Last December, Elly Nowell was interviewed for a place at Magdalen College, Oxford, to study law. When she got home, she sat down and composed a letter to the ancient institution. "I very much regret to inform you that I will be withdrawing my application," she wrote. "I realize you may be disappointed by this decision, but you were in competition with many fantastic universities and following your interview I am afraid you do not quite meet the standard of the universities I will be considering."
This 19-year-old girl has taught me two important things about rejection letters. First is how well they work in the wrong direction: from candidate to interviewer. To have the powerless rejecting the powerful not only does the soul a great deal of good, it may make sense tactically. To dump a complacent boyfriend is a time-honoured ploy; I don't see why the same shouldn't work with jobs and university places. If there is anyone with any spark in Magdalen's law faculty they will surely be regretting this plucky, funny girl who got away. (Though perhaps wondering if law, that dullest of all dull courses, was right for her.)
Second, by mimicking the standard rejection letter, Ms. Nowell reveals what a pathetic form of communication it is. Patronizing, disingenuous, all-round beastly. There is only one accepted way of writing these things, used by all organizations everywhere, and it contains three bits that go like this. "Thank you for your interest in," they all begin. "We have had a record number of highly qualified applicants and regret that…" And then, an upbeat ending: "We wish you all the best for your future."
All three elements are shockers; far from softening the blow they intensify it. First, as a reject, you don't want to be thanked for your "interest," as what you were showing wasn't interest, but desire for a position. Neither is it remotely comforting to know how many other great applicants there were. Worst of all, no one appreciates hollow good wishes from someone who is telling them to shove off.
When putting rejection into words, less is more. When one of my children was rejected from a university it was less upsetting to see the naked word UNSUCCESSFUL against the entry on the online application form than to read the letter which arrived a couple of days later with its bad tidings routinely packaged with insincere good wishes.
One might think there were nicer ways of saying no. Howard Junker, the founder of literary magazine ZYZZYVA used to return short stories with a covering letter that began: "Gentle writer, Please forgive me for returning your work and not offering comments. I would like to think of something to make up for my ungraciousness, but I don't think a few quick remarks would really help." He signed off with a handwritten, "Onward! J"
How charming, I thought when I first heard of this. But then I read a blog from a not-so-gentle writer who had received the very same letter on many occasions and found it anything but charming. The point is that no standardized letter can ever soften any blow. Rejection is rejection and it hurts.
Indeed, sometimes a brutal rejection is better. Antony Sher often describes the letter he got from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art that said: "Not only have you failed the audition and we do not want you to try again, but we seriously recommend that you think about a different profession."
Similarly, some 30 years ago a senior colleague of mine applied for a job at the Economist and got a rejection letter back from the editor's secretary asking him not to contact the editor again. Such rudeness can only make the recipient think "screw you" and fill them with just the right sort of bloody mindedness to fight on until they make it.
The only worthwhile kind of rejection letter is one that gives reasons. Ms. Nowell told Magdalen that she thought it stuck up and off-putting to candidates who didn't come from posh schools, a point the college might do well to ponder.
In offering an explanation, she wasn't mimicking the normal style: employers almost never give reasons for fear of being sued, or because they don't want to enter into a dispute, or because their hiring processes are so opaque they don't know the explanation themselves.
The best rejection letter I ever received contained a reason I will never forget. I had written to a Mr. Ivan Sallon, city editor of the Sunday Telegraph, asking for a job. He replied saying that there were no vacancies and went on: "May I offer you a word of advice? When applying for a job, do take care to get names right." The letter was signed: Ivan Fallon.