You may be a new graduate or seasoned technologist. You may be relocating to another part of the country or switching hospitals in your area. You may be the only person applying or one of a dozen. But to an employer who knows nothing about you, your first impression creates an impact that can make or break the interview. Understanding how first impressions work and how to approach your first meeting can give you the best chance of success. It might even get you the job.
Mary, mother of four young children, decides to work full time again after being out work for years. She dusts off her résumé, applies at a local hospital, and arrives for her interview. She feels nervous and a little intimidated after so many years away from busy laboratories. She shakes the lab manager's hand, looking over her shoulder at technologists, taking it all in. She sits in a chair in the office stiffly, aware of feeling a little out of place.
Michael shows up for his interview several minutes late, because he has been playing basketball all morning. Uncomfortably warm, he is wearing sweat pants and a sweat shirt with a nylon jacket. As he sits down in the manager's office, fatigue sets in. He has difficulty concentrating. Mike thinks he should have the job, because he doesn't think there are any other applicants.
Susan does her homework. She visits the hospital website, does a walk-through ahead of time, and has coffee in the cafeteria. She chats with employees in the hallway, finding them pleasant and professional. A week later, she arrives on time for the interview, looking sharp and confident. As the interview begins she maintains eye contact, smiles and makes small talk. Susan doesn't assume anything.
It's not hard to guess which candidate stands out. While Mary and Michael may end their interviews on a high note, they would be surprised to know how quickly the manager's mind was made up.
How Fast Is an Impression Made?
We've all met someone while not at our best--tired, distracted or irritable--and made a poor first impression. The other person decides not to like you--even if you immediately realize you aren't making a great first impression--and changing his or her mind becomes an uphill battle.
As the adage states, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." When we meet another person, our expression, mannerism and appearance can leave an indelible mark. More importantly, this happens so quickly to be effectively beyond our control. Just how fast is a first impression, and why are they so persistent?
You might be surprised. One business blog points out that people will size you up in as few as 4-7 seconds, relying mostly on dress and body language (55 percent) and voice and tone (38 percent).1
Author and etiquette expert Dana May Casperson agrees in USA Today: "It takes only 3-5 five seconds to make a first impression, but . a whole career to undo it."2 And one Tufts University psychologist says, it only takes 3 seconds to form what she calls "thin slices" of an experience to decide if another person will harm or help us, a capability critical to the survival of our ancestors.3
Three to 7 seconds is barely enough time for a handshake and greeting. But a study published in 2006 in industry journal Psychological Science goes further. Princeton researchers Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov conducted experiments of judgments based on five facial traits in which participants were shown photographs of unfamiliar faces in increments ranging from 100 to 1,000 milliseconds. They conclude that all it takes is one tenth of a second to size someone up; extra time only increases the confidence in that first millisecond-impression.4
New research suggests that behavior contradicting this impression--you trying to fix it, for example--is bound to the context of the event. Bertram Gawronkski of the University of Ontario describes how a bad first impression at work is not changed even by a favorable follow-up at a social event. Our impression changes only in the context of the party. "Your first impression will still dominate in all other contexts," he tells Science Daily. Without multiple challenges in different contexts--something that won't happen during an interview--a first impression is likely to persist.5
Prepare and Prevail
If you're trying to blow an employer's socks off in an interview context, that can be bad news. You only have one shot--beginning in the first tenth of a second--to make a great first impression that won't change whether your interview lasts 10 minutes or 2 hours.
Fortunately, there's plenty you can do to prepare. Here are tips:6,7
- Start with the company website. A few minutes can tell you a lot about your prospective employer. Pay attention to press releases; what they are bragging about reveals what they deem culturally important.
- Show up on time. While it's sensible to allow yourself time to find the right office for your interview, try to avoid showing up too early, which can make you seem pushy.
- Appearance. It's important to look like a seasoned professional, which conveys confidence and intent. Remember to cover tattoos, limit visible piercings, and pay attention to hair and makeup.
- Body language. One UCLA study finds 55 percent of communication is through body language. Try to sit up straight, shoulders back and avoid crossing your legs. Aim for a medium-firm handshake to convey confidence and authority.
The immediacy of a first impression suggests these behaviors have to feel and occur as naturally as possible. It's a good idea to practice with friends or a mentor ahead of time. Your first impression will convey information you aren't aware of, but you can deliberately prepare to appear confident, poised, and professional, giving you the best chance of a successful interview that lands you the job.
Scott Warner is lab manager at Penobscot Valley Hospital, Lincoln, ME.
- Job training: the first impression. Available at: http://bullandbearessentials.com/2010/10/job-training-the-first-impression. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- Kersten D. Mind your manners for a good first impression. Available at: http://www.usatoday.com/money/jobcenter/workplace/successstrategies/2002-11-15-impression_x.htm. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- Flora C. The first impression. Available at: www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200405/the-first-impression. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- How many seconds to a first impression? Available at: www.psychologicalscience.org/observer/getArticle.cfm?id=2010. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- Why first impressions are so persistent. Available at: www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110118113445.htm. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- Tjan A. Avoid first-impression mistakes. Available at: www.businessweek.com/managing/content/nov2010/ca20101124_843497.htm. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.
- Lorenz K. How to conquer the first impression. Available at: http://www.careerbuilder.com/Article/CB-409-Interview-Tips-How-to-Conquer-the-First-Impression. Last accessed Jan. 14, 2012.