Obviously, there’s no universal way to answer this question. It’s going to vary by specific person, specific industry, desire to work in that industry, and numerous other factors. Here are a couple of things I’ve observed in the past few months, though — plus a few links from people smarter than I am.
1. Most people just aren’t going to give you feedback after a rejection. There are two central reasons for this: (1) if there are a huge number of candidates, some hiring managers/HR reps fear being unfair by answering only a chosen few and (b) there’s always fear that you could put something in writing that could ultimately result in a legal action. I’d like to think that situation (1) occurs more than situation (2), but in reality, (2) is fairly common as well. When I worked part-time at Teach for America this spring, I worked with a manager who was hiring 18-20 summer staff. Probably 70-80 people applied. She probably accepted 25-30 to give herself buffer. Out of the 40-50 rejected, maybe 7-8 asked her for specific feedback. When I told her she could consider giving some, the response was “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” She was trying to be funny, but it annoyed the hell out of me. Feedback can be important. More on that in a bit.
2. Despite what people would like you to believe sometimes, the job search process is by no means scientific on either end (candidate or potential employer). So if you ask for feedback, you often get something extremely vague and ambiguous. I got rejected from a NASCAR gig a few weeks ago; the line was “… just wasn’t the right fit…” and that’s it (it came after “… had the most experience” and “seemed like a thought leader in the space,” so that was awkward). “Wasn’t the right fit” can mean any of 12 things: the first interviewer hated you, you dressed poorly, your resume is off-format, another candidate’s uncle is our COO, we wanted someone who we thought we could pay less, we wanted someone from this area/field, etc. The thing is, it’s a catch-all for hiding the specific reason (because some of those answers, while justified for the in-group that is the employer, can’t hold up in the wider world); as a result, sometimes asking for feedback, even if granted, won’t really lead you to anything you can actually do better at your next interview.
3. If you want to know how to phrase a request for feedback, this article is fairly strong. Essentially, the context has to be “What specifically could I do better?” as opposed to anything that seems like you’re contesting the decision, etc. If you add in a human element, such as “This has been a hard process and I want to know what to improve on,” you’d reckon you get more responses. I actually do this a lot and don’t get very many responses, so that could be inaccurate, but from a sheer human nature standpoint, you’d assume it would work here and again.
4. There are over a billion Google results for “value of feedback;” there’s an insane amount of scientific research on this topic, and blog posts like this one. The essence of the entire field/discussion is that feedback is itself contextual; it needs to go deeper than simply the meeting of goals and objectives in order to have lasting impact. If done right and targeted, it can help. Feedback is kind of similar to e-mail marketing in some ways: if you send an e-mail to all 3,000 people on your list and there’s no targeting, your ultimate response won’t be that great (some will unsubscribe, many will ignore, etc.) But if you send the same e-mail to the 217 people out of the 3,000 who live in that area or have shown to care about that topic, suddenly there’s real engagement. It’s the same with sales, business in general, or anything. Effectiveness emerges from targeting; general, vague feedback won’t do anything but frustrate (and it certainly won’t resonate).
5. Overall, I’ve hit the point where I don’t ask for feedback anymore, unless I was fairly deep in the process. Too many HR-level employees are scared of litigation or just don’t want to do that (or weren’t deep enough in the hiring process to offer any kind of context). Too many hiring managers are busy — hiring the real person! — and/or haven’t thought about it deeply enough to give you anything you can really go on (it’s normally going to come back to experience, which is something you can’t control, or “fit,” which is a term that means 100 things to 100 people). I don’t think there’s enough people out there in the job search process that can give you the context necessary for the feedback to be valuable, so in general, I don’t ask. But if you got a good sense about some of the people you met with and think they can give you something that can help you in the next interview, then go for it.