Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

How first impressions last

Posted in Careers by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on May 21, 1999

I never understood why I got into Cambridge. I had the grades, and I had the teacher’s recommendation, but then everybody else did on that day. So it was all down to the interviews.

And there were just 3 of those.
In just 45 minutes, they decided I had more of what it takes than the other candidates. This always troubled me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with them – Gordon Brown would be proud of my state-school origins. I just didn’t believe they could accurately make that decision from such a short space of time. How could they know I would have the stamina to survive the medical curriculum? How could they know I would enjoy the dry, academic nature of the first 3 years. And if I would enjoy it, how could they know it’s not because I’m the dry, academic type, lacking the people-skills for the practice of medicine?
Yet as I progressed through university, the same message was driven home. I got my first job as a programmer after a half-hour interview. My new boss and I hit it off, and 3 years later, I’m delighted that he’s my mentor. I just got my first job as a doctor, after a 15 minute interview.
How do these people know?
It seems I’m not the only one perplexed by this. Boffins from the world of psychology are actively constructing experiments in this area. Their hunch – for all the “objective” testing techniques we have, the actual decisions remain anachronystically subjective.
Consider this experiment. Students were asked to rate a teacher after watching a 15 second video of him in the classroom, with the sound off. It’s perhaps unsurprising the students agreed in their marking. But more worrying, the marks agree with those that other students have given those teachers, after spending a whole semester with them. Change the clips’ length to 8 seconds, and the accuracy persists. Even the seemingly ludicrous 2-second clips are in agreement with the marks given by the long-term students. Could it really be that the decision was made in the first 2 seconds of meeting their teachers, and could it really be so hard to change after a whole semester’s work?
I thought of this as I approached my careers advisor. Despite my success in getting all my other jobs so far, I was being turned down as I tried a new career, in invesment banking. What, I asked my advisor, was I doing wrong?
He suggested that I get a video of myself being interviewed. He gently hinted that I was not coming across confidently enough, that I was did not seem to believe what I said. In other words, I needed to work on the impression I was making.
Fortunately, before I had managed to arrange a video session, I saw a poster from a  recruitment company DiversityNow. The name said it all, and was as good as any when it came to first impressions. Like all recruiters at Oxbridge, DiversityNow puts top graduates with top companies. The twist is that they target minorities, trying to combat their traditional under representation in the City. They then really impressed me by forming another company, this time devoted to helping medics trying to get City jobs. Funny how chance favours the prepared mind. I went along to their training day.
There, I was greeted by the founders: Peter Harrison, who’d started as an investment banker at various companies, including Goldman Sachs; Claire Crichton, a lawyer from the City; Daniel Gomez, a civil rights activist; and Dr Eddie Chaloner, a vascular surgeon.
Firstly, they said what I’d been suspecting all along – investment bankers live and die by the phrase “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Next they pointed out that preparation was essential, whence this course. They also introduced me to a more organised application strategy – they pointed out that targeting one employer with a very high level of preparation is more likely to get you a job than sending out the same mail merged letter to every employer in the industry. All candidates were advised to carefully evaluate different employers, and go after their number one choice in a highly focused manner.
The day included an explanation of investment banking, the standards required, and the qualities they look for. It was all about long preparation, and for a good presentation. Soon he tackled that presentation. Peter gave out a set of “tough interview question”, and divided us into groups. Each of us would ask a question to their neighbour, and we’d go round the group. I got to see exactly the kind of mistakes I was making. Finally, he would give us his answer. I’m not an expert, but I’d hire him!
A few days later, I received an email from Claire. The team had collected feedback on each of us, and could now give us individualised advice on areas to tackle. Predictably, it was my presentation skills that needed most work. But after watching Peter, and other members in the group, I feel able to improve. I’m waiting excitedly for my next interview – I have a second chance to make a good first impression.