Remember when dealing with any application process as either an applicant or a reviewer that the application is not the applicant. It’s like something to do with maps and territories. Applications for jobs, schools, funding, grants, internships, events or fellowships all have this same problem.
For rejections in particular, it’s important to remember that it is not you that has been rejected, but your application. We hope that application processes are filtering for the right things, but many application processes are a skill in itself to be mastered.
When we were hiring for a position last year, we gave everyone that didn’t make it to the interview stage an opportunity to talk with us and get feedback on their application. There were definitely people who, if their applications better represented who they actually are, would have easily been among the top few candidates. Of course, the opposite is true as well. But we are quite familiar with seeing applicants turn out to be not as good when interviewed.
Accounting for some of this, I try to word rejections around the application, not the applicant. “Your application was not…” rather than “You were not…”
The incentives are for high precision, not high recall. It is acceptable to reject a good candidate (false negative) but not to accept a bad candidate (false positive). So there are a lot of good candidates that get rejected. Reviewers need to be accurate about those they accept but not those they reject, so a rejection has more potential to be a bad signal of the applicant's fit. It might be a good signal that the application is bad though.
Review processes need to be efficient more than they are effective. An organisation's growth in reviewing capacity almost always lags behind its growth in applicants. It's never enough, and with false negatives being acceptable, reviewers are often looking for reasons to reject, more than they are to accept. Particularly in the early stages.
When applying for things, you should always assume the reviewer is incredibly lazy. And, at least with respect to any one application, they kind of are. I have often rejected people because they haven't answered a question properly enough for me to judge them in any way. Reviewers don’t know anything about you other than what is written on the page and are unlikely to look something up if it’s unclear. Don’t assume you will get an opportunity to explain things in more detail in an interview.
I have seen plenty of instances of either people or projects being wildly different or misrepresented by what is in an application. It is far more common for the application to be underwhelming than an exaggeration. If you get a rejection for something, go back to your application and see what was actually rejected.
People will spend years studying hard in a particular field only to start getting really selective about wasting their time. You’ve achieved mastery in your field, but this won’t count for much if you don’t have any skills in application processes. There are some really low-hanging fruits that would massively improve a lot of people's applications.
Hot tip: If you want to learn how to write a good application or resume, use resources for how to review applications, resumes or interviews. Looking at the process from the reviewers perspective quickly allows you to see things you would have never noticed from resources for how to write a good application. As someone pointed out to me recently, it is like a generative adversarial network (GAN)
When it comes to grants and funding, it’s really important to remember that when someone tells you their project didn’t get funded, their application may not describe the same project they describe to you.
Be careful what you update on.