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The Rejectors: How The Most Selective Gatekeepers Say “No”

A matchmaker, casting director, a former Stanford admissions officer, and a book publisher share their philosophies on saying “no.”

The Rejectors: How The Most Selective Gatekeepers Say “No”
[Photo: Flickr user Marc Falardeau]

Everybody needs to say “no” sometimes. But not everybody needs to say it to the about 30,000 hopeful high school students who don’t get into Stanford every year. Or to the hundreds of authors who hope to sell a book to a top publisher. Or to the many actors hoping for a single part in a television show or movie.

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Fast Company talked with a few people who say “no” like it’s their job, because it is, in fact, a large part of their jobs. Here’s what they had to say on the art of rejection:

The Millionaire Matchmaker

Patti Stanger is the founder and CEO of Millionaire’s Club, a matchmaking service for millionaires, and host of The Millionaire Matchmaker, a television show that is beginning its eighth season on Bravo December 7th.

Patti Stanger

I have serious criteria for getting into my club. I’m the millionaire’s club. I’m not Tinder or Match.com. You’re not my client. You’re just my inventory. You’re my product that I’m selling. It’s like American Idol. You can apply every season, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to make the cut and get the golden ticket. Probably one in every 1,000 we accept.

If you’re getting rejected from Harvard or you’re getting rejected from, let’s say, Vogue magazine as an intern, they’re not going to tell you why. I’ll help you with the why. I recommend changing your appearance. I recommend changing your attitude. I recommend changing your lifestyle. I give pointers.

I reject you, but I also help you at the same time.

If you don’t have professional pictures, that’s the first line of defense. I make you get them. If you don’t want to spend the money, then you aren’t going to end up with a guy. Because men are visual. So I send you to a photographer, and I tell you what to wear, and I give you photo tips. And if you’re not willing to do that, and you’d rather buy a $500 dress, then you’re not my girl. You’re just not my girl. My girls are serious about finding love.

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Rejection is rampant in matchmaking and dating. It’s standard. It’s the standard operating principal until you find your husband or your wife.

I did the thing that most people don’t do, and I got a lot of credit for it. Guys fucking fell in love with me and wanted to be my best friend. If I’m on the date, and I’ve gotten gussied up, went down to the bar, realized the guy was not my type, I literally, before I even drank the wine, said, ‘Here’s the thing, I don’t think we’re each other’s type. I don’t want to waste your evening and spend your money. How about letting me fix you up with a really nice girl, and maybe you have a nice friend for me.’ Get the referral. You want the referral.

Now if you’ve gone out with him and he’s hounding the shit out of you, you have to say, ‘I’m not sexually attracted to you. I don’t feel chemistry.’ Because once you say, ‘I don’t feel chemistry,’ he knows he can’t get laid. Once he knows he can’t get laid, there’s no point in going out again.

The Former Stanford Admissions Officer

Erinn Andrews was the assistant director at the Stanford University Office of Undergraduate Admissions between 2006 and 2008

Erinn Andrews

Admissions officers really are looking for applicants that rise to the top. They’re not looking for applicants to reject, they’re looking for the outstanding students to admit. That’s an important part of the mentality of an admissions officer: To have a positive outlook. It helps us deal with the fact that we’re rejecting the vast majority of applicants.

The actual rejection process, the way that feedback is delivered, is pretty impersonal. But many students would contact the office, wanting to know why they were rejected. After the decisions are sent out, the admissions officers rotate taking turns at the phones in the days that follow. It’s very hard. It’s very emotional and difficult. But I think it’s important for the admission officers to be a part of that process. It keeps the admissions officers in tune with what a human process this is, and that we’re dealing with real people, real lives here, and it’s not this anonymous behind-a-screen interaction.

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Generally when people call the office, they are confrontational. They are pretty riled up. We tried to put the information in context. Tried to get them to understand that there are 30,000 applicants or 40,000 applicants, and probably 60, 70, 80 percent of those students who are applying could really succeed at the university. It’s not a sure thing no matter who you are.

I don’t know that makes them feel warm and fuzzy and happy about it, but I do think that is the reality, and that successful students will be successful at many schools.

Really, I think the idea is to be there and to listen. To listen to whatever it is they need to get off their chest in order to accept this and move on and apply to more schools that they would be really happy to go to.

The Book Publisher

Timothy O’Connell is an editor at Random House-Vintage Books

Timothy O’Connell

Just prior to this conversation, I had three novels and a short story collection submitted to me within the time span of 20 minutes from different agents. Which is great, but we reject the vast majority of stuff that comes in.

I’ll start by reading each and every one of them. It varies how far you get into it. But you want to try and you want to get as far as you can. Because you’re hoping. Editors live and die on hope. You want it to be the best thing you’ve ever read. Maybe this character will do something unexpected. Or maybe they’ll do something where, now I’m in, now I know where the book starts.

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If you know something is not for you within 50 or 100 pages, a quick no, I think, is the second-best thing to a yes. They might have some other editor across town who is interested, but maybe is on the fence, and if they know we’re not going to play, they could find a way to pitch that person on the fence to take it.

In the rejection itself, you want to find something that you like. This person, the author, spent time writing it, and the agent is representing it, and they feel very passionate about it. As an editor, you’re kind of happy when they think of you. So I say, ‘This is what I like, and this is what wasn’t quite working for me.’ And maybe when I say, this is the stuff that wasn’t quite working, it might help them down the line.

It’s a rhythm, really: in a paragraph of speaking about what you like, then there’s pivot. And it’s best just to be honest. Generally in any rejection I’ll say, ‘I’m going to pass’ or ‘I’m going to pull my hat out of the ring’ simply because I want it to be final. Unless you want that door to stay open, you should close it. Otherwise it just prolongs that liminal sort of period for everybody.

When you pass on something, and you see someone else buy it, you’re kind of like, wait, ‘What the fuck did I do? Did I miss the next big thing?’ And you have to trust yourself. That, to me, is what I’ve learned lately.

The Casting Director

Jen Rudin is the author of Confessions of a Casting Director

Jen RudinPhoto: Douglas Gorenstein

Most of the time it’s a ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ situation, so we’re not telling every single person they didn’t get the part. We just can’t do that, there’s not that much time in the day. It’s really when you’re close to a part, you’re one of the final choices, that’s when I usually try to call a talent agent to let them know, as we say in the business, ‘It’s not going any further.’ And those are the tough calls to make because the actor is a person, and they’re home waiting, yearning, wanting this role.

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In casting, I don’t look at it so much as rejection as I do building a relationship. So even if an actor comes in and doesn’t get the part the first time I meet them, six months later, maybe they’ll be in a ‘final mix’ for something—that’s what we call it when they’re in the final round for a role. Five years later, maybe they’ll finally get the part.

I have often said, ‘You’re not quite ready in this moment for this role, but why don’t you spend the next weeks or months working with a vocal coach or an acting coach and working on your diction or working on your energy or working on your singing and come back in.’ I think you can deliver the news and put a positive spin on it so that the people receiving the news can take some actionable steps to move forward. If they’re not going to get the promotion or aren’t going to get the big project, there’s something they can be doing to keep moving forward in their career. That’s one piece of advice I would offer.

Show business is very competitive and cutthroat, and there’s so much nasty stuff out there. It’s not like when you sign up for the soccer league and you know that it’s guaranteed that you’re going to play. I try to be as gentle about it as possible, even though they’ve chosen this very tough profession. That makes me feel better at night.

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About the author

Sarah Kessler is a senior writer at Fast Company, where she writes about the on-demand/gig/sharing "economies" and the future of work.

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