Student recruitment should not be a rejection machine

Nov 16, 2020 | Selection & assessment | 2 comments

As applications come flooding in, Rebecca Fielding, MD of Gradconsult, explains why and how you can ensure student recruitment rejection processes put people first.

The 2020 ISE student recruitment survey shows that on average ISE employers are receiving 60 applications for every role.

These are numbers that it is easy to become de-sensitised to when you have worked in the sector a while. But just think about it for a moment.

For every job offer we make, changing the life of that one individual, we are rejecting 59 others. Many at the very first stages of our application process with little or no feedback about why, and a smaller number after they have invested significant time and energy into preparing for and completing subsequent stages of our recruitment process.

During a pandemic, in a reduced early careers market and at a time when the mental health of young people is worsening I feel strongly that the time has come for our sector to take this obligation more seriously.

We have to do more to shift our processes away from being efficient rejection machines and put the people involved in these processes back at the heart of our thinking and approach.

The work we do, and how we do it, has profound real world consequences for every single one of those 59 people who press ‘apply’ with hope in their heart that this time it would be the one.

Here are four ways that we can ensure student recruitment rejection processes put people first:


1. Write back to everyone who applies

It’s simply not good enough to say ‘If you don’t hear back from us, assume it’s a no’. Technology makes these simple communications effortless, inexpensive and efficient and a simple ‘thank you but we won’t be progressing your application….’ makes a big difference to those people anxiously waiting to hear from you.  


2. Give indicative feedback at the early stages

The commercial argument that we simply receive too many applications at the first stage of our processes to provide individual feedback to every applicant is a perfectly valid one. However, that doesn’t mean there is nothing we can provide applicants. With many of the schemes I have run, rather than have a blanket template regret email, I have used a three-tier set of regret emails. Candidates have always responded enormously positively to these emails, grateful for an insight about how their application faired.  

Top tier regret – a close but no cigar template email! Explaining the things people do well in this scoring bracket generally and the small ways in which they can improve. You can even encourage this population to apply again in future or indicate to the highest scorers that you may well be back in touch if things change with your shortlisted candidates. 

Mid tier regret – a more you can do email. Sharing the things people in this bracket tend to do well but highlighting the significant improvements they can make and where to get support to help them stand out. 

Bottom tier regret – a direct and honest email letting them know they need support to improve, signposting the wealth of fantastic resources on-line and through their university careers service that they can access to really understand how to apply for roles. 

3. Acknowledge the personal impact of rejection

It would be a step forward to see more employers making reference in their candidate campaigns/communications to the mental health impact of recruitment, acknowledging the stress, anxiety, or depression impact it can have and signposting some of the support and resources available. For example, the brilliant #studentspace website hosted by student minds to students access support during coronavirus. 

We’ve been weaving these messages into many of our student recruitment processes over the last two years and had an incredibly positive response from applicants – successful or not – thanking us for acknowledging how hard rejection can be and where they can get support.  


4. Adopt radical candour in attraction campaigns

We can do more to reduce the number of applications we receive (especially from those who aren’t suitable or wouldn’t enjoy the role) by adopting ‘radical candour’ in attraction and marketing

Rather than attracting more applicants by focussing on benefits, we need to talk more about the downsides, frustrations or challenges of the role and who it might not be right for. Fisher German have done this well in their campaign this year, simply saying on their graduate site: 

‘The nature of the work means you will often be out of the office in all weathers, travelling to and working on sites across the country. It also means working outside of the normal 9-5 when the role requires it. We want to be up front about these things so that you can really make sure we are the right environment for you to thrive.’ 

They have also created a video where their current students and graduates talk about the challenges of the role and who it might not be right for. This radical candour allows potential candidates to self-select out and allows recruiters to receive fewer, more applicable, applications. 

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  1. Joanna Brown

    Working as a career consultant and also a mother of two university students, one going through the internship recruitment cycle this year, I concur with everything in your article Rebecca. I have become more and more worried about the effect that remote, hands off, virtual, AI enabled recruitment is having on the mental wellbeing of even the most well adjusted and resilient students. You just have to look at the words I have used there to see the problem – it is not human and leaves students feeling empty and unvalued. Many students put in 20 hours or more of pre preparation for every application before they apply, researching the role and the firm and the market, practising psychometric tests and video interviews and even learning new skills via prep courses. For this they often see little or no feedback. I know that the recruitment industry loves all the ease and cost saving of the new methods but at what cost to students and their wellbeing?

  2. Juliet Huntington

    Thank you for raising this Rebecca. These measures would make such a difference to applicants, including those applying for the very competitive placement and internship roles. In our university careers services we are having to support the students through these processes and are very aware of the negative impact on the students mental health and well being receiving rejections or worse still, never hearing back from an application that has taken hours to construct. I hope we see more radical candour in recruitment campaigns.

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