Ace Your Job Interview with a Brilliant First Impression

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” — Will Rogers

Times are tough right now with unemployment reaching levels we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. As of this writing, the Department of Labor tracked unemployment rates at nearly 15%. That means a lot of Americans are job hunting, and many more will follow.

If you’re a worker displaced by the COVID-19 pandemic, a new grad looking for your first full-time job, or if you are simply looking to upgrade your current employment, you will need a way to make yourself stand out from a large pool of job applicants. Resumes are a critical first step, but few things can cinch a deal like a winning job interview. That’s where you can really win the “heart and mind” of your future employer.

Of course, a good interview starts with a first impression that packs some punch. Popular research shows that it only takes seven seconds for you to make a first impression on another human being. Nail that first several seconds, and you’re at a distinct advantage over the other applicants.

You know that you have skills, work ethic and passion. You know that if the person sitting across the table from you could fully understand what you have to offer they would want you on their team. In this article, we’re going to share some practical tips for making a first impression that is high on “wow factor” and will sell your future employer on your strengths.

Be prompt. Are we stating the obvious here? Perhaps, but that’s because this bit of advice can’t be overstated. When it comes to negative behaviors of people interviewing for a job, this one has the biggest negative effect on an interviewer’s impression of the applicant, according to a Simply Hired study. The study states that 93% of hiring managers said that tardiness tainted their impression of an applicant. There’s no “fashionably late” when it comes to job interviews.

You can avoid being late by preparing things in advance—from the paperwork you’ll need to the clothes you will wear to the directions to the interview site. Does your suit need dry cleaning? Take care of that at least a week in advance. Is your shirt wrinkly? Pull out that iron the night before. Need an application? Have it completed, stapled, and sitting by your purse or briefcase.

You should also make sure that you leave the house well in advance. Psychology Today recommends that you arrive for your interview 15 minutes early, but even beyond that, you should build in slush time for unexpected traffic accidents, difficulty finding a parking space, etc. If you get there too early, no problem. You can always sit in your car and compose yourself. But being late—well, that’s hard to bounce back from.

If, in spite of your best laid plans, unforeseen events do make you tardy, plan to pull out of it with grace. Call as soon as you realize you’ll be delayed and offer to reschedule. Don’t try to blame someone else (“The traffic lights are sooooooo slow around here!”), and apologize sincerely to the person/people interviewing you. Then, let it go, focusing on positive things ahead in the interview (rather than getting sidetracked by what went wrong).

Be confident. Nerves are natural, and unless you’re a robot, you’re probably going to feel a little jittery when you walk into an interview. Our best advice here is to “fake it ‘til you make it.” Act confident even if you don’t feel that way; you’ll be surprised at how many people you can fool.

Keep your breathing and tone of voice slow and even. Walk with your shoulders and head high, and deliver a firm handshake with spot-on eye contact. Not your natural state? Practice with your partner or roommate. Make sure that your answers are positive and deliberate, not timid or wishy-washy.

Groom for success. Don’t show up at a law firm in a t-shirt and jeans. Dress to fit the part—and if in doubt, go a little more formal. Clothing is a fun way to express yourself, but remember that you may turn off your interviewer if you wear anything too dramatic. The nose ring may be just perfect for your day-to-day life but probably not for your big job interview. If in doubt, err on the side of being conservative (unless you’re interviewing somewhere that explicitly encourages edgy or creative expression).

If there is something about your appearance that could distract your interviewer—yellowed or crooked teeth, skin rashes, etc.—look into options for modifying the issue. A good at-home teeth whitener can do a lot for your smile. If your teeth are excessively crooked, you may want to talk to an orthodontist about braces. This won’t fix the problem on contact, but it’s a good investment that may help your job success in the future.

Develop your unique selling proposition. You may not have 30 minutes to tell the HR manager all of the great things about you in the course of the interview, so make sure you know how to articulate the two to three things that make you a better fit for the job than the other applicants. This is often referred to as your “unique selling proposition” or USP.

Granted, your USP may not come through in that 7-second snapshot we discussed earlier, but you should be prepared to communicate it—even if you only have a few minutes in the hot seat.

It’s a good idea to decide on your USP in advance and practice relaying it, backed by specific evidence. For example, if you want your employer to know that you are innovative, be ready to tell him or her about the recycling project you started at your last job and exactly how much waste it stopped from going to the landfill. (Quantifying results is always a plus.)

Prior to your appointment, do a “mock interview” with a friend. Have them ask you all kinds of questions that a prospective employer might ask. (There are plenty of ideas on the internet.) As you answer this question, look for ways to reference your unique selling proposition points in ways that sound natural.

Let’s take a look at some examples so you can see how this might play out in real life. If your employer asks about your biggest strength, let them know that you’re a good problem solver by telling them about that Excel program you created that eliminated X hours of work and saved the company X amount of money. If they ask you why you want to work for their company, talk about how you admire the company’s creativity, citing a couple of examples of how the company works in out-of-the-box ways. (Hint: You’ll want to poke around on the company’s social media sites and websites so that you can answer questions like this intelligibly.) Then, talk about how this meshes well with your own drive to create, discussing an inventive program that you developed at your last place of work.

Be nice. Say thank you to the doorman. Be courteous to the receptionist. Nod and say hello to the guy sitting in the cubicle that you pass on the way to the HR manager’s office. Employees talk, and scuttlebutt about an applicant’s unkind behavior could float up to leadership. Plus, being nice is just the right thing to do.

When you’re in the interview, relax and don’t forget to smile. That simple flex of the mouth muscles is the most recognizable symbol out there, and it can help endear you to your interviewer in a way that few other things can.

Job hunting is outside of most people’s comfort zones, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You have a lot to offer the world, and by polishing up your first impression, you can get the attention of future employers and let them know why their team would be better with you on it.