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, fellowships or even the Bahamas 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 there are many application processes that 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 applicants 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 organisations growth in reviewing capacity almost always lags behind it's 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 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 be able 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 go looking something up if it’s not clear. Don’t assume you will get a chance 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 peoples 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.

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Thank you for writing this. 

I think this post is helpful in two ways, firstly by giving life advice as to how to think about rejection (and perhaps also success), secondly by giving more insight into the review process and how that should inform the application. Looking at the whole process from the reviewer's perspective is great advice.

To me, it seems like one could expand on how the first advice generalizes to other areas of life. One is always presenting oneself in a particular context, where some features are payed attention to and others are not (or at least not initially). This is something that we need to understand clearly when interpreting feedback, be it a bad grade, the rejection of a romantic interest or the frown of a stranger. Each of these events does not necessarily say something about "who we are", they are judgements based on a very limited representation of ourselves and there are multiple steps along the way where things might have gone wrong. 
Naturally, this applies in the other direction as well, though that is less likely to occur. Demonstrating a positive quality without actually having it is less likely than failing to demonstrate said positive quality while actually having it. This can be offset by competent deception and premature self-rejection, respectively.
It is interesting to square this with the point in the post, where the reviewer focuses on avoiding the presumably less common false positive (letting an unsuitable applicant in). I think this just emphasizes that suitable applicants can get rejected and that they shouldn't take this to heart.

As it stands, the post presents the reviewing process as an immutable reality that the potential applicant should adapt to. I think this fits the scope of the post well and makes it immediately helpful.