5 steps to writing a thoughtful rejection email

I get rejected for plenty of stuff. Jobs, conference talks, fellowships. Sometimes, the organization doesn't even bother with the bare minimum--a response email. The rejection comes when the event starts up and I'm not included, so I can pretty well figure out what happened. Sometimes I apply for something as a fluke, get a form email. And, well, there was no harm in trying.

But then sometimes, I really give a shit. I apply for something I'm excited about. I put a lot of effort into the application or talk proposal. I may even discuss my application with people involved with the organization. And then....a stock email rejection.

Are you #%)! kidding me???

Years later, I'm still annoyed at some of these stock rejection emails. I know other people hate these rejections too. So, I'd like to do a small part to make them stop. And I feel like I have some standing here cause at this point I've sent out over 1,000 rejection emails to applicants to the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship. Are some folks upset at the news they receive? Sure. But some people publicly tweet thanking us for the email and we get numerous emails of thanks for bringing some consideration to an unpleasant part of any application.

How to write a thoughtful rejection email

  1. Create a basic outline. I have a pretty standard formula in crafting any rejection email. I usually start with this baseline, and build off of it for more detailed letters. This is maybe revealing a little too much secret sauce, but I send different versions of the rejection to different applicants. Due to volume, the overwhelming majority of folks get this basic email, so it really matters how it is crafted. While I may want to send personalized messages to everyone, it's just not feasible and, really, I don't have something personalized to say to everyone anyway. But everyone should get a message that:

    • Thanks them for their time. They put effort into this. Thank them. The time they spent on the application is real and their interest is too. I want them to know that I value their efforts and hope they keep going with their work.

    • Gives a sense of the process--it was probably a really hard decision. Even if it wasn't a hard decision about their particular application, the overall process was probably challenging. If you can, give some sense of numbers that can help people understand where they fit in, too.

    • Is clear that they are not moving forward, and, I feel is important--expresses regret about that. It's a bummer to not be able to accept everyone and it is nice as an applicant to get the smallest inkling that the person sending the email cares.

    • Offer ways to stay connected. This is especially valuable when they are actually useful for the person applying and not just promoting your own stuff.

    • If capacity allows, invite people to ask questions or offer suggestions. Even emailing 500+ people, it usually takes me about 30 minutes total to field the emails that ask any questions.

  2. Build on basic outline. Most applicants get the basic thank you, but there's often a lot of people I'm excited about, but they aren't a good fit for one reason or another or there are just more of them than the space that there is available. For these folks, I add more encouragement and enthusiasm to the basic outline. I also try to figure out an even more concrete way to stay connected--maybe a followup call or an explicit invitation to participate in another activity. I want everyone who applies to know that we appreciate their time, but I want to reinforce that even more for these folks. Sure, they may never read the email once they just scan and think "stock message," but if they do, I create an additional opportunity to say "no, really, you're great and on the right path."

  3. Personalize. For as many applicants as I can, I add a personal tidbit to the #2 email. If I or someone else on our team interacted with someone, they should get a personal tidbit. If their application was super promising and I want to give a third nudge of encouragement, they'll get a personal tidbit. Sometimes it can be hard to think of something to say, but I think even just a single line makes it clear the entire message was not just auto-generated by the email service. A personal note goes a long way to helping the person feel like they really participated in a process. It helps leave them feeling connected, not like they threw their application into an abyss.

  4. Reuse and recycle. Writing these emails is hard, so I reuse them each year. I spruce them up a bit, but largely use the same formula year to year, program to program. Maybe that's lazy, but I think it's more important to put the time into planning followup and writing personal tidbits than trying to figure out how to say "thank you for applying" in a slightly different way each year.

  5. Actually stay in touch. This is without a doubt the hardest part about the process. I want to stay in touch with all of these amazing people! But I am just one person! I know this is hard and that I need to do better at it (I'm trying to figure out ways so please email me if you've found things that work well for your program). The toughest thing here is to not overpromise. "Small" examples of followup may seem inconsequential, but if the followup actually happens, it continues to build on a relationship that began (or strengthened) through the application. The intention here is also very important. If you view the notification email as the end of the interaction, you're going to approach it very differently than if you know it's part of an ongoing relationship. And in that relationship, you're going to connect with the person again. Plus, that person is a member of many communities and their friends and colleagues will hear about this experience. Depending on how you leave them with this final interaction, they may counsel their contacts to apply again or to stay away.

If you're interested, I can share some example emails we've used for both conferences and fellowship applications. The bottomline is, these notifications go to people and they're people you're likely to encounter again. If you treat it like a form email, you might then sever that relationship because the person is too annoyed to ever deal with you again. If you treat it as an invitation to stay in touch with this person, chances are next time your CFP or hiring window opens up, you'll see a lot of familiar folks who you're so glad to hear from again.