I know there’s no point in taking it personally when you’re rejected for a job. When I do get rejected, I can usually come up with a reason why I wasn’t a good fit, even if I’d been excited about it previously. For example, one time I realized that the interviewer sounded like they really wanted someone with a particular skill that I don’t have. Another time I was pretty sure they had an internal candidate on the team who they wanted to promote.
But I’m not sure how to deal with rejection when I genuinely thought the job would be an amazing fit for me, and yet I didn’t get an offer. This has happened a few times lately. In one case, I was a perfect match for the qualifications listed in the ad and the interviewer seemed enthusiastic about working together … and then I didn’t even make it to the final round of interviews.
It’s one thing when I can see the reason I might have been rejected, but if an employer decides I’m not “good enough” for a job that matches me perfectly, how will I ever get hired anywhere?
You’re falling into the very common trap of trying to read too much meaning into the results of your job applications. Hiring processes tend to be frustratingly opaque to candidates, and when you combine that with how high the stakes feel if you’re really interested in the job, it’s natural to try to read into whatever the outcome is — and to draw conclusions about yourself along the way.
It sounds like you’re thinking of getting hired as pass/fail: If you’re good enough, you’ll get the job. And if you don’t get the job, you’re not good enough … and possibly a horrible failure in general.
But that’s not how hiring works. You could be someone who the hiring manager would be delighted to hire, but another candidate just ended up being stronger. That doesn’t mean you suck — in fact, if that person hadn’t been in the applicant pool, the job might have gone to you. (That’s frustrating in a different way, of course — but it’s not a referendum on you in the way you’re currently thinking.)
Frankly, it’s impossible to know from the outside what’s going on behind the scenes in a hiring process.
For one thing, hiring isn’t always as strictly merit-based as you might think it is. There are the obvious exceptions, like jobs that go to the CEO’s cousin’s kid or to an internal candidate who has to be promoted for political reasons. But there are other ways that plays out, too — like when the candidate who’s strongest on paper gets passed over for a slightly less strong candidate who will get along better with a difficult stakeholder or demanding boss. There’s also the much maligned “culture fit,” which can indeed be problematic (like when it ends up screening out people of different ages or races), but which can sometimes be legitimate (like, “we’re really entrepreneurial here and you seem to prefer a lot of structure and hierarchy”).
But even beyond that, there are lots of other reasons why qualified candidates get rejected. Most importantly, like I mentioned at the start, no matter how qualified you are, someone else can always be more qualified. Or someone else might be equally qualified — but if there’s only one position to fill, only one of you is getting hired. I’ve had times when I happily would have hired two or three or even more of the candidates I interviewed for a role, but I could only hire one of them — which means that really good people were getting rejected.
It’s also always possible that an employer is looking for a qualification that you didn’t know about — sometimes because they didn’t realize they wanted it until they saw it in someone else (like fluency in a foreign language, for example, or an impressive slate of fundraising contacts).
Moreover, things can change during a hiring process. Maybe you perfectly matched the qualifications they advertised for, but since then they’ve learned their Excel expert is leaving and now they’re looking for someone who can fill that gap, too. Other things can change as well, like budgets (which can change the level they’re hiring for), managers (a new manager might have different ideas about the role), and projects (new or canceled projects can change what’s prioritized in a new hire).
And the interview itself can reveal ways in which you’re not quite the right match, despite your qualifications. Maybe you’re soft-spoken and they’re looking for someone more assertive. Maybe you have great experience organizing high-profile, big budget events, but they need someone who can work with smaller budgets. Sometimes this type of rejection is even in your best interest! For example, if you talked in the interview about wanting a lot of independence and autonomy and the manager for the role is a notorious micromanager, it’s smart for them screen you out — and that would be a bullet dodged for you.
Sometimes, too, it just comes down to personal style. Sometimes one personality type just fits better into a team or with a manager than another one does. That could be you in one hiring process, and someone else in a different one. And it’s very hard to know from the outside when that’s a strong factor in how an employer is evaluating candidates.
Or, of course, maybe it is about your qualifications. Maybe you’re applying for jobs that you’re not qualified enough for. But if you’re getting interviews — and it sounds like you are — it’s far more likely that your qualifications are just fine. Although it’s also worth checking in on your interview skills and making sure those aren’t doing you any disservice. For example, be sure that you’re practicing answers to the most common interview questions, and mining your experience for compelling examples of times when you’ve demonstrated the skills the job requires.
But sometimes rejections are really just about math. Since employers get more qualified candidates than they can hire, very often rejection isn’t a measure of your worth at all.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.