when you send a specific follow-up asking whether they've already hired, since you hadn't heard anything at all. Those groups are on my personal blacklist now as places I would never consider working. Funnily enough I met one of the profs on my blacklist when he visited my current institution a little while ago. He was utterly charming in person but every time he came to speak to me I found myself thinking "You, my friend, are a pillock. A total, utter, grade A pillock. And no matter how nice you now are in person, you can never make up for that!". As my mother always says, courtesy costs nothing - and you never know when one of those rejectees might show up on a grant panel!

ARL said...

Why don't they do that for grad school applications? Personalized rejection letters that tell you why you didn't make it, instead of the typical we have 100 millions of applicants but only room for 20, sorry.
It should be like this:
1) If you are a really bad candidate, they should send you the standard departamental letter.
2) If you are good, but not good enough for that particular program, they should write a personal letter indicating what was the reason for not making it.

I think a good rejection letter would be the one that says specifically why you didn't make it, since that would probably help you avoid the "mistaje" when you apply somewhere else.

Anonymous said...

Personally I prefer the more personal rejection letters any day, as it at least shows me that someone bothered to read my application. Most of all, however, I appreciate honesty. If I've been turned down for anything - be it a position or a grant, I want to know why, but I don't want some excuse that someone's made up to try and make me feel better. The most frustrating grant rejections I've ever had are the ones that made up some strange excuse as to why my proposal didn't get accepted. The best have been the honest "your research proposal was good, but someone else wrote a better one, and we didn't have enough funding for both". To me, that's perfectly fair enough!

Anonymous said...

The rejections I've received in the past were mostly of the impersonal sort, and I remember wishing that I could get something a little more constructive out of them. But then I got one response which gave the reason for rejection. I had formulated a few hypotheses for why I may not have measured up, but their actual reason turned out to annoy me immensely and I've never looked at that employer the same since.

So perhaps I agree with anonymous above: explaining why you rejected them is risky, and it may be better to just be impersonal. Such letters are cold, but they won't be held against you when most people do it.

As for personalized "we still thought you were great and full of potential" responses, they don't do much for me: the main thing I want out of a rejection letter is something that might help me on my next application, not something to help me feel better about myself. As dropout says, it's hard to get around the fact that it's still a rejection letter, and if I'm so great why don't I have an offer? Doesn't really make you feel better.

Andrea Ann said...

Perhaps just a big white peice of paper with the word "NO" at the top? :)

Anonymous said...

Good rejection letters tell you the name of the person who was hired. You can compare and decide for yourself what the point of difference between you was.

Anonymous said...

I don't know if I've ever read a rejection letter all the way through. Certainly not after the "we're sorry, but no" line.

Anonymous said...

My nicest rejection was a phone call. "We really like you, but another candidate won out in the end." This was on the 2nd round of interviews so there were only 4 or 5 phone calls they had to make. I don't mind the more impersonal emails, though.

PhysioProf said...

I have a file with all of the rejection letters I received during my search for an entry-level tenure-track faculty position. Whenever I feel my motivation flagging a little bit for any reason, I leaf through these letters. There is nothing like the desire to prove people wrong to get the juices flowing again.

Anonymous said...

Writing good rejection letters to people on the short list of a faculty search is extremely important. These people are all qualified to be faculty members or they wouldn't make the short list. There is a good chance they will get a job in a peer department. You will see them at conferences, they will send your department students, they will hire your students, and review your papers and proposals.

To most candidates, the final selection process is mysterious and opaque. If you can give them constructive feedback that will improve their interviewing skills you have done them a great favor.

Emmanuel Zimelis (pen-name) said...

My favorite rejection letter for a facutly position came from a British University, by e-mail. The person explained that while he was interested in my work, and thought I'd have a great career, that I was a bit too applied for what they were looking for, and that I needed to get a couple more of my papers published. I really appreciated the feedback, as it let me know what I needed to work on, and helped me feel that they were making the right decision for their department. And it was a lot nicer than the generic "poor fit."

My favorite rejection letter for a paper included suggestions of a couple of other journals I should try sending it to - it gave me the sense the editor had read my paper, thought about it, and was trying to help. And it was a British journal - draw what conclusions you will:)

Anonymous said...

To the person who prefers the rejection letter: note that if you are wondering about the status, just send an e-mail to the department chair or secretary. Would you really prefer a subjective statement about why you are less than qualified for, say, Cornell, but just got an offer from Stanford? The department doesn't mind an inquiry about the status. Personally I think lack of a letter indicates that decisions are incredibly difficult, subjective, and not always unanimous. I find that much _more_ respectful than (often falsely) indicating that the entire committee was in agreement that one was less qualified.

The Woman of Science said...

I can only vote that you be very certain that you've made up your mind before sending out the rejections. When I was applying to graduate schools last year, I received a letter from X University saying "Sorry, we got too many metallurgists and you weren't good enough." A month later, I got a letter saying "We didn't get enough ceramicists! Would you like to come for that?" I passed on their offer, but I've had quite a lot of fun telling everyone the story.

I think that since you will be personalizing the letters anyways, the level of detail should just vary according to the competitiveness of the applicant. A fourth tier applicant might need something short and to the point. A third tier applicant might merit some general advice on how to strengthen future applications. A second tier applicant would probably deserve an analysis of the deciding criterion. (I regard the first tier as being hired!)

Ms.PhD said...

I prefer the personal letter, even if it only includes one tiny tidbit on something I might be able to improve/change, or if that's not the problem, some indication that it's a round hole and I'm a square peg. Or there was a rounder peg than me. Whatever, I get that.

I hate impersonal letters because, as someone else mentioned, you feel like maybe they didn't really look at you/your application very carefully at all. It really depends, though, on whether they met you in person or if it's a rejection for something only on paper.

I also have to say shame on the person who refuses to write them at all, that's incredibly rude and passive-aggressive. Grow up and start treating applicants the way you want to be treated - like a HUMAN BEING who deserves a little acknowledgment!

If the committee debated for a long time and it wasn't unanimous, SAY SO. Sheesh! What's so hard about that?

If there's some policy that bars you from putting that in writing, here's a concept: GROW A CONSCIENCE and a SPINE while you're at it!

Call the person yourself and explain what you just said, that these decisions are difficult and lots of thought went into it and that you're sorry and don't want to be discouraging, but that's how committees work sometimes and that's what happened in this case. The end.

Don't leave people twisting in the wind. There's a special place in hell for people who rationalize that kind of behavior. That's the kind of behavior that sends rational, intelligent people running for the hills at the thought of working in academia.

Anonymous said...

Ms. PhD: when I first applied for faculty positions after a postdoc, I was rejected by Univ. of Illinois at Chicago (amongst others) and got offers from UC Berkeley (where I went), Univ. of Washington, Caltech, and two others -- all of which had obviously better departments than UIUC. UIUC write me a rejection letter explaining that they had many qualified applicants and could only choose one. They did, he didn't accomplish anything and left academia 5 or so years later. Did UIUC's letter serve any purpose other than to show they were (in that department at that time), frankly, idiots? The reason why this has become fairly standard in my field is not because of a lack of spine, but an admission of non-omnicience, which is the one thing we can be sure of. And it is better to save yourself, and your university, the likelihood of embarrassment when a Nobel prize winner gives your rejection letter from 10 years ago saying why he wasn't qualified to the press.

Karen said...

I think the main thing is to write rejection letters. It dirves me crazy when you find out you were rejected from some other source, or when you find out they hired someone else, or when you just never hear anything. Most people appreciate that you took the time to write a personalised note.

Kim said...

The rejection that I remember most was not a letter, but a phone call. I had applied for a temporary teaching position, and had been told that I was the first choice before I interviewed. But I didn't hear from them right away, and later got a phone call explaining why I hadn't been chosen. They didn't think I had expressed enough enthusiasm for teaching, and encouraged me to apply to positions at research universities.

I cried for an entire day. (I already knew that I wanted to work at a PUI. Research universities are great places... but they weren't where I personally wanted to spend my life.) Then I talked to some other grad students, and then I started applying for other jobs. And I spent a lot of time thinking about what I could possibly have done to suggest that I wasn't enthusiastic about teaching. A month later, I got another interview, and I made darn sure that I showed just how enthusiastic I was.

I've gotten every job that I've interviewed for since then.

Was it a good rejection? Not at the time, no. But it was a useful rejection, and I learned a lot from it.

Anonymous said...

sorry, I had meant UIC (Univ. of Illinois at Chicago) not UIUC (Univ. of Illinois at Urbana Champaign -- the larger campus)

Anonymous said...

I think one thing one has to be careful about in rejections is giving people false hope. The version I'm imagining is one that gives positive encouragement to a rejectee, especially one that suggests applying again, but no practical feedback.

I think people give this kind of positive rejection for a few different reasons. The worst is if they just hate saying no, you weren't good enough, and leaving it at that, even though that's the reality. Another bad reason is if they want to encourage a candidate, but won't be personally able to offer them anything. The only good reason is if it really is true that they just didn't make the cut on this pass, but might well on the next one, because they were at a random border where you were just guessing.

But, nothing good comes of encouraging people who really should go find something else to do. (the rejection question applies to grants, schools, and jobs, too).

bj

Anonymous said...

Ursula LeGuin posts a rejection letter for her first book:

http://www.ursulakleguin.com/Reject.html

And the famous rejection rejection letter

http://www.physics.wm.edu/~calvin/rejection.html

Anonymous said...

A lightly personal letter is better. We (we of the society of the rejected) will remember favorably that you took the time. It doesn't have to go into much detail about why you didn't give them/us the job; that could veer into seeming disparaging.

Worst letter I ever got was a rejection POSTCARD from the HR department, to my department address. Ms. Manners would not approve.

I cannot believe that someone thinks not sending any rejection letter is better. That behavior is lazy and NOT ACCEPTABLE. I am shouting. You are just avoiding it because writing rejections is unpleasant. Candidates should not have to contact your frickin' department weeks or months after the fact to grovel and ask "Oh by the way, have you rejected me yet?" The application process is demeaning enough; try to treat us with a minimal level of respect.

Anonymous said...

I've always assumed that my department members and I will continue to be professional colleagues of short-list finalists to whom we don't immediately offer positions. We will see them at meetings; we'll be on programs with them; as administrators, we'll learn and benefit from their successes and innovations at other institutions. And we are colleagues, as well, of candidates' mentors. I always offer to keep in touch with finalists whom we have not hired, to pass names along to others conducting similar searches, and to talk either in person, via email, or at meetings about career paths and possibilities. Over the years, that practice has seemed appreciated by both candidates and their mentors. Indeed, it has led to more than one "down the road" hire, when a candidate we initially rejected has developed more experience and bolstered his/her credentials. The practice takes time, but finalists, in particular, have invested time in the application process, and they deserve to be treated as the professionals and colleagues that they are. And all of us have an interest in developing those who one day will succeed us as chairs of search committees.

Anonymous said...

I received a wonderful rejection last year. It was a form letter, but they decided to return the application materials as well. Alas, they also included other candidates rejetions letters and materials as well. It made me remember that no one is perfect, including the search committee.

Anonymous said...

Whatever you do, do NOT begin the rejection letter with "Congratulations on your excellent application." I don't know what idiot decided that would be a good way to word scholarship rejection letters, but it ticked severall of us right off.

Anonymous said...

Was the rejection postcard from a business in the UK which sells homewares? I have recieved one too,I don't like the format where anyone card read it. I won't be applying for jobs with that business again.

Aaron said...

Not the same Aaron who posted previously: I applied to grad school in epidemiology and I got some wonderful acceptance letters (the BIG envelope!), but I also got a couple rejections. The worst way to get a rejection letter: by email that got sent to my blackberry while working out.

As for jobs, it's hard not getting anything at all, which is becoming more common. It's nice to hear from the company that I sent my freshly drafted cover letter/resume, especially after I have to either write essays for a hospital application or submit highly personal information (like a certification document number). I'd really like to hear back that my information will be kept confidential or whether I am welcome to apply again after a certain number of days.

-Aaron

Aaron said...

A different Aaron than below: I got my rounds of grad school acceptances/rejections recently. Thankfully, the BIG envelope came first. The worst rejection I got was delivered by email that came straight to my blackberry while I was working out. Didn't appreciate that one.

The most constructive rejection letter mentioned that I should retake the GRE to be considered. That made my decision easy: not to retake. But, that was because I had been accepted to a better epidemiology program.

FemaleScienceProfessor, if you ever get on this site, it would be cool to chat about science and teaching with you.

-Aaron-

Anonymous said...

It is especially important to reject faculty candidates gently, especially after an interview! How would you feel if the candidate that you DID make an offer to just ignored you and didn't respond to your offer?