The Most Important Part of a Job Interview? It May Surprise You

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First impressions carry a lot of weight. Relationships are cemented or destroyed, often within the first few seconds of meeting. We know if we’re going to be friends with someone often by just looking at them, and science has more or less shown that our judgments of others are levied within a very short period of time. When it comes to job interviews, this also holds true. You can throw every tactic in the book at a potential employer, but if you stumble out of the starting blocks, it may be too late.

You can ask the wrong questions, you can use inappropriate or off-putting body language. You can even flub some common interview questions. All of those mistakes can be forgiven. But according to some new research, a job offer can be earned or lost within a couple of minutes of walking in the door. It’s all about the pre-interview interview, evidently.

A new study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology says that a great deal of importance should be placed on the chit-chatting and small talk that happens before the actual interview officially starts. It’s this early back and forth interaction – those first impressions mentioned before – that go a long way in determining how the interview goes overall. “Rapport building,” the study calls it, may be seen as a chance for the two parties to interact with a little less formality. That should give the interviewee a chance to enhance their image.

According to this study, it often has the opposite effect.

“Although applicants and interviewers often view rapport building as an essential, value-adding component of the interview, it may contaminate interviewers’ evaluations of answers to subsequently asked structured questions,” the study says. “In contrast to prior assumptions, findings based on 163 mock interviews suggest that a significant portion of initial impressions’ influence overlaps with job-related interview content and, importantly, that these effects are distinct from other image-related constructs.”

And, to conclude: “Initial impressions are found to more strongly relate to interviewer evaluations of applicant responses earlier rather than later in the structured interview.”

So, as the study points out, our “initial impressions” do carry a lot of weight. This backs up what other social scientists have decreed about first impressions, meaning that we have a very short window with which to present ourselves when walking into an interview, or any other situation. The question is, just how big of a window are we granted?

According to psychologists at Princeton, it may be as little as 1/10th of a second. Seriously – that’s it. That is the speed with which your mind casts judgment about another person, by simply seeing their face. While our judgments and assessments of others do evolve as we spend more time with them, it turns out it’s hard to trump those initial first feelings.

This means we’re faced with an almost impossible task: to somehow make a positive impression in a fraction of a second. It’s unfair, but we all do make judgments based on the appearance of others when we first meet or see them. And sometimes those judgments are fair. If someone who was disheveled, sleep-deprived, or hung over came into your business looking for a job, you’d immediately be finding a way to get them out of there. On the flip side, if someone has taken the time to put some effort into their appearance, no alarms are going to be going off in your head.

It’s like passing a very short, very easy test. From there, you can let your assessments evolve based on merit and further discussion. But since most of us are not assuming the role of interviewer, we need to take what we can learn from studies like these and use them to our advantage. In this case? Make a solid first impression. If you don’t, it’s hard, if not impossible, to claw your way back to zero.

In order to make a first impression, rely on common sense. Dress appropriately, be confident, know where you’re going, and who you’re meeting with. Most importantly, though, is to be nice. If you can prove you’re a decent person within the first 10 seconds through the door, you’ll drastically increase your chances of walking out with an offer.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

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