The behavioral interview is not without its faults. In a brief span of approximately 45 minutes, interviewers form stereotypes concerning the characteristics required for success in the academic program or job, they tend to give negative information more weight and they make key decisions within the first few minutes, using the remainder of the interview to validate their original decision.
Despite the faults of this popular evaluative tool, most graduate business programs and medical schools require interviews for anyone they admit. And they are becoming increasingly important. Admissions directors agree that while an applicant can look perfect on paper, if they can’t perform well in an interview, chances are they will have a hard time securing a job post MBA or connecting with patients and attending physicians in residency. They may also have a hard time fitting in as a student in a particular program. Once an applicant secures an interview, many admissions directors agree, it is the most important piece of the puzzle.
When preparing clients for their interviews, there are long lists of tips we discuss. I advise them to create their own agenda, as there will certainly be differentiating points the interviewer won’t ask about; I encourage them to ask strong questions at the end of the interview, which not only show an in-depth knowledge of the program, but also a genuine curiosity; and I review with them specific past examples they could use to demonstrate their leadership potential or demonstrated commitment to a career in medicine. As a former admissions director, conducting interviews was one of my favorite parts of the job. And until recently, I haven’t given much thought to my own biases that existed or how they could have negatively affected applicants. I like to think that I gave everyone a fair shot, but some recent research inspired me to apply a bit more scrutiny to the whole process of interviewing and the applicant evaluations that result.
In “Daily Horizons: Evidence of Narrow Bracketing in Judgment From 10 Years of MBA Admissions Interviews,” recently published in Psychological Science, Wharton Management professor Uri Simonsohn and Harvard professor Francesca Gino used MBA admissions data (not from Wharton or Harvard) to study how applicant scores were affected if they interviewed at the end of the day, after a series of strong or weak candidates. They found that a similarly qualified applicant who interviewed after a string of strong candidates got lower scores than what they would have received otherwise. And, those who interviewed after a group of weaker candidates got better evaluations.
“An interviewer who expects to evaluate positively about 50 percent of the applicants on any given day may be reluctant to evaluate positively many more or fewer than 50 percent of applicants on any given day. An applicant who happens to interview on a day when several others have already received a positive evaluation would, therefore, be at a disadvantage,” Simonsohn and Gino wrote.
While Universities may be able to control this effect by having interviewers enter each applicant’s score into a spreadsheet that would help them monitor the results of interviews over time and keep focus on today’s crop of candidates, it is important for applicants to understand that their competition is likely to come from two pools: everyone and the other applicants who are interviewed that day.
I often wonder if I was guilty of this narrow bracketing phenomenon in my previous role. Today, as a consultant, all I can do is arm my clients with the sound advice I know is tried and true. From now on, I just might add one more tidbit: Schedule your interview in the morning.