Question

interview orderI’m a finalist for a position. I have already had a one-hour phone interview and a two-hour in-person interview. One more interview to go, and it will be four hours split among four people. I have a two-week window to choose from and wasn’t sure if I want to be one of the early ones, or one of the later ones. I think you could make a case for either. What’s your advice about how I can use interview order to get an edge?

Nick’s Reply

I have long contended that it’s not good hiring practice to interview too many job candidates, especially on the same day. The more people a manager interviews, the less likely the manager will be able to distinguish them, especially if the meetings occur all in one day. But your question is actually a good one because of how our memories work, and because memory affects the choices we make — including how managers select new hires.

Interview order and memory

In the study of human memory, there’s something called the serial position effect. Research has shown that when we memorize a long list of words, we tend to remember the very first ones (the primacy effect) and the last ones (recency effect) better than those in between.

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Cognitive psychologists suspect this is true because we have two kinds of memory stores: long term and short term. Short term memory helps us remember words we saw most recently. Long term memory helps us remember words from longer ago — the first words from a list.

The mechanism is believed to work like this. We have more time to consign the earliest words to long term memory, so they’re more available for recall.  We remember the most recent ones because they’re still in short term memory. Words in the middle of the list are too recent to make it into long term memory and too “old” to still be in short term memory, so we tend forget them.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to apply the serial position effect to job interviews, but I think it presents a provocative choice to job applicants.

Can interview order help you stand out?

I think your slot in the interview schedule could be meaningful. But it’s not as simple as first and last candidates having the best chances of getting hired because, of course, there are so many factors at play. A candidate in the middle may interview brilliantly and thus be the most memorable, or if you are the last candidate and you royally bungle your interview the manager will remember to reject you! Or, an excellent early candidate may set the standard for all the rest and thus have an edge.

My answer about which day in a two-week schedule to select depends on too many unknowns. I’d pick a time that’s good for you and don’t worry about it. It’s far more important to focus on being ready to demonstrate how you’ll do the job in a way that truly gets the manager’s attention and makes you memorable. I think that’s the most reliable way to give yourself an edge.

Does when you interview really matter?

So, why did I bother discussing the serial position effect and then suggest it might not give you an advantage after all? It turns out there’s some provocative research specifically about this memory effect in hiring — and I want to know what other readers’ experiences have been and what everyone thinks!

Please read this brief Seattle Times article about whether interview order can give you an advantage in job interviews. Then let’s discuss whether it really matters and how.

Have you been hired because you were the first or the last? Given a choice, would you take the first interview slot or the last? Do you believe that when you’re in the middle interview schedule you’re less likely to be hired? Let’s hear your real-life experiences!

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23 Comments
  1. Not personal experience, but there’s also research on the best time of day to appear before a parole board (which is what too many interviews feel like, sadly). Apparently you don’t want to appear just before lunch; hungry people aren’t terribly charitable.

  2. Industrial psychologist here. Lots of hiring experience. I think there is an interview time choice that makes a difference. Here it is: don’t interview when the interviewers are likely to be hungry. Skip the slot before lunch and the end of day slot.

  3. I would lean towards being the first in the series to interview. That way, I would be able to get the interview over with and not spend the day worrying about it while waiting. Getting the interview done first also gives the rest of the day to begin study other possible companies (expect the best but prepare for the worst).

  4. Oh stop it people. “Lets have lunch.” Now that is a discussion to have or not to have lunch? Nick I am not trying to hijack your convo.

  5. I’d go with early in the day. Everyone well rested and more likely to start on schedule. They may get off schedule as the day progresses and try to rush thru the last people.

  6. Two weeks is a long time after an interview. I’d go for recency bias and try to be last,
    When I used to do presentations we said never go right after lunch, everyone wants to take a nap.

  7. My Dad always introduced me as his last child. Then he would say, “Even if he had been first, he would have been last.”

    Monday mornings and Friday afternoons are tough times for interviews.

  8. I am a former Head Hunter and I’ll let you in on a secret. Where there are, let’s say, 4 candidates and assume they’re all coming from my referrals, the first two or three are referred to as sacrificial Lambs. The reason is that we get feedback from the first two in this case to relay to the latter interviewees as what the questions were and anything else we can get from the interviews. The information is available really only to the 3rd and 4th interviewees. So they have the major advantage. Best slot: last.

    • @Wes: Hmmm. Interesting strategy for a headhunter. Maybe it helps explain why lots of people put headhunters right down there with personnel jockeys… Who wants to be a sacrificial lamb?

      On the flip side, I’ve submitted candidates where I ensured they were the very first candidate the manager met. (The contingency headhunter is often competing with candidates HR has found, or even other headhunters.) The manager made the hiring decision without talking to any other candidates, simply because the manager knew exactly what they were looking for — and the candidate I delivered had it. That’s referred to as doing your job right the first time.

  9. I can’t speak directly to the issue of interview position, but I know when I’m looking at a series of items (say pictures on the internet, trying to find “the right one” for a blog post or something), I tend to pay more attention to those I encounter early on. After a while, all the pictures start looking the same and I’m more likely to click through page after page with little more than a glance, until I get dissatisfied with the whole process and go back to one of my early contenders…what the article mentioned as ‘decision fatigue.” That is my own unscientific reason for probably choosing an earlier slot if given a choice, all other things being equal.

  10. “Serial interviewing “ is like serial dating. Walk away! Total waste of air and energy. Like urinating on your shoes. Employers are playing you in this case.
    I’ve been the first candidate called in for interviews before (or so I was told), then ghosted.
    Juice isn’t worth the squeeze!

  11. I’ve hired many people after a series of interviews. Where is the waste? If I interview give people then one of them will probably get a job offer.

    • Five not give. Oops.

    • Good for you, but many employers interview loads of candidates, waste their time, string them along, then ghost them, and end up hiring no one. There’s a reason you see the same jobs popping up on Indeed every 90 days. Savvy job seekers learn to read the signs, cut their loses, and exit promptly from time draining vampire interviews. Done it a few times myself.

      • “Savvy job seekers learn to read the signs…”

        True that.

        Even my local government job board has become more realistic by publicly posting
        that they are only interviewing “x” number of candidates for certain positions
        to avoid the mass cattle call serial interviews.

        Yes Zoli, said a different way one must learn to read the tea leaves.

  12. I don’t believe it’s the order. It’s the candidate who can show they can do the job, who can articulate their thoughts in a focused professional manor, engage the hiring manager in conversation, and is likable. That is the person who will be hired.

    When I would interview candidates, I would select no more than five. Then compare each candidate to the one before as either a go or no-go leaving me with only 1 or 2 to choose from. From my experience, the candidates that could accomplish the above were the ones I remembered best no matter the order.

    • “When I would interview candidates, I would select no more than five.”
      Yes, very effective…saves everyone valuable time.

      And a big YES to those that show they can do the job, articulate thoughts,
      engage, and is likable as you mentioned.

    • @Tom: There’s an unfortunate belief among managers who stink at recruiting, interviewing and hiring that “the next candidate will be the most perfect one.” These managers stretch out the interview process, often for weeks or months, expecting a purple squirrel to appear. Worse, they try to keep their best candidates “warm” during all that time. These managers sometimes hire no one after all that, for fear they’ll make a mistake.

      Setting a limit of 5 to interview is wise. But it only works for managers like you know who how to select those 5 to begin with! What few managers realize is that the real judgments, the real discernment, the real choices are made before the interviewing starts! That’s what distinguishes a good manager from the rest.

    • Some years ago, I participated in the process of hiring a new geologist for our small oil company. We put out ads, two-thirds of the application letters were from people who did not even fill our modest requirements (five years of experience from the relevant area). Still, we had over 50 candidates to sort through, and interviewed six of them, all which were more or less familiar to at least one of us (former colleagues or study mates).

      The best candidate eventually took another job, the second best candidate from a technical viewpoint came across as having a too big ego. The boss then interviewed a new batch of people (I did not take part, due to vacation), but rejected them all.

      I then suggested to hire the third best candidate from the first round; a great guy who would just need a bit of time to get up to speed, rather than wait for a pink unicorn candidate…but then the board halted the whole hiring process.

      Later, we hired a new woman…without interview, since she was a consultant the boss knew from before, and which was then hired as an ordinary employee.

      Lesson learned: Dont’t let FOMO rule. Desire for the best can be the enemy for the good. So hire the good when they come.

    • And the one who shows that they could do the job best is quite probably the one who knows what the questions are going to be ahead of time so I can have the better prepared answers. That’s why the first several interviewees are referred to as sacrificial Lambs. They are the ones who give you the questions to tell the most likely candidate so that they can be better prepared to answer the interview questions.

  13. For decades I’ve read numerous theories on this topic.

    Although primacy and recency certainly have a degree of influence
    I won’t put much weight on them – as long as your interviewer
    is competent and not biased.

    Years ago I was hired on-the-spot by a millionaire business owner
    as a result of preparing my own questions ahead of time based on his
    answers to my questions during our prior short phone call which was
    me effectively interviewing him [hint].

    There is no secret – “do the job” at the interview or be a dud that
    isn’t memorable.

    The more you worry about interviewing “tricks” the less likely you
    are to come across in a genuine manner.

    Like Zoli said, don’t engage in playing games.

    As the funny rabbit said “Tricks are for kids.”

    • One of the points, the poster Tom stated above, is “likeable” for a criteria he used when he’d hired candidates. My question begs “how well did that work, and how well did it retain those you hired”?
      But, Chris, (and I’m not telling you the straight and gritty truth that you don’t already know) “likeable” is subjective. If you don’t give prospective employers today the “tingles” (especially the HR girl or the often feminized and feckless male managers), you’re automatically disqualified. Doesn’t matter what skills, experience, or credibility and references that you bring to the table. It’s how you make them “feel”, how well you can “entertain” them during the interview process, or “how well you do in your performance art asinine roll playing exercises” in these silly waste of time sucking job interviews. I’ll be turning 63 next Tuesday, and there’s a certain level of dignity, and a seat at the table, Chris, that a person often earns with age and experience. I’ll not play their juvenile games.

    • @Chris S: Great story about the “one interview job offer!”

      Many years ago, after I published my first book, I got a call from a guy who told me he was in an airport. He’d read my book on his flight and wanted to tell me something: “You’re the only guy that gets it! The biggest mistake we make is that we hire people because we LIKE them!”

      Buck Adams was Sr. VP of an international telecom company. His job was to launch new operations around the world, and that included hiring new teams of people. A former commanding general of North American Air Defense Command (NORAD), Adams still holds the world speed record in the SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane flying between London and Los Angeles (three hours, forty-seven minutes).

      Adams kindly let me quote him in my next book:

      “Behavior, skills, personality – none of it by itself accurately predicts how well someone will do a job,” Adams says. “None of it means you can perform. I reference the interview to the outcomes I need – to the work that must be done. I don’t hire people because of what they say. I hire them because they can prove they can do the work!”

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