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Graduates ask: how to deal with rejection

Jaymes Carr

Careers Commentator
Applying for graduate jobs can be a long and stressful process – don't give up. Here are 6 ways to deal with rejection and move on.


'This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth the tender leaves of hopes; to-morrow blossoms, and bears his blushing honours thick upon him; the third day comes a frost, a killing frost, and, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root, and then he falls.'

— Henry VIII (c. 1613), act III, scene ii

The objectionable truth about rejection

Rejection sucks: it’s a scientific fact. In 2011, researchers at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, published a remarkable study. They recruited 40 individuals who had recently experienced the end of a romantic relationship and, while these luckless lovers were monitored by an MRI machine, researchers showed them photographs of their ex-partners (with instructions to summon up feelings of rejection) or subjected them to physical pain (via the application of ‘thermal stimulation’). The results? To quote the researchers: ‘experiences of social rejection, when elicited powerfully enough, recruit brain regions involved in both the affective and sensory components of physical pain.’ In other words, rejection doesn’t just hurt: it burns.

It’s not entirely clear why humans experience rejection so keenly. However, one compelling theory from the field of evolutionary psychology emphasises the importance of tribal inclusion during the first 90 per cent of human history (until about 10,000 years ago), when hunter-gatherer tribes represented the dominant form of social organisation. During this period, rejection from the tribe doomed one to self-sufficiency in the wilderness. Since nobody likes to become an unpopular hors d'oeuvre, we evolved to associate rejection with various unpleasant emotions, such as anxiety, jealousy, loneliness, depression, and low self-esteem.

In any case, the consensus of spurned teenagers, unacknowledged Tinder users and eminent contemporary scientists are that rejection totally blows. This is bad news for graduates too, who, more likely than not, will have to apply for several jobs before locking one down. Consider that, according to the job listing aggregator Adzuna, there are, on average, 22 graduates competing for every graduate job. That means that, for every graduate who lands a job, another 21 must lick their wounds and contemplate survival on the economic savannah. So, if you find yourself among the unlucky 21, as we all must at one point or another, this article is for you: we hope it helps you to recover from your sense of rejection and forge ahead towards the successful launch of a satisfying career.

Six ways to deal with career rejection

1. Use it as a learning experience

Missing out on a job that you really want hurts but that needn’t mean that all your efforts must amount to nothing. Instead, think about what you can salvage from the situation. For example, it’s a good idea to follow up by (politely) asking for feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of your application. You’ll be channelling some of your disappointment into constructive activity (good) and preparing yourself to swing even harder when it’s your next turn in the ring (better). (Refer to this article for tips on how to request feedback following a job rejection.)

2. Cultivate resilience

Okay, so… you probably don’t want to hear this right now, which is perfectly understandable, but you’re going to get rejected again. It mightn’t (and hopefully won’t) happen after your next job interview, but it could be later on, when you apply for a promotion, invite somebody on a date or audition for the starring role in ‘Death of a Salesman’.

Given that it’s too late to prevent the rejection you’ve already experienced, you could benefit from cultivating your ability to cope with rejection in the future. For example, recent research has shown that people who practice mindfulness recover more quickly from social rejection. Similarly, it’s clear that socialisation can help to reduce negative mental states like depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Thus, two things you can do now to benefit your future self are (1) adopt a mindful attitude by practicing regular meditation (apps like headspace, Buddhify, and Insight Timer provide a helpful guide) and (2) focus on developing your network of trusted friends so that you can rely on their healing support when you need it. You can find alternative ways to build resilience here.

3. Become a model of dignity

It seems unfair that how you handle rejection will itself be evaluated, as if, by mishandling rejection, you’re liable to be rejected all over again. Alas, woe is us, for it turns out that how you respond to rejection is considered to say a lot about who you are. Losing your cool, having a breakdown, using juvenile tactics to ‘own’ the situation (“You can’t reject me—I reject you!): though cathartic, these reactions are unlikely to reflect well on your character and certainly won’t improve your chances of securing a job in the future.

Instead, own the situation by modelling dignity and equanimity: it might be hard, but faking it until you make it can actually work. You don’t have to expunge your emotions: it’s okay to be angry, disappointed, or sad. However, you should endeavour to express how you feel at an appropriate time and place. You’ve already been a victim of rejection, and there’s not much that can be done about that; you needn’t also become a victim of your own lapsed professionalism. Respond, don’t react.

4. Practice radical self-acceptance

In his influential book Feeling Good, the psychologist David Burns advised his readers to be wary of ‘conditional self-esteem’: the belief that their self-worth fluctuates in response to external factors, like career accomplishments, relationship successes (or failures), and the like. The alternative is to practice radical acceptance in a bid to cultivate unconditional self-esteem: the realisation that your self-worth is a constant, and that nothing anybody else can say or do will affect your inherent value as a human being.

This is easier said than done, of course, so to point you in the right direction, here is a lecture on radical acceptance by the psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach; an article on how to practice radical acceptance; and an opportunity to put the skill of radical acceptance into practice.  

5. Give yourself room to express how you feel

Your emotional response to rejection—whether it be disappointment, anger, sadness, or even relief (it happens)—is legitimate, and there’s little to be gained by denying the authenticity of how you feel. In fact, often the best way to liberate yourself from an unpleasant emotion is to choose an appropriate context in which to give it full rein: whether this means crying, experiencing loss, or expressing your anger in a healthy way.

Let the sting of rejection run its course and you may discover that Shakespeare was correct: 'Anger is like a full-hot horse, who being allow’d his way, self-mettle tires him'. No fire can burn forever, so permit yourself to experience your emotions; do so in a controlled and healthy way; and then, after an appropriate amount of time, let those emotions go, heeding the words of Carl Jung: 'I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.'

6. Talk things through

Given the pain of rejection, and the possibility that you’ll experience it several times before securing a graduate job, you may find yourself feeling overwhelmed, at a loss, or uncertain of who you can talk to. Remember: searching for a job is hard and there is nothing shameful about reaching out for professional guidance. If you need help, or if you’re uncertain whether or not you need help, there are various free and confidential 24/7 services that can connect you with expert counselling and support. These include Lifeline, BeyondBlue, SANE Australia, and the National Suicide Callback Service. Alternatively, you can use the Australian government’s Head to Health website to access evidence-based digital mental health resources.

Moving on after experiencing rejection

Unfortunately, nothing we write could possibly change the fact that rejection is inevitable, and that, when it happens, it will most likely leave you feeling worse, not better. However, rejection needn’t seize control of your life or your future: it certainly shouldn’t inspire you to join in the fun by rejecting yourself. Instead, by using the strategies above, aim to allow yourself to experience disappointment and hurt in a healthy way before letting it go and setting your sights on the future. That is to say, let the sting of rejection abate; learn from it; use it as an opportunity to grow, and then reject the rejection itself. Take a deep breath and focus on the future. You’ve got bigger fish to fry.