How to Deal With Application Rejection


Battle against your mind and focus on variables inside your court of control, rather than factors outside of your control, take radical action on feedback or reflection, apply to many firms, remember application rejection is not like exam failure and finally remember your backup options. I also include how success usually comes moments after those lowest points based on a couple of personal stories.


Rejection is a tough outcome to deal with and if you’re applying to investment banking positions, then for most of us, it is something to get used to. Rejection is something we shouldn’t take personally, but it all too often feels like a personal offence, especially when no clear reasoning is given.

I suggest blocking out the toxic thoughts that dwell on things outside of your control like “why has my friend heard from this bank, but I haven’t”, or “why haven’t I heard back following the 2nd round interview”, and instead focus on things inside your circle of influence like how to boost your CV, how many people you’re reaching out to on LinkedIn to find out about different companies, how many hours you’ve practised video interviews in front of a camera and how strong your competency grid is.

Here are the 5 tips I talk about below to help with application rejection:

  1. Focusing on variables you can control
  2. Reflecting and taking radical action
  3. Applying to many firms i.e. don’t put all your eggs in one basket
  4. Reinforcing that application failure is not like exam failure – they are a different beast to studying for an exam
  5. Not being afraid of a backup plan

As a final introductory note, if you’re in that dark place of feeling like you want to give up and of being burnt out with applications, remember:

Most great people have achieved their greatest success one step beyond their greatest failure. ~Napoleon Hill

In my first year, I had lost complete confidence in myself when I did the Lazard automated video interview, 11 pm at night, almost laughing at how hopeless my chances were when I sat down to begin the process since I had so little to show for all those attempts. Then I received an email the next day about the final round.

In my second year, when I got the internship offer from Barclays in Mid-November 2020, it was literally minutes after one of my lowest points, as I was preparing to go for a run, accepting that the hundreds upon hundreds of hours of applying to investment banking firms was a waste and that I should take a u-turn, finishing a grind which had begun months upon months before. Then I got the call, almost not picking up because I thought it would be another scammer.

I’m not saying to expect success to come one step after those lowest moments, but at the same time, don’t stop three feet from gold.

[1] Focus on variables you can control

There are many variables outside our control when we apply, some that we have no power over influencing, and some which move to be outside our control once we submit our CV, video interview, or finish the first interview.

A useful conceptual framework to use is thinking about two states: a circle of influence and a circle of concern. As talked about in the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey, the circle of influence includes the things that you can have a direct impact on, whereas the circle of concern includes the activities, processes, and outcomes that are ultimately in the hands of other people.

Circle of influence items during application season:

  • How many places you apply to
  • How much time you put into boosting and optimising your CV by undertaking online courses, seeking professional experience even if unpaid, attending CV Clinics and using the CV guide’s ABC approach for concisely articulating the impact you had in an experience and quantifying metrics of success
  • Using JobTestPrep, Assessment Day, and more importantly documenting your trip-ups from online tests that you’ve already sat since it is common for companies to use the exact same online test
  • How much time you spend networking with employees or students that have experiences at that company to aid your firm research
  • How many hours you spend drilling technicals e.g. using the 400Qs guide
  • How much time you spend building up a commercial awareness portfolio, as well as keeping on top of trends in your division, ESG trends, and other financial news events
  • How many hours you spend reaching out to other students, either at your university or other universities going through the same process so you can have group interview sessions and iron out mannerisms
  • Tracking your time, using Google Calendar to time block future tasks and finding several hours a day in the early morning or evening for deep work.

As you can see, there are so many variables and conditions you can influence, that you should have no time to dwell on your circle of concern. As a scientist tweaks the conditions of their experiment and the bodybuilder tweaks the number of reps, sets, and nutritional intake of their schedule, so we should tweak the things in our control to maximise chances of success.

Here is what not to spend one second dwelling about, and what constitutes your circle of concern:

  • When you’ll hear back about the AC after the second round interview
  • Why you didn’t hear back after the first round interview when so and so has already got an offer
  • The frustration of some firms immediately rejecting your online test results
  • Getting jealous at other people already having secured an opportunity while you still grind on… remembering that there is a seed in every adversity

If your thoughts run rampant on obsessing over these things outside your control, I strongly recommend the Happiness Trap which uses proven techniques to strengthen psychological flexibility and resilience. Another book I have mentioned before that helps with having faith in the small incremental changes included in the circle of concern is Atomic Habits.

As James Clear talks about on his blog, improving 1% daily through those small tasks that contribute to the necessary improvement for reaching a larger goal is extremely powerful. He explains that “If you get one percent better each day for a year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done.”

[2] Reflect and take radical action

Sometimes recruiters will not tell you why they rejected you, especially when early on in the application process e.g. if after submitting your CV, or video interview. However, when they do, it goes without saying that you must harness this reflection.

I used to constantly work on a handwritten one-page summary sheet on techniques I needed to constantly drill into my head. Dealing with bad interview habits is not a one-off task, it is a continuous correcting process. For me, this was talking too fast. I got this comment in every interview I did. That was despite me talking deliberately slowly just before an interview to slow my pace, and cutting down on the points I would say to give myself the space to talk slower. But it wasn’t enough. I should have taken more radical action.

What should this radical action have looked like? Practising interview questions excruciatingly slowly for at least 15 minutes each day and recording myself doing this. It would have also meant arranging more mock interviews with friends to interrogate me, replicate the pressure of an interview and confront me when I’m speaking too fast. Just as a side note, senior investment bankers don’t watch YouTube on 2x speed like many of us at university, they talk slowly, and whatever they say, it is concisely packed with value.

Persistently look for your weaknesses and mannerisms, then work tirelessly to correct them and encourage others to confront you when they see you showing them.

Harnessing feedback isn’t just for the interview, it also may be for the CV or cover letter, e.g. if a firm doesn’t get back to you (although remember there are many things outside your control once you submit so don’t dwell on this too much). If you fail an online test, that should ring alarm bells that you need to push full-throttle on reflecting with the test materials you’ve accumulated, and signing up to JobTestPrep/Assessment Day.

[3] Apply to many firms

If you only apply to 5-10 firms in a division with some of the most extreme competition, you are putting your eggs in too few baskets and so a failure becomes serious. Increasing the number of opportunities you’re applying for, to around 25 or more, is the surest way to increase your chances of success and reduce the significance of one rejection.

Alongside this principle, you must apply to each opportunity as soon as they open. Do not wait around, for two reasons:
1. Due to the sheer competitiveness of the roles, your chances of being interviewed earlier and getting a role are diminished the longer you wait.

2. The more practice you get the earlier on, the more prepared you’ll be for applications down the line – applying the principles on this site in a real application is the only true way to strengthen your technique.

Knowing how to write a CV, cover letter, network, nail competencies, prepare for technicals and having a robust commercial awareness portfolio/routine are only potential elements of success until you actually apply. Mistakes will be made, from situational judgement tests to the assessment centre, but the more experience and intel you have of which questions come up, the more chances you have of success.

[4] Remember that applications are a different game from exams

If I was to talk to myself back in my first year at university, the first topic I would discuss around applications is how this game is very different to studying. You can’t just turn up to lessons, read the textbook or specification, revise and do well – not to say that those things are easy for all subjects and topics. Instead, you enter an arena where employers don’t know you, have the luxury of choosing many applicants instead of you, and where there is no rule book or sure way to land an opportunity.

In this difference also lies the fact that application rejection is different to failing an exam. Unlike the exam game, which most of us have been playing for a much longer time, the application grind is less guaranteed and yet more entrepreneurial. Less guaranteed in the sense that there is no lecturer that wants you to do well, sets you questions, and gives you a textbook to support your learning. More entrepreneurial in the sense that there are fewer bounds in possibility – you’re not limited to six applications like you are six modules, or from reaching out to the senior Managing Directors of a large corporation. Therefore it is important to never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat in the application grind because you’re not bound in the same way you are with exams, where for example your second attempt is capped at 40%.

Although there is no rule book for the application season, I guarantee that if you implement all the advice condensed on the game plan summary page, your chances of success will massively increase. Why? Because:

  • Many people haven’t included enough statistics or boosted their CV
  • Most people don’t network with employees at the firm to have an idea of what attracts them to working there
  • Most people don’t reach out to enough previous interns or successful applicants to find a generous enough person willing to give them the insights they need… remember that people do help other people but it sometimes takes some digging to find that person
  • Most people don’t have a commercial awareness portfolio or recipe for learning about deals the company has taken part in
  • Too many people leave technicals to the last minute

The divide and conquer technique at the heart of the first 10 posts on InternGamePlan aim at nailing each of these buckets above one-by-one.

[5] Don’t be afraid of having a backup plan

Although it is powerful to burn all bridges and put all your faith in landing an opportunity, you cannot get too attached to one firm or one internship offer showing up. Instead, document each application diligently, and be flexible with alternative paths into the career you’re looking at. Diligently documenting involves writing down every single question asked in an interview and documenting the types of tests you complete to prepare for future applications which all work towards aiding your next round of applications, especially if at the same firm one year later.

A very popular route is undertaking a masters course and reapplying to internships, then applying to graduate schemes during your masters. Many people opt for masters in finance or another degree specialised in the field you’re looking at breaking into since they will usually give you an upper hand over an unrelated master in a finance-focused role.

Although this backup plan shouldn’t make you relaxed or mean you should give up once it reaches January and you’re still struggling to find an opportunity, it should reassure you and instill a sense of calmness that is sometimes scarce during the intensity of application season. Finally, open your mind to a less linear route e.g. seeking out your own experiences through offering to work for free on a flexible basis at smaller, more independent finance houses, or looking for a placement/year abroad to again apply to internships the following year.

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