Issue 3: Why do I keep getting rejected?

What is the one thing people overthink when it comes to portfolios?

Welcome, designer.

I hope you’ve been having a wonderful week so far. In light of World Mental Health Day that just passed, I want to be the first to admit I have been seriously burnt out over the last few weeks. I had to take a few days of self-care to get myself back into the groove, which meant publishing this issue later than I’d liked. But that’s okay and I hope you’re taking care of yourself too. Remember that we’re always playing the long game.

Otherwise, welcome to the new subscribers over the last 2 weeks, joining the now 800+ readership crew. By now, you probably know the drill: send me questions as often as you like so that it can be answered in a future issue.

Submit a question

This week, we answer:

  • Why do I keep getting rejected?

  • If you had to pick ONE thing that people tend to overthink when it comes to portfolios, what would that be?

Why do I keep getting rejected?

I know it’s hard given it’s a person-by-person basis but I’d like to know what might be some common reasons I keep being turned away.

Rather than pulling from my experience alone, I’ve asked other hiring managers within my network to contribute some of their most common reasons for rejecting candidates. Feel free to peruse the thread:

From there, I’ve pulled and categorized some outstanding themes, ones that I’ve seen or heard within the industry over the years.

1. It’s not your fault

Sometimes, it’s simply not your fault. Rejections can feel like a personal failure but it should be noted that timing and fate (I know 🙄) can be just as responsible.

  • Another candidate further down the pipeline seems of equal calibre and the manager wants to fill the role asap.

  • The team wants to interview more people but you aren’t able to wait.

  • The company can’t afford your desired salary.

  • The company lost its headcount for this role, perhaps due to a reorg.

  • The company does not have the structure and resources to support the growth you need, especially if you’re junior.

  • Your start date is too far from when the role must be filled.

2. Your resume/portfolio isn’t clear

There are, of course, so many nuances to what makes a good portfolio and I talk about it some more later in this issue but these are the most common mistakes.

  • You didn’t send a resume and/or portfolio. Seems obvious but it happens.

  • Your resume/portfolio is laden with typos and grammatical errors or have major usability issues, such as illegible type and confusing layouts. Online portfolios may have unique issues such as poor loading performance, distracting use of color and animation, and convoluted site navigation.

  • Your portfolio doesn’t pinpoint what your strengths are and what you’re looking for. An unfocused portfolio can make it very hard for the recruiter to match your skillset to the specific needs of the role. There are, of course, generalist designers but make it clear that it is an intentional career choice.

3. You couldn’t articulate your design decisions

This entire section could be an essay in itself because when it comes down to the wire, being able to communicate your rationale is what differentiates you and another equally qualified candidate. Someone has already submitted a question to expand on this more so expect a deeper dive soon.

  • You didn’t clearly explain the problem space or your process, and jumped straight to the solution.

  • You didn’t support your design decisions with information like research, data, priorities, and constraints.

  • You didn’t consider the tradeoffs of your designs at a higher level, bringing in considerations from other aspects of design (information architecture, content, systems thinking) or other functions (product, engineering, marketing, sales).

  • You were unclear which work was done by you versus other designers on your team.

  • You aren’t able to speak to the business impact or measure the success of your work, particularly if you’re senior.

4. Your skillset doesn’t fit the role

Once all parties are clear about what you bring to the table, perhaps there just isn’t a match between your skillset and the needs of the role. Of course there are explicit requirements laid out in the job description but very often, there are also implicit nuances that the hiring manager is looking for.

  • The team needs someone who had worked on a specific platform (web, mobile, VR, etc) or industry (healthcare, SaaS, etc).

  • The team needs someone who is familiar with the same processes and tools they use so that they can cut down on ramp-up time.

  • Your strengths lean heavily towards a competency of design that isn’t critical to the role. For example, a motion designer would not be a good fit for a growth design position.

  • The team needs someone who is highly proficient with a bordering competency such as user research or frontend development.

5. Your skills aren’t there yet

The difference between the above and this section is that the above refers to a mismatch of skillsets but this refers to not quite making the bar even if there is a match. This is the one we often feel the most pain over when it is the cause for rejection but know that you’ll get there someday, which is why I said “yet.”

  • One or more hard skill isn’t meeting the bar, which includes visual design, interaction design, and product thinking. This is a baseline for all designers but is most prominent for junior designers.

  • One or more soft skill isn’t meeting the bar, which includes communication, organization, collaboration, and leadership. This is largely a baseline for mid-senior designers.

  • Although technically a soft skill, this deserves its own callout: self-awareness. This is often an implicit requirement and can indicate that despite lacking the skills above, you have great potential to overcome them. Managers will often take a chance on less qualified candidates given a high degree of self-awareness.

6. There isn’t a culture fit

This is a very gray area to tread in as evaluations of culture fit can be extremely subjective. As long as you remain humble, ambitious, and self-aware, this can all be taken with a grain of salt.

  • You didn’t collaborate well with the team in interview exercises.

  • You couldn’t take criticism of your work without becoming defensive.

  • You spoke harshly about your past coworkers and employers.

  • You didn’t seem enthusiastic about the company or role.

I hope this was helpful to you. One important note to end on is that it’s often a combination of these reasons that lead to rejection—which is my way of telling you not to start scrutinizing every little thing. Focus on one at a time and slowly make your way there. Interviewing is a skill just like any other and it will take time to get better.

If you had to pick ONE thing that people tend to overthink when it comes to portfolios, what would that be?

Almost always, people overthink the website that houses their portfolio.

They think about how to host it, how to build it, and how to show off as much as possible. But if the priority is to find a new job within 1-2 months, that isn’t a productive use of time.

I talk about this at length in my interview with Julia Fernandez and explain the tradeoffs between self-expression and utility. Start at 11:10:

What I’ve been reading, etc

If you’ve enjoyed this issue, consider subscribing. I strive to release one every 2 weeks. Otherwise, feel free to reply to this email with feedback on whether this was helpful to you and any suggestions on improvements.

Until next time, 👋

— Lily