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It's amazing how important first impressions are in the interview. In fact, it can come as a bit of a shock for those who are entering the job market for the first time. You create a first impression with each of the six to 10 people you will meet on interview day! Any one of those can go wrong, and changing a first impression is very difficult. Here's an extreme example:

Imagine yourself in this situation. You've just entered the office of the vice president of research for XYZ Biotech, a young company that has invited you to give a presentation on your work and interview for one of their entry-level scientist positions. The VP, a woman in her late 40s, has the most incredibly phony red hair you've ever seen in your life. A strange mix of red and purple, it blazes with an intensity that can only be described as fluorescent.

Her:"So, let's talk a little about your early background in science. Can you tell me why you decided to take up a science career in the first place?"

You: (Distracted by the glow coming from behind the desk) "I'm sorry, what was that?"

Her: "Your early career. What was it that got you into science?"

You: (Recovering) "Recently I've been working on a DNA hybridization protocol that my adviser and I have just published in PNAS."

Her: "We were talking about your early years, your decision process to enter the field."

You: (Embarrassed) "My apologies. Yes, I've wanted to become a scientist since that day when I was barely 7 years old, and my Uncle Fred helped me dissect a frog. ..."

Can you imagine what first impression you might leave behind in this example? In this case, the first impression "Bad Listener" would be mighty hard to shake!

Three Rules to Managing First Impressions

  • Everyone leaves behind the occasional bad impression. Successful interviewees don't let themselves get caught up in that gaffe for the rest of the day. Move past it--forget it--and do the best job you can of managing the rest of the interview. In most cases, it isn't as bad as you think.
  • Information is everything.The bad impressions you don't know about are the dangerous ones, because you won't have the opportunity to defuse them. So if you've left behind any unwanted ideas about your ability to fit that job, you need to find out as much as you can about these before you leave the interview.
  • Eye contact rules all. What you say with your eyes is more powerful than anything else you communicate during the interview. Your eyes can transmit eager enthusiasm or boredom and complete disinterest. Make sure that the first impression you leave behind with your eyes tells the real story.

Typical First Impression Comments

Sadly, interviewers tend to put people into pigeonholes within a relatively short time. (After all, they are only human--and isn't this what all of us do in our daily lives?) Psychologists have studied this effect and determined that most decisions are made within the first 5 to 10 minutes, and the balance of the time is used to bolster or test this impression. It is within that brief period of time that you will be "categorized" in one fashion or another by the person across the desk from you.

Those categories may start with a simple "I'm interested and want to learn more" or "This one isn't for us." As the interview progresses, you are likely to be subcategorized in a variety of ways that could include "too chatty," "not a good listener," "poor eye contact," "low level of energy," "doesn't fit the corporate culture," or "not much enthusiasm for his work."

How do you stop this from happening? You can't. But the best way to minimize the impact is to put these impressions to the test before you leave the interview. Too many scientists make the mistake of walking out after an all-day meeting with little more than a "We'll be getting back to you" comment from the employer. That's not a smart way to end your session, because this is the best time to learn about your first impressions.

Most interviewers will provide you with additional information when asked. Although they won't get into personal or potentially embarrassing comments about blunders or bad first impressions, you can indeed arm yourself with important information by asking questions such as this:

"I'm very interested in this position. Can you tell me please how I would differ from the ideal candidate for the job?"

Although you may feel slightly uncomfortable putting the interviewer in this situation, it is really something that many hiring managers expect. There is a give and take expected from both parties during the interview process.

You might find the answer to that question very illuminating. In my opening example, that red-haired VP of research might respond, "We are looking for a person with similar skill areas to those you've exhibited, but because of the nature of the position, listening skills are going to be vital."

The Importance of Following Up

In some cases, you can immediately move to counteract these potential negatives, even while you are still in the interview. "Not a good listener" would be very hard to respond to, but "not much enthusiasm" would certainly be something that you could work on for the balance of the day.

The classic and very effective method for defusing bad first impressions is the follow-up letter. In this "thank you," you have the opportunity in a couple of paragraphs to defuse that perceived weakness and get your foot back in the door. There is no "after interview" step quite as effective as the old-fashioned thank-you note (and yet only about one in three people send them!).

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.