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To land that job, be among the first interviewed, study shows

Jan. 23, 2013 at 9:08 AM ET

Want to ace that interview and increase your chances of actually landing the job? A new study says the best thing to do is interview on a different day than your strongest competition. Or, if you think you're a strong candidate, at least try to schedule your own meeting for the morning.

According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, interviewers have trouble seeing the forest from the trees. They often make their decisions based on the ratings they’ve given the interviewees directly before the interview, as opposed to someone’s true merits.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School found that people interviewing MBA degree candidates tended to rate applicants based on the earlier scores they’d given out that day — not in relation to the entire pool of students applying for the class.

Based on nearly a decade of interview data, collected from over 9,000 applicants to an undisclosed American business school (which is neither of the authors’ own institutions), the study showed that interviews earlier in the day had a negative impact on assessments for the strong people that followed with interviews later in the day. If an interviewer had already given out several high scores on a scale of 1 to 5, the next candidate who walked into the room was likely to receive a lower grade, regardless of his or her actual qualifications.

Psychologist, Harvard business professor and study co-author Francesca Gino has long studied how we make decisions in our daily lives, from what we buy to whom we date. Her recent findings in Psychological Science, Gino says, might apply wherever professional decision makers see different applicants on multiple days.

Take a loan officer for instance. According to the study, it’s likely that a person who has already recommended three loan applicants on any given day may be reluctant to recommend the fourth person they see— regardless of how qualified he or she might be for the car or home loan. Or consider a judge in a busy court who hands out dozens of sentences on any given day. After dispensing several lenient sentences in the morning, the judge could come back from lunch and, as the study puts it, “be disproportionately reluctant to evaluate four, five, or six people in a row in too similar a fashion.” So the judge might just hand out a stricter sentence to someone being sentenced later in the day.

Professor Robert Shiller, a Yale economist and author of “Irrational Exuberance,” says that Olympic judges could potentially run into these kinds of issues when they’re scoring gymnasts, for example. Or, a professor might bump against this when he’s grading exams, and might give a lower score to an otherwise good exam graded later in the day.

“If I’ve been giving out a lot of A’s, for instance,” Shiller explains, “I might feel like I have been giving out too many, and have to give a lower grade to the next student.”

Luckily, Professor Shiller has a method for correcting this potential bias: he reads through and grades the first question, then scores the second of each exam, and so on. This way, an exam that might be graded first on question one can be graded later on question two.

Unfortunately, most of us can’t control the strength of the other applicants on the day we’re being interviewed. But, the Psychological Science study does suggest that a strong applicant will fare better in an early morning interview slot: either that applicant will get a strong evaluation based on his or her merits or at least won’t be the victim of a harsher score based on prior applicants. 

Tessa Deutsch, a managing director and head of the legal and compliance practice group at the New York recruiting firm Glocap, says these kinds of findings might be more relevant in the case of high-volume searches of applicants with less technical expertise, where the interviewer is looking at hundreds of people to fill a certain slot, and dozens are qualified.

“But for many of the positions we fill,” Deutsch says, “a candidate meets with a company multiple times, and there are really only a few people who would fit well in a certain job role.”

Regardless, it can’t hurt to be the first one in the door.

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