As part of my job I'm part of a team that decides on admissions to the medical school I work at. Once every couple of weeks I sit on the other side of a desk from a kid in a suit, asking him or her questions and trying to get inside his or her head, while I make what is (from his/her point of view) the most important decision of my life.
I find this experience informative for the process of querying and submitting - a taste of what it's like to be on the other side of the desk, as it were. I've learned a couple of things from it:
1. Rejection isn't personal. Some of the people we reject will get into other medical schools. They just weren't the right fit for us. Maybe they don't know much about our programs and our situation, or maybe they just don't seem very interested. I'm sure we sometimes let good ones get away. It happens.
2. Rejection isn't easy. I often feel a great split between my compassion for a candidate with a compelling story and my better judgement, which says that they do not have the academic background or maturity to make it through medical school. This decision, directly and indirectly, affects many lives, including those of future patients. It's often a relief to turn to the other person on my team and the admissions committee and let them bear some of the burden.
3. The best thing a candidate can do is give me a reason to want him/her to succeed. It can be a story, an interest, a goal, but I have to see a reason to say, "Wow, this person will be a great doctor."
Interestingly enough, I think this last reason really connects to writing. Long ago, I went through a phase in querying when my queries were not very long and were couched in formal language. I liked this approach because I thought it was "professional." "They'll see I mean business," I used to think, "I don't waste their time with fluffy stuff." I know now why this approach didn't work. A candidate who is formal and polite and nothing else comes across as uncommitted -- someone just putting up a front but who probably doesn't really want to be a doctor. (It may seem odd, but we do actually get people who apply to med school because they're not really sure what they want to do with their lives, or because they want to please their families.) Likewise I think with a query you must sort of give the agent a reason to want to see your book or want to see it succeed. The trick is to do this without sounding like a danger to yourself and others, of course.
I can never quite get out of my mind that somewhere someone is looking at my dreams and judging them and I only hope that they weigh their decisions as carefully as I weigh mine.