Tips for dealing with the crushing inevitability of rejection

Opinion by Ethan Chua
April 11, 2017, 12:08 a.m.

Spring quarter is application season, and application season is tough. Pre-assigning to co-ops, rushing for fraternities, clinching summer internships, filling out forms for sophomore college, locking down independent research with a favorite professor — it’s draining, and all the more difficult when the rejections roll in, which they inevitably do.

Rejections often feel personally crushing, because good applications require an immense amount of reflection, and the result is usually an outpouring of the self. For example, one common question on applications for Stanford classes asks “what particular contribution do you feel you could offer?,” in a way that spotlights our individual experiences, values and attitudes. It’s only reasonable, then, that after we receive the email putting us on the waitlist or telling us about the large and competitive applicant pool, we feel as if there’s something wrong with us beyond the document we’ve just turned in.

It’s hard to maintain a distance between the applications we submit and our sense of self when the application process is growing increasingly personal. Employers now want to look into things like “emotional intelligence” and “interpersonal skills” alongside our previous job experience and educational background. Co-ops, fraternities and sororities regularly make decisions based on how well their staff thinks the applicant will “fit” into the culture of the house, which is a question of personality and disposition. Nowhere is this more true than in the Stanford application, which asks (among other things), “What matters to you and why?” How much more personal can you get?

So when I receive the inevitable email that tells me I didn’t make it, I try to remind myself of a few things.

First, even the idea of applications is a little bit absurd. The world’s greatest authors spent hundreds of pages attempting to explain a single life; student applicants are given 1,000 characters, including spaces. Fraternities, sororities and co-ops will be housing students for at least a year, but make decisions based on information that’s confined to, at most, a week. How much can a thirty-minute interview or a few days of rushing really reveal about a person? Applications are tailored toward efficiency, and they’re the only way employers or housing staff can sort through hundreds of candidates without spending their whole lives doing so. But that also means applications are inadequate, and that they in no way capture who we are.

Second, the decisions that place some individuals in classes or jobs and that leave others empty-handed are often influenced by the most arbitrary of factors. Maybe the application reader skipped her Monday coffee and was just in a fight with a friend. Maybe the co-op you had your heart set on just filled up its quota of sophomores. Maybe the professor you spent months getting to know is on leave for the spring, and left the job of reading through submissions to a TA you’ve never met. So much of the time, rejection isn’t even our fault.

Third, application processes often privilege a set of skills that have nothing whatsoever to do with the job at hand. Interviews for high-ranking positions provide advantages to those who are particularly well-spoken or friendly — but what does eloquence have to do with software development? Rushing for on-campus Greek societies is easier for students who are good at a lot of socializing in a brief period of time, but a tendency towards extroversion doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a better fit for Sig Nu or AKPsi.

And fourth, applications tend to leave out what’s most important. They may include previous experience in the field, resumes and painstakingly prepared cover letters, but they’ll never touch on the surprise party you spent weeks planning for a good friend, the late-night calls that kept someone from taking their own life, the summer breaks used to visit family, the afternoons set aside for coffee with those you love. To paraphrase Antoine de Saint-Exupery: what is essential is invisible to the eye of whomever is conducting interviews at Google this summer.

So, this spring quarter, pour your heart into explaining why you want to participate in this particular seminar. Make sure Kairos knows, to the tiniest detail, your perfect day. Tell your professor that you deserve this research position, short of showing up to her office with a homemade particle accelerator and cake. But remember, too, that what matters to you (and why) is never going to fit in 250 words or less.


Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected]


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