Personal growth

5 ways to deal with rejection as a medical student

Simply stated, rejection is part of the pathway to success. These mindset shifts can help you recover from rejection stronger, happier and more confident.


Humans are hardwired to strive for acceptance, and medical students even more so. Our intrinsic ambition and often type-A personalities lead us to reach for high levels of personal experience and achievement so that we can confidently apply for programs, positions and other opportunities.

Yet, by now, all of us have received some variation of those all too familiar words: “Dear applicant, we regret to inform you that you were not selected …”

Rejection stings. In fact, studies have shown that rejection has a physical component, not unlike physical pain. For example, a 2003 neuroimaging study showed that experiencing rejection activated the same brain areas as those during physical pain stimulation and demonstrated the phenomenon of physical-social pain overlap. Another study showed a marked decrease in intelligent reasoning in participants simply after visualizing being rejected.

With all of the applications we face in medical school and academia, rejection is seemingly an inevitable part of our lives. Rejection is something to heal and learn from, but it is not something to run from. Simply stated, rejection is part of the pathway to success. Below are five proposed mindset shifts to help recover from rejection stronger, happier and more confident.

1. Do not take it personally; Take it curiously

Applying for something puts us in a vulnerable position to be analyzed and considered. If rejected, it is easy to get embarrassed or feel that we have been judged or criticized by our evaluators. We often think this way, though, due to the “Spotlight Effect,” which is the overestimation of our evaluator’s perception of us because of the acute self-awareness we have of our own personal flaws and insecurities.

In reality, though, decisions are made based on multiple points of measurement that are difficult to discern and easy to overthink. After a rejection is a great time for introspection and curiosity about how you applied and what you can do better in the future.

Take some time to clear your head, and after the initial emotions settle down, it might be appropriate to email your evaluator to ask for feedback to implement for future applications. Constructively consider what you did well and what you can do better in the future.

2. Practice optimism

Optimism is a perspective that can lead to a change in attitude. The optimistic view of rejection says that rejection does not limit you; it instead redirects you. Applying for a position or opportunity is itself an act of optimism, assuming you applied with some degree of hope that you might receive an acceptance.

Maintaining an optimistic view from start to end will allow you to maintain a positive attitude and a clear mind, regardless of the outcome.

A prototypical example of this concept is Brian Acton, creator of WhatsApp, who was rejected after interviewing for jobs at Twitter and Facebook, but later sold WhatsApp to Facebook for 22 billion dollars. Sometimes we need the right nos to get to the right yes later on. Or, as Matthew McConaughey puts it in his book Greenlights, “Green lights can be disguised as red lights.”

3. Lean into your support system

Rejection can strengthen relationships and open doors to new ones. I recently interviewed for a program about which I was thrilled. I had a close friend mock interview me to prepare. I was ready and confident. When I was not selected for the position, my friend reached out and encouraged me, and I thanked him for helping me with the interview as we talked about the outcome.

Something about this experience let me know that my self-worth, success in life and future potential were not dependent on the positions I secure but on the relationships I secure. Having this understanding has given me the confidence to apply for more opportunities and to be there to support others when they do as well. Reaching out to a friend, family member, mentor or mental health professional can make a huge difference in how we process and move on from rejection.

4. Avoid comparison

Comparison to others is the enemy of medical students everywhere. It creeps into our rooms at night, it speaks to us in-between the lines of our textbooks and it roams the halls of our institutions.

Comparison is waiting there for us after every test and application. It has been called the thief of joy, an act of violence against the self, the killer of creativity and the death of peace and well-being.

One way comparison readily appears is through social media, a literal highlight reel that can easily infect the lens through which we view ourselves. After the many times I have experienced rejection, I have found it helpful to take a break from social media as I process the outcome.

Healthy alternatives to comparison include focusing on your strengths and your personal short-term and long-term goals, creating or re-evaluating your personal purpose and vision statements, reading, planning, practicing gratitude, getting outside, exercising, learning a new hobby and more. Ideally, we can learn to celebrate the successes of others as we confidently and contently pursue our goals.

5. Cultivate a growth mindset

Individuals who have a growth mindset believe that they can improve upon their skills by practicing, studying and learning. If we get rejected from an opportunity we care about deeply, we can re-evaluate, get better and try again.

For example, a friend of mine was rejected from all the medical schools to which they applied. Without skipping a beat, they began working on their application for the next cycle with renewed eagerness and a more refined purpose.

It is not within us to give up because we naturally feel fulfilled in the pursuit of our purpose. I believe our purpose in medicine is not to achieve or gain something with an endpoint; it is to produce something positive in our world that has momentum and will exist beyond ourselves. Approach rejection with a growth mindset, meaning you take away lessons from the experience and never stop working toward fulfilling your purpose.

By taking rejection positively, practicing optimism, leaning into your support system, avoiding comparison and exercising a growth mindset, rejection ceases to feel like a failure and begins to look more like steps on the path to what we are bound to achieve.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Tips on surviving—and thriving—during your first year of medical school

I didn’t Match. Here’s how I survived and created my best life yet.

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