Thanks but no thanks - the rejection letter from hell.


The Great Depression aside, there has rarely been a worse time to apply for a job. And yet for anyone leaving college or school, or simply attempting to recover from the cruelty of redundancy, it has never been more essential. So with high hopes and trepidation, thousands of people are entering the CV bear pit every day - but the level of competition means success can be highly elusive and rejection a harsh and repetitive experience. Such is the joyous reality of a compromised economy.

However, the most common complaint from job seekers tends not to be the rejections but the complete lack of any response whatsoever. Personally, I consider this to be the height of rudeness, demonstrating contempt for talented people and reflecting extremely badly on the company. That said, the ill-considered, conceited rejection letter can be just as bad.

A reader of was recently assailed by just such a communication. Not a letter, but a mammoth email, BCCed to more than 900 applicants. Following a couple of paragraphs of self-satisfied waffle the correspondent launched into a comprehensive list of bullets, suggesting ways in which the applicant might do better in future.

The vacancy was for a writer with a start-up website and these are the bullet points. My observations follow each one:

Do be a badass
I actually hired one of the 900+ applicants within minutes of reading his application. He writes for a popular site that I'm a huge fan of and is a terrifically talented writer. After I first read his email, I looked up his writing and found a lot of articles that I have enjoyed over the years. I replied back asking if he'd like to work for us. Later that day, his friend and colleague applied and was similarly insta-hired. These two guys are dream hires for us (don't tell them that though, don't want them to get cocky around the virtual office) and it was easy to pull the trigger and bring them on board quickly.

A lot of those applicants who passed into the second round have experience writing for outlets like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post, CNN, MNN, and Mashable. When I saw a portfolio link from sites like that, I quickly added the writer to the second round list and moved on to the next new application. A prominent portfolio link won't get you hired by us, but it will earn you a closer consideration.

'Badass'? Are you kidding? Quite apart from the fact that the word is a dreadful Americanism better suited to Bruce Willis movies, it is utterly unprofessional to use it in a rejection letter. What's more, the advice is as hollow as toilet roll tube, suggesting that success with this unknown, unproven project is guaranteed if you're already a writer with one of the world's best known newspapers. Thanks for that.

Do read the ad and do exactly what it asks.
Please note: We're sticklers for details.I made it very clear that anyone interested in the jobs described in the ad should send an email with "Clean Tech Application" in the subject with a resume, 2-3 social media links, 3-5 links of great portfolio pieces, and a paragraph on why the applicant was worthy of a hire. Right below that I even included a strong hint that we're sticklers for details. I meant it.

The ideal application was a correctly subjected email with a paragraph of text, 2-3 social media links, and 3-5 portfolio links. It was a test for how much attention to detail you actually pay and it was a valuable tool to have in the filtering process. I didn't adhere to a strict policy of passing over applicants because they didn't exactly fit into the ideal, but when I was faced with a borderline applicant who shared eleven stories he had written, I was more inclined to pass him over.

The point is actually a good one. As someone who has been responsible for hiring talent now and again, it is surprising how many candidates haven't clearly read the recruitment advertisement and its requirements. Nevertheless, if one is going to claim to be a 'stickler for detail', it is rather daft to then state you didn't strictly apply the criteria.

Don't talk yourself into being filtered out.
An application email is not the place for over-zealous humble self-awareness. Some of you lead your email saying that while that you may not be the greatest writer or have any experience in clean technology or an English degree or even ever blogged before, that you are ready to prove yourself with your hard work and perseverance. While I appreciate the admission of not being the perfect candidate, you don't want that to be the first thing you tell me if you want me to hire you. It shouldn't be the third or ninth either. Talk about your strengths, not your weaknesses. Let your work speak for you.

Yes, this is sound advice. It's perfectly understandable that a candidate wouldn't wish to give an impression of arrogance but modesty can be just as hobbling. Telling the assessor you're not ideally suited for the job isn't a strong gambit.

  Don't tell me how great this job would be for you.
One of the best things about starting up a new site like this is being able to give good work to great writers. I am happy and excited to help someone further their career goals and pay their bills, but that is not the first thing I want to read about in your application email. Focus on telling me how you can help out our organisation.

I haven't seen any of the applications giving rise to this email, but did people really say they wanted the job to pay the bills? Personally, I don't have a problem with a candidate saying the position would be a great career move and surely 'Why would you like this post?' is a standard interview question?

Don't boast about how many articles or posts you have written.
I'm not impressed by someone who has "written more than 10,000 posts!". I might be impressed by someone who has over ten years years (sic) of experience in online media, but reading someone rave about the incredible number of posts they have written usually made me click right over them.

This comment is a paradox wrapped in a contradiction. The notion that ten years' experience in online media is highly desirable but a large volume of work is a turn off makes not an iota of sense. And remember that 'stickler for detail' claim? Seems that doesn't extend to deleting repeated words.

Don't tell me that you are skeptical of me.
One of you kicked off your application by telling me that you had done some research on us and that you were skeptical because the internet is a crazy place. You were an easy one to skip.

Okay, perhaps it wasn't the ideal way to introduce an application, but the employer needs to understand their status. They are a start-up website, with no track record. Anyone with any sense would be skeptical. And the internet IS a crazy place. It has cats playing pianos.

Don't send Squidoo links.
No offense to Seth Godin and his fantastic team at Squidoo, but a Squidoo link probably should not be used as an example of serious writing work that you've done. I would say the same goes for anything done on Associated Content, Examiner, eHow, Mahalo, Demand Media, or any other content-farming website.

Woah! Just one minute there. We know Squidoo is a free content site and anyone can post there, but it is also highly successful. The employer's site hasn't even launched and its credibility is therefore non-existent. What is more, if the article is well written, why would it matter which site carries it?

Don't start every sentence in your application with 'I'.
A few of you were guilty of this one. Switch up your words.

Well, yes. Tricky on a job application though. And 'switch up'? This isn't The Wire .

 Don't send me your picture.
I don't care what you look like.

Why not? Obviously it would be utterly wrong to base a decision on the candidate's looks, but to say you 'don't care' just sounds dismissive and ill-mannered.

Do capitalize and use punctuation.
a job email int a txt mssg 2 ur bff

Just as important in the rejection letter as the application, note.

Don't put your cover letter/introduction text into an attachment.
Make it easy for me to get excited about hiring you. I don't want to have to open a word document to read about why you'd be a good hire, put that up front and center in your email.

Hmmm. That is your personal preference, you didn't specify this in the ad and is it such a trial to open a document?

Do keep it short and sweet.
Tell me a little bit about yourself: where you've written before and a few sentences on why you are awesome. Short and sweet.

Hilarious. Just take a look at the length of this rejection letter. Not short and certainly not sweet. Ironic though.

 Don't describe yourself as zany, crazy, or wild.
Zany is not high on the lists of attributes we're looking for. I don't imagine it's high on the list of many companies, this side of birthday clown agencies.

Agreed. Worrying that anyone describe themselves as 'zany' in any circumstances.

Don't ask me questions.
I had 900+ email applications to go through. I'm not going to email with you and answer questions about the job on the first pass. If you want to apply, give me the information asked for in the ad. If you want to know more about me and my partners, click over to Google.

No. No, no, no. You are looking for high-quality candidates and to recruit them you're going to have to do some work. If the applicants have questions, you have the responsibility to answer them. Otherwise you don't deserve the best people. You have no business moaning to the candidates how many applications you had to examine. This betrays a terrible attitude.

Don't talk about SEO.
I know it's important for a site to have good SEO and all, but I don't want to hire writers who stress their ability to write "SEO-optimized" or "keyword dense" stories. Our primary goal is to develop great content, not to try to position ourselves better for Google's spiders.

Why on earth not? You are about to launch a new website, based on written content and you don't want writers with an understanding of SEO? Astonishing.

Don't apply using a Gmail profile picture of you making a pouty face.
You know, like this:

Yes. That goes without saying. Or should do.

Don't tell me how afraid of Facebook you are.
If you are a writer who publishes work online and you're not on Facebook, you are likely to get left behind. It's important to understand how social media works and Facebook is, right now, where social media is at. Saying things like "Facebook is scary because people can steal your information" and "social media gives me no benefit" tells me you just don't get it.

Preposterous. Not being on Facebook makes one a bad on-line writer? Really? Have you read the standard of language on Facebook? You're saying Squidoo (a site which publishes full articles) has no currency, but Facebook (a site which is all about telling people how drunk you got on holiday) is 'where social media is at'.

Do have a good reason for why I should hire you.
The reason I want to hire you is because you're a great writer with experience covering the topics I want to focus on. You're reliable, creative, tenacious, and easy to work with. That's why I want to hire you, not because you are ready to use your degree or because you really need a job or because you love writing SO much. This one is really important; your first sentence needs to introduce you to the reader and clearly lay out why he would be crazy not to hire you. Put yourself in the mind of the person doing the hiring and tell them what you can do to make his life easier.

Well, yes. Obviously do this.

Don't write badly.
Like I said above, I am thankful that we're hiring writers. If someone can't write a good application, they're not going to be able to write a good story. Some of you are just bad writers. It's harsh, but true. Anyone can write, not everyone can get paid to do it.

May I be so bold as to suggest the writer of these bullets is not a particularly good writer?

  Don't use a pen name.
We're not going to hire a pen name. We're going to hire a person.

As opposed to a dog or a carrot, then.

Do aim low if you don't have the experience.
I'm 1,000% more likely to hire someone without a strong background in green media as an intern than as a staff feature writer. If you don't have a lot of experience, you often have to start from the bottom. Working as our intern isn't glamorous, but it is an entry into the world of green media. If you don't have a particularly deep background for a job, see if there is a lower level position within the same company or industry that you are qualified for. Getting the first job is the hardest and aiming low can ease that difficulty and get your foot in the door.

While true, a rejection letter is not the place for basic career guidance. It is VERY patronising.

Do use paragraph breaks.
454 words is a tad much for a leading paragraph. Somewhere under 100 words is ideal. Remember short and sweet. Your entire first email probably shouldn't be more than 250 words in all.

It's that 'short and sweet' problem again.

Don't ask me questions answered in the ad.
"Are you by any chance looking for editors and proofreaders who can work from home?" Yes, as we clearly stated in the ad.

Fair enough.

 Don't just send your resume.
Seriously. You're just wasting all of our time. The same goes for one and two sentence applications.

And yet you were complaining about the length and volume of applications just a few bullets ago. A CV is at least 'short and sweet'.

Don't use junky stats to make yourself look good.
Numbers can be a great way of quantifying the reach and impact that a writer has, but only when done with good stats. Good stats are things like your Twitter follower count, the number of fans your Facebook author page has, and the number of years that you've been working in online media. Junky stats are things like claiming the entire readership of a large site (someone bragged about how they wrote for a content farm site that pulls in more than twenty million readers a day), the number of Facebook friends you have, or vague claims like having "a following of more than 50,000." You have 11 Twitter followers and you have a following of 50,000?

And presumably, your site will not be using statistics to promote its services to advertisers.

Don't get crazy with the text formatting.
You'd be perfectly fine if you sent everything in size 12 Helvetica or Times New Roman. There shouldn't be six different sizes and typefaces used in your email. And lay off the emotes and other little icons. I like a good :D or :) as much as any guy, and sometimes you just have to, but not in the very first email that you send me.

Again, I'm amazed anybody would use emoticons in a job application.

Don't use the word "passionate".
It's entirely over-used. Don't say you have a passion for something or are passionate about a topic. "Ever since I can remember" and "Ever since I was a little kid" showed up a lot too.

It is overused, you're right. But sometimes it's the correct word and it is just as important to understand how to use full stops with inverted commas.

Do tell me what position you are applying for.
Preferable in the first sentence or two. A lot of applications either waited until the end of their email or left it out entirely. And saying that you would be fine with anything I have to offer comes off sounding desperate.

Or in the subject line, as you asked?
Don't send me your poetry.
I'm sure it's perfectly lovely poetry, but we're not hiring poets at the moment. Stay focused on sharing writing that shows off things that I am looking to hire for.

This is a good life lesson - nobody should ever apply for a job with poetry. Not even a job as a poet.

Don't bounce back and forth between the first and third person.
It's just weird.

No, don't.

Don't brag about not doing things you're not supposed to do.
Think about it, should you really be telling me that you never have confrontational relationships with editors or that you never flake out? There is no reason to ever tell a prospective employer that you won't do something you shouldn't do. It goes without saying that you won't get confrontational with us and that every assignment will come in on-time and spell-checked. Also, don't tell me that you don't write fluff and that you don't cut-corners. You're not supposed to do those things.

But who's to say what is an important point and what is 'taken as read'?

Don't offer to snail mail me an article that you've written.
I'll leave this one at that.

Get you with your fancy 'modern' terminology. And why not?

Don't talk shit about your current or past employers.
File that one under Job Applyin' 101.

And NEVER use profanity in a rejection letter to someone who has taken the time and effort to apply for your modest job opportunity.

  Don't waste my time by telling me you're not going to waste my time.
A few of you spent the first few sentences verbally dancing around with things like "Time is money, so I'll keep this brief" or "Since I am pressed to get everything into one paragraph, I won't waste any time by beating around the bush. In fact, I will not even waste your time by..." Cut the chatter and get to it. Along those lines,

'Cut the chatter'? Have you heard yourself?

don't think aloud.
Think about what you want to say before moving your fingers to type. Saying things like this are not particularly effective-"Where do I start? How can I describe why I would be a great hire for you?" or "Why should you hire me? Blech...that question always throws me for a loop."


Don't tell me you have had a busy week and will be sending your resume later.
I understand not wanting to miss a window of opportunity for a job, but if you don't have everything together required of a job application, wait until you do before you send your first email. Your initial introduction to a potential employer shouldn't be one that suggests you may lack good time management skills. Or even worse was the guy who said that since he's been working in accounting for the past ten years, he doesn't have a resume to submit but that he'd be happy to share the names of people who would vouch for him.

Quite, quite.

Don't challenge me and my writers.
One of you issued me a challenge to show that you are better than any of our current writers. That comes off like the drunk local guy at the pub asking to arm wrestle everyone in the joint.

It is a bold proposition, but why not take them up on the challenge? Call their bluff? They might be onto something.

Don't try to be funny.
Comedy is hard to get right and easy to screw up. I appreciate a good joke and a sense of humor is pretty much mandatory for fitting in with the rest of our crew, but don't treat your application like a stand up act.

Again, why not? If the humour works, then you probably have yourself a good writer.

Don't spell things wrogn.
See what I did there? Seriously though, a misspelled word is a huge buzz kill for someone wading through a flood of job applications. It implies that you are too lazy to proof your own work or to have someone edit it for mistakes and it doomed many of your applications to be passed by.

Oh, yes. We see what you did there. Unfortunately there are other proofing errors in this rejection email which are not intentional.

Don't email me a novella.
One of you sent me an 11-page resume with a 2,500+ word email. For a moment I thought Dwight Schrute was applying for a job. Short is best. A resume should be no more than two pages, the application email itself no more than a few paragraphs.

I refer you to my previous observations about brevity.

Do read everything out loud before you send it.
And keep doing it while you edit until everything sounds like you want it to.

As you, quite clearly, did not.

Never go anywhere without your towel.
The Universe is a strange place.

Sorry, did you not advise against attempts at humour? I would particularly suggest you do not attempt to steal gags from the late Douglas Adams.
So there it is. While one or two points are valid, the communication overall is condescending, egotistical and smug. As it was sent to so many people, it cannot possibly be relevant to any single applicant and is therefore just the bleating of a blowhard, drunk on their smattering of power and overly impressed with themselves.

Surely all an applicant really wants is an acknowledgment of their application, a definite yes or no and a touch of personalised feedback? So, a lecture from a self-important assessor with megalomania issues is always going to be as unhelpful as it is unwelcome.

STOP PRESS: The author of the email has written a response here:

Magnus Shaw - writer, blogger and broadcaster


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