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A Simple Way to Ace That Job Interview

• March 04, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: STOCKLITE/SHUTTERSTOCK)

In two experiments, applicants who had thought about a time they felt powerful came across as more impressive.

Job applicants are wise to follow a few common-sense rules. Be on time for an interview. Look presentable. Do your research, so you know something about the organization and can explain how you would contribute to its success.

Newly published research suggests your preparation regimen should include one additional step: Give some thought to the last time you truly took control over a situation.

In two experiments described in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, both job-application letters and in-person interviews were far more effective if the applicant had just recalled a time they felt powerful.

“Merely asking participants to remember a personal experience of power dramatically affected the impressions that interviewers had of them,” writes a research team led by psychologist Joris Lammers.

Their first experiment featured 177 Dutch university students, who were randomly assigned the role of applicant or interviewer. As a “warm-up task,” the “applicants” were instructed to write about a time when they either had power, or lacked power. They then read an actual job ad (for a sales analyst) and wrote a letter applying for the position. (They were told to assume they were qualified for the job.) These were read by an “interviewer,” who then reported how likely they would be to offer the job to the candidate.

The result: Applicants who had been thinking about a time when they had power expressed more self-confidence than those in the other group, and the interviewers were significantly more likely to offer them the job.

The second experiment featured 55 French undergraduates taking part in 15-minute mock interviews for admission to a graduate business school. Before each interview, in what they were told was a handwriting assessment, approximately a third of them wrote about a time when they felt powerful while another third wrote about a time they lacked power. The rest wrote nothing at all.

The “interviewers” assessed how convincing and persuasive each “applicant” came across, and whether they would admit him or her into the program. Among those who did not write an essay, 47.1 percent were admitted. This compares to 68.4 percent of those who wrote about a time they felt powerful, and 26.3 percent of those who wrote about a time they felt powerless.

“Importantly, these effects occurred even though evaluators/interviewers were unaware of the power manipulation,” the researchers write. They add that the results “offer hope to millions of job and school applicants around the world: Tap into your inner self of confidence by recalling an experience with power.”

Lammers and his colleagues include a couple of caveats. They concede it’s possible this plan could backfire for a person who has a lot of difficulty recalling a time they felt powerful. A struggle to come up with something appropriate could undermine self-regard and weaken performance in an interview.

However, for those who “have had at least some experiences with having power”—say, while playing a sport, or otherwise exerting leadership in some small way—this technique will likely be helpful. For job seekers, power doesn’t corrupt; it makes you a more attractive catch.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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