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A school, whose PhD program I applied to, denied my application with words such as "Your record is strong, but...". I am kind of confused. Is such a reply simply a "polite" way to decline a person? Should I believe that the sentence "your record is strong" is a compliment, or it is simply a decoration?

To me, such a compliment does not seem to help because obviously, for the school, my record was not strong enough to be admitted, so speaking of "your record is strong" is almost meaningless?

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    Doesn't matter, you should ignore compliments as you would ignore insults. – CaptainCodeman Apr 13 '15 at 9:17
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    It may be a genuine compliment. Normally, when a letter is just trying to be polite, it will say things like "We get a long of strong applications and can't accept them all." This was specifically targeted at you, so it may be that the letter writer actually thought this. – Jim Conant Apr 13 '15 at 17:48
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    If it says something personal then it's likely to be a genuine compliment, otherwise not. – Mehrdad Apr 13 '15 at 19:24
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I would take it as simply a polite way to decline your application. They no doubt really do get a lot of strong applications (every decent program does), and in many cultures such as the US there is a tendency to "sugar-coat" bad news with compliments (I don't know if your application was in the US, but I believe this practice turns up elsewhere as well). You would actually probably get less praise if you got in---after all, the acceptance is compliment enough.

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    Many thanks! Exactly what I would like to know. Just want to check if my intuition is correct to a certain degree. – Megadeth Apr 13 '15 at 6:02
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    +1 for "you would probably get less praise if your application was accepted" – Moriarty Apr 13 '15 at 7:38
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    It is funny to note that higher-up in the academic food chain, rejects tend to get less and less sugar-coated. I have received rejections for faculty positions that more or less verbatimely read "We think your track record is not good enough for our insitution." Of course every reject implicitly says this, but it was awkward to see it spelled out like this. – xLeitix Apr 13 '15 at 8:08
  • @xLeitix Perhaps because the higher up you are in the academic structure, the more professional you can assume your peers are? – Nit Apr 14 '15 at 8:45
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    @Nit This is a very optimistic assumption. – xLeitix Apr 14 '15 at 10:45
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Those kinds of general compliments are typical platitudes included in rejection letters, whether for an academic application or a job search.

In general, if the letter feels impersonal or looks like it might be a standard boilerplate or form letter then there is no point in trying to interpret any deeper meaning behind the contents. There is simply no way to tell from such a letter alone whether they really considered you a strong candidate or are just sugar-coating their rejection.

Only if you can tell that the letter was written for you personally or when it references some particular quality you have should you accept it for the compliment it really is.

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    if the letter feels impersonal or looks like it might be a standard boilerplate or form letter then there is no point in trying to interpret any deeper meaning behind the contents - exactly. +1. – E.P. Apr 13 '15 at 23:33
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What would you do about it anyway? Whether the compliment is genuine or part of a boiler plate rejection letter, so what? Aside from softening the blow of rejection, what difference does it make?

I suppose if a compliment was very specific, like, I don't know, "you are very articulate and your grammar is impeccable", that might tell you that this is NOT the area that you need to work on but rather you should concentrate on other things to improve your chances the next time around. But something like "your record is strong" is so general as to mean almost nothing.

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    Thanks. To me, a question is raised in its own right; no reason is needed to "justify" why a question is raised. I asked the question because of pure curiosity. So, sorry, I think it is more suitable for the present "answer" to be a comment. – Megadeth Apr 13 '15 at 14:49
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    @chou I'm not challenging the validity of the question. The poster asked, "how should I regard these statements?" My answer is, "ignore them because they're irrelevant." Seems to me that's a direct answer to the question. If you don't agree, that's fine. Post your own answer. – Jay Apr 13 '15 at 22:32
  • Jay, @Chou IS the original poster. You might not have noticed the subtle highlighting of her user name in this thread. – Vaibhav Garg Apr 15 '15 at 9:19
  • @VaibhavGarg Oops, no, didn't notice. I think the content of my comment stands, just worded incorrectly given that. – Jay Apr 15 '15 at 13:10
  • I agree @jay. It's only a minor quibble in an otherwise excellent point. – Vaibhav Garg Apr 16 '15 at 3:26
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The only times I would recommend to entertain the idea of a compliment in a rejection email is if 1) The compliment is something specific to your resume or work, such as 'Your paper on X was very impressive...' (im not sure this ever happens with a rejection) and 2) You are asked to apply or automatically accepted into a different program. Of course in this situation you were rejected from the one you wanted, but the compliment is not empty-handed. I have seen this in both art/design and music. For example, applying to a specialized program for '3d animation', and being rejected to that program, but automatically considered and accepted for the 'new media design' program.

  • 'im not sure this ever happens with a rejection' - I have done this in rejections. I don't write insincere compliments, but sometimes I do feel that certain aspects of a paper or an application are strong; expressing that strength is then sincere, and I believe that it makes the rejection more human. However, I'd be interested in hearing other people's opinion on this. – Mark Peletier Apr 14 '15 at 20:11
  • @MarkPeletier well im glad you do that, I was just assuming it can be a liability of someone being rejected and complaining – user-2147482637 Apr 15 '15 at 0:09
  • @user1938107 To what your "it" refers? – Megadeth Apr 15 '15 at 8:14
  • @Chou I was referring to being told a specific thing was good, but still being rejected. As I mentioned, im not sure if it happens or not, i dont have personal experience with it. That being said, I was pondering the impacts of rejection letters and how someone can follow up, either saying denied entry because of affirmative action (harvard law suits, michigan law) or apparently some schools allow appeals, wsj.com/articles/SB124096471555766239 . A school might not be happy if specifics are mentioned that help too many people appeal, but i dont know how it works – user-2147482637 Apr 15 '15 at 12:02
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When I got in the MS program I received a note from the coordinator prior the decision was posted to my account. In that note I was merely congratulated and informed that they let me know sooner in case it would be helpful to me.

On the other hand however, wherever decided to reject me sugar-coated the decision letter and it usually came when I myself was almost sure that they did not want me there. I got the acceptance email a month before the deadline! While I thought I would not be hearing from them for at least two weeks after the deadline. Bottom line is, if they want you they let you know quickly; otherwise, it is just a formality to help people get less disappointed.

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