handshake

Don’t let a bad first or last impression sink your chances of landing the job.

Yurii Andreichyn/shutterstock

The two most critical elements of interview day

Jon thought that he had it licked; the interview nervousness that had so affected him at the beginning of his day had finally dissipated. It was 4 p.m. and things were winding up. As he entered what was billed as a wrap-up meeting with his prospective boss, he felt relaxed and confident. He had gone through the trial by fire of his first interview, and it looked like he would emerge unscathed. Sure, he was a bit tired, but he was ready to seal the deal. His spirits rose as he entered Dr. Johar’s office and saw her smiling from behind her desk.

“Well, Jon, tell me how it went today,” Johar said. Jon provided a brief overview of the day’s agenda, the people he had met, and his positive feelings about them and the company. He closed by saying that he really hoped to have the chance to continue the discussion, because ABC Biotech was just the kind of place where he’d like to work.

“Terrific,” Johar said. “I’m happy to hear that your impressions were positive, Jon. I’ve received some feedback from those you met, and they are generally quite positive as well. But there was one issue that we didn’t discuss in enough detail.”

Uh-oh. Jon felt his face begin to flush as his nerves kicked back in. Mentally he had been halfway out the door, but it was apparent that he needed to get back into interview mode—quickly.

“We get a great deal accomplished here due to our organizational structure, which relies on strong teamwork,” Johar continued. “Jon, you mentioned in an earlier interview that you’ve been a great collaborator, but I need to know that our team concept is not out of sync with your work style.” Johar began to move back into the behavioral interviewing mode that Jon thought he had left behind after completing his human resources interview. A number of questions focusing on Jon’s behavior, or projected behavior in theoretical circumstances, ensued.

Jon tried to mentally reenergize himself to take on these questions again, but he later suspected that his halfhearted responses would prove to be his undoing.

It’s not over until it’s over

Jon’s gut feeling was correct. His incoherent rambling about team experiences from his grad student days reversed his entirely positive interview. He didn’t get the offer because the last impression he left behind was negative.

In his wrap-up meeting, Jon should have steered the conversation by asking questions he still had about the job or company. Sometimes an interview void just needs to be filled, and it could have been Jon’s questions—as opposed to additional behavioral interviewing—that did the job. But if you don’t fill the empty space, your interviewer will find something else to insert into that gap—which might not be to your benefit.

Jon also lost sight of the fact that, during an interview, you are constantly being judged by clues that come from what you say, how you say it, and the way you look while you say it. Is your voice quavering a bit, or do you sound a bit too rehearsed? Does your confidence (or insecurity) show in your physical appearance? One of my favorite writers, communications expert Bert Decker, calls this trifecta the “believability factor” in his excellent book You've Got to be Believed to be Heard. The important thing to remember is that this believability factor is in play for the entire interview—4 p.m. on interview day is not the time to mentally check out.

The best approach is to plan to stay sharp, to remember that it’s not over until you’re back in your car. Even lunch or dinner is a part of the interview. Nothing should change your focus on presenting yourself in the most positive way possible.

Starting off on the right foot

In hundreds of books about interviewing skills, one fact holds true: First and last impressions are the two most important things you leave behind after your interview day. It’s tough for me to address the topic of first impressions, though, because there has been some pretty disconcerting research done on this topic.

In one such study, conducted by Frank Bernieri, a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo at the time, participants professionally trained in interviewing spoke to nearly 100 people of various backgrounds and filled out an extensive six-page interview questionnaire about each. Initially, Bernieri was looking to find out whether there were any “tricks” that some interviewees used to ingratiate themselves with the interviewer, but he couldn’t find any, so the videos of the interviews were put away without publication. That is, until one of Bernieri’s undergraduates asked whether he had considered another direction for all that work.

This student wanted to test the old adage that “the handshake is everything.” So Bernieri and his team went back to the interview footage and selected just a few seconds of tape for each applicant: that moment showing the candidate knocking on the door, walking in, and shaking hands with the interviewer. An entirely new group of interviewers, watching only these 15 seconds of each applicant, rated them on the same checklist that the earlier interviewers had used. On nine of the 11 traits evaluated, the second set of observers significantly predicted the outcome of the full interviews. As Bernieri told Malcolm Gladwell, writing for The New Yorker, “The strength of the correlations was extraordinary.”

Decker pulls out another Gladwell gem in a blog post about the same subject of judgments made solely based on first impressions.

So, what does this mean for you? I hope it reinforces the importance of these first few moments. If you are scheduled to meet with eight people over the course of an interview day, you have eight chances to make a good first impression. You have eight chances to walk into a room; introduce yourself; shake hands with your interviewer; and have that friendly, confident posture that indicates you are there to be successful. That means, of course, that you also have eight chances to make a bad first impression—which, if you believe the research that Bernieri and others have conducted, is enough to sink your chances.

There are, of course, other parts of interview day where you’ll need to shine, such as proving that you are the right fit for the technical aspects of the job. But remember that this lengthy middle element is sandwiched between two other pieces of the day, the first and last impressions. After 30 years of talking to both candidates and employers at the close of an interview day, my feeling is that each of these elements—first impression, last impression, and all the rest—are weighted equally. You can have a wonderful day answering technical questions perfectly and find that someone else—someone less qualified on paper than you are—got the offer. The bottom line is that, when you’re preparing for your interviews, it’s crucial that you don’t neglect those first and last interactions as trivial, because they can make all the difference.

Read more Tooling Up stories

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers