Rejection letters for dummies

While we see a lot of advice for people on the job market, it is much more rare to see tips for people on the other side of the process. This is a shame, as poor execution on the side of the hiring institution can cause significant unnecessary emotional distress. While there is a lot that could be changed, I’d like to start by providing tips for one of the most common documents produced by academic departments: rejection letters. It’s a delicate moment, to be sure, but I think many common practices, even well-intended ones, make the situation worse. As such, here is my advice:

  1. Send a physical letter to all rejected applicants. First of all, of course, one should actually notify unsuccessful applicants. All of them have put considerable work into the application packet, and simply assuming they’ll get the idea if they don’t hear from you is disrespectful. Sending a paper letter has two benefits over e-mail: it takes more effort (hence showing some modicum of respect for the applicants’ efforts) and it is less likely than an e-mail to “ambush” the applicant at an inopportune moment.
  2. Don’t try to reassure the applicant. The last person the applicant wants to hear praise from is the person notifying them that yet another avenue of professional advancement has been closed off to them. Learning that their file, “while excellent,” did not make the cut is more likely to produce despair than consolation.
  3. It’s not about you. Do not talk about the difficulty of the decision. It can come across as asking for pity from the very person you are disappointing.
  4. It’s also not about the other applicants. Nothing is gained by sharing that you received over 100 applications — basically every job does. Also, implicit comparisons to the successful applicant are distasteful. Obviously you preferred that person, and obviously you had a good reason to do so. Language like “we hired a candidate who more closely met our requirements” is both unnecessary and slightly arrogant, implying a degree of certainty and rigor that no hiring process can actually provide. If we change the formula to make it more honest — “we hired a candidate who we believe will prove to be a better fit” — it becomes clear that these kinds of statements are redundant.
  5. Don’t string applicants along. If you’ve moved to the level of screening interviews, alert the leftovers that they should give up hope right away. If you think you may need to dip back into the other applications after screening interviews, then select a limited number of secondary choices and alert everyone else. It may be more convenient to leave everyone “in contention” in some sense, but it’s inappropriate for candidates to have to turn to the rumor mill to figure out where they stand. If they no longer have a real shot, let them know yourself.
  6. Take responsibility. Phrasing like “your application is no longer under consideration” is disturbingly Orwellian, implying that the application (as an active agent) somehow failed to measure up to an objective standard — when the reality is that a group of people made a decision. That group has the real agency; “we” should be the subject of all sentences relating to hiring decisions.
  7. Keep it short. All the candidate can do at this point is put the disappointment behind them — providing extraneous materials allowing them to speculate about alternative histories is not helpful. It may seem impersonal to use a “just the facts” tone, but then the purpose of this letter is, after all, to inform someone that you are not intending to have an ongoing relationship with them.

So with those tips in mind, here is my proposed form letter:

Dear [applicant],

Thank you for your interest in [our position]. We are writing to inform you that [we are no longer considering your application / we have hired another candidate].


[Search chair]

16 thoughts on “Rejection letters for dummies

  1. See, I think this is fine advice, but I’ve heard from folks who’ve gotten extremely curt letters *exactly* like your suggestion that they found them dismissive, hostile, etc. I think this is an area where what you prefer may not be a universal preference, and no matter what you do, someone is going to be angry that you didn’t do it another way. This is very much like a discussion among authors about rejection letters that’s been going on for years: there are people who’ve HATED getting personalized or idiosyncratic or genuinely apologetic letters of rejection and those who’ve LOVED getting them, often pretty much disagreeing over very nearly the same letter or the same kind of practice from a well-known editor.

    On the job I got closest to before getting my current position, it mattered a lot to me to feel like I “almost” got it–gave me the will to go back into the market another year.

  2. I prefer the longer letters insomuch as they give some feedback. Hence, I would like to know that 100 rather than 300 applied or that someone else bettered covered the core areas. But only if they intend to deliver that as informative information and not garbage.

  3. I have found that people like to give an excuse in the case someone inquires about their fortune with a particular application, and being able to say, for example, that “they were looking for someone with more of an X focus,” in good faith, can facilitate the often awkward process of telling other people that you didn’t get a certain job.

  4. I don’t agree with — but can totally understand — the point Tim raises; it’s not an easy question, and I can see why different departments come to different conclusions (even if my subjective feeling is more like Adam’s). But I think it’s undeniable that the departments that don’t even bother to formally reject you at all are being total assholes about it, and this was where Adam’s post hits home for me. One can come to differing conclusions about HOW to notify people, and have different opinions about it, in good faith. But the overwhelming majority of my rejections (~90%) were simply dead silence (and I had to turn to the wiki to find out that I’d been rejected, long after I actually had been), and that’s just indefensible. Given that all you have to do is write a form email and spend a few minutes typing names into an address field, the fact that the majority of hiring committees DON’T do this is infuriating.

  5. I actually don’t at all mind not getting a response. I know this puts me in the decided minority, and for this reason don’t think it should be the trend. It could just be because I applied to for many British jobs, and no replying seemed to be the rule there, I got used to it, and learned simply to assume, upon posting the application, that I didn’t get the job.

  6. Once you’ve come to make that assumption, or it becomes the rule rather than just the thing you try to tell yourself but never quite believe, the physical letter or email confirming your assumption becomes surprisingly debilitating.

  7. After reading so many blog posts about search committees who never contact those eliminated from the search, I expected to not be contacted by anyone. So I am mostly numb to the silence. After hearing nothing from 99% of the places I applied to, I received one interview at the APA and now one on-campus interview. Can someone do a post on how to seal deal at the on-campus interview? It would be quite helpful.

  8. Nick, congratulations on your interview. Others can probably speak to the advice issue better than me, as I’ve only done one and it was at a pretty unique institution. But the impression I get is that your focus should probably be on not overtly screwing yourself over rather than on “nailing it.” The final decision is not necessarily going to track closely with who “did best” on the campus visit — though doing poorly will hurt your chances, doing well (unless you somehow prove to be superhumanly awesome) is just going to cement their pre-existing perception of you as a top candidate.

    And I don’t think it’s necessarily a matter of “saying the wrong thing,” but of coming across as an asshole or someone they wouldn’t want to spend time with. Unflappable easy-goingness should be the goal.

  9. The unfortunate thing about rejections becoming less personal–especially when one has had the campus interview, invested significant time and money in transcripts, phone calls, etc.–is that the possibility of future collaborations and collegiality between yourself and those on the search committee is lessened. In fact, the two adjuncting situations I currently have (Lebanon Valley College and Penn State) came from a rejection for a position that was a bit of a reach for me anyway and from a cancelled search.

  10. With one of my first rejections, from a different institution, I had to read the letter several times; it was padded with so much “God’s got great plans” language that it was difficult to know if they were saying “no” or that I made it to the next round. So, in one sense, I appreciated the simplicity and candour of this more recent one; there was no doubt about their decision. However, in another sense it did come across rather cold, which was not so pleasant. Then again, it was my tenth so I might have been reading it through the lens of previous rejections.

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