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Over the past few years, I have written a lot of job applications for permanent academic positions. None of these have been successful. I have been interviewed a few times, but mostly I have received either no reply or a very standard rejection letter.

A handful of the rejection letters contain some kind of statement seeming to imply that although they don't want to interview me, the committee did like my application to some extent. For example, here's a sentence from one such letter I recently received (emphasis mine):

We received many excellent applications and although the search committee was impressed with your credentials, we have decided your application will not be advanced for further consideration at this time.

My question is: does this statement, and other ones like it, mean anything or is it just a bit of fluff inserted for politeness?

To put it in another way: should I infer from this that the committee actually was impressed with my credentials and that they sent this reply to only a subset of candidates they rejected? Or is this likely to just be part of a totally generic rejection letter and I should therefore infer nothing?

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It could be both an honest statement or generic fluff. Unfortunately, there's no way for you to distinguish both, and to derive useful information here. (Maybe unless they comment on specific things they found impressive, but that doesn't seem to be the case.)

The more informative fact are the rejections themselves. A single rejection means hardly anything, but if you only received rejections, there would be some problem that you need to fix. The fact that you got some invitations is indeed a good sign.

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    Of course we can never know for sure (+1). But in my experience these evaluations are usually honest - they would not want to give you false hope, or keep getting applications from unqualified candidates.
    – Louic
    Mar 2 at 8:05
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It is almost certainly an automated form letter. It was very probably sent to every applicant to who reached the same stage in the application process.

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    This is obviously the right answer, and it doesn't take anything more than a cursory understanding of human behavior to grasp this. I'm surprised by the suggestion in the accepted answer that we "can't know" for sure whether it's fluff or not. Of course we "can't know" for sure whether the sun will rise tomorrow, but a betting man would be wise to put all his chips on it rising. The case is of course different if you were interviewed, but if not you can be as assured as you can about anything that it was a generic letter. Mar 4 at 20:18
  • Of course I understand that the letter wasn't uniquely personalised. The question was whether the presence of positive statement confers no information or only a very small amount. I could imagine, for example, a situation where there is an intermediate shortlisting stage, and only candidates that reach the shortlisting stage get "the committee was impressed..." in their rejection letter. Or I could also imagine just sending everyone the same one, regardless of actual impressiveness. Hence the question.
    – twestley
    Mar 5 at 10:18
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IMHO, they all mean one and only one thing: you've been rejected and they would rather tell you something nice than to explain why exactly that decision was made or where you stood compared to other candidates. Note that they are not obliged to disclose their decision process, nor should you suspect any foul play in such cases. However, I would really appreciate some plain informative letter like "you were our #3 candidate out of 10 interviewed and #2 accepted the offer" much more. As to the phrase "impressed with your credentials", it could mean absolutely anything from admiration to shock.

Whether they wrote this nice thing to everybody or just to you cannot be determined with any degree of certainty unless you have a friend who applied to the same place and has been rejected too, but the point is that the only part that matters is "we have decided your application will not be advanced for further consideration", which more often than not (in my experience on the both sides of the hiring process) means that you were sorted out at step one of a multi-step process.

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