A Policy of rejecting rejection letters

By Daniel Gilbert

“I am sorry to inform you that your project will not be among those that we are able to fund this year. The committee had many strong applications to choose from this year, and it could not fund them all. I hope you will find another way to pursue your interests…”

As I read these words, I felt a great anger well up in me. Some invisible committee, somewhere in the recent past, had just passed judgment upon my proposal, and all the work I had done in crafting it—and it was not good enough.

This time it was the Margaret C. Annan Award, last time it was the University Tour Guide application, and the time before that, it was for a FLAG grant. Rather than becoming accustomed to the now-familiar format of the letter of rejection, I am rankled more and more each time.

Why must every committee write such formal, impersonal letters? I feel as though the same cabal were rejecting me, over and over again. Someone, somewhere, is telling me that the pool of applicants this time around was extremely talented, and thanking me for my time. I joke with friends that the University must have blacklisted me, my luck has been so bad. I fervently wish this could be the truth, because it would at least absolve my application of some glaring deficiency. I cannot know what other students have produced, but doesn’t my project merit more than a contrived, formulaic response?

Accepting the fact that others have presented superior work is not, indeed, the most difficult part of this kind of rejection; rather, it is the impression that no one has recognized me or engaged with my ideas. The impersonal tone of the letter, with the never-changing content, could be addressed to anyone, regarding any proposal. My goals and vision are dismissed, without so much as a sentence of substantive feedback.

It is the inability to assert myself, to tell someone of my plans, and to elicit their approval that weighs on me. This is not about the money. I have taken great pains to plan a summer project that I will be able to finance myself. While the funds would certainly have helped, my anger comes from the fact that no one has recognized my achievements, and that no one is supporting me in my daring proposal. I must go it alone.

I have an overwhelming urge to find the invisible committee, throw open the doors and shout: “My name is Daniel Gilbert! I’m a third-year undergraduate and this summer I am going to the edge of civilization in the Peruvian highlands to volunteer in a remote indigenous village! I am going on the adventure of my life, damn it, and you should be excited about the work I am going to produce!”

I feel partially vindicated by my last paragraph. Tracking down the actual members of the committee and making them convene would have been an arduous task, to say the least, and I hardly see a point in locating the room where the deed was done. Instead I have made my speech in print, where any committee member who has ever rejected a student proposal may read it, and to satisfy my flair for the dramatic, I have you, my readers, as an audience.

At this point, I would like to make a further statement to the members who composed the Annan Committee: “Dear Committee, thank you for your inconsiderate letter of rejection, which, rather than dampening my fervor, has fired up my ambition. I am now more determined than ever to come up with a writing project that will knock your socks off. Yours cordially, Daniel Gilbert.”

While I have somehow found a positive outcome in having my proposal shot down and unceremoniously laid to rest, there is still something terribly wrong with these letters of rejection. For one, there is absolutely nothing constructive about them; they offer no advice, nor do they provide any comments specific to one’s project. This is the University of Chicago, and there is no shortage of students producing interesting, important ideas here. Not only are impersonal letters unfair to students, they do not foster the development of creative projects, and they are ultimately detrimental to the intellectual community of the University. For all invisible committee members, I have a final message for you: “Shame on you for failing to encourage students to pursue their intellectual aims. Shame on you for not caring enough to provide any constructive criticism. It is your responsibility as faculty and staff to nurture the academic goals and dreams of students at this university, and it’s high time you accept it.”