The First Impression Can Be a Dealbreaker: Six Ways to Make a Good One

job search tipsRemember the old adage -- you only get ONE chance to make a good FIRST impression? Well, it's never been truer than today with so many candidates vying for just a few positions. Yet, surprisingly, people still have lots to learn about what to do to catch and hold the eye of a potential new employer.

"Patients who come to me are obviously aware that they need to make a good first impression," says Dr. Stephen Ip, a plastic surgeon in Newport Beach, Calif. "However, you'd be surprised how many forget that there is more to it than just physical perfection." He gets many patients coming to him that are all about improving their looks, and less about improving their demeanor. He's surprised that so many of them think that better looks alone will win the day.

The holiday season offers more opportunities for parties, gatherings and other interesting networking events. The person volunteering to feed the homeless alongside you just might be looking to hire someone. The guy in the funny Christmas sweater at your cousin's caroling party could be your new boss.

With so much potential for meet-and-greets this holiday season, keep these more-than-skin-deep tips in mind:

1. Always be on time.

Even if it means being early and cooling your heels. No one likes tardiness or excuses. "If an interviewee or even someone at a party where they're trying to get noticed doesn't have the wherewithal to be punctual, then what does that say about them as employees?" asks executive recruiter Cary Schraf.

2. Clothes make the man/woman.

A neat, clean-cut appearance gives you a high mark right off the top, but make sure you dress to suit the occasion. For example, you may be a bohemian at heart, but for a business gathering, leave the sandals at home. Sometimes, though, your outward appearance can make a difference in the most unlikely setting. "I usually don't dress up to go to the movies, but one day I did. Before the movie started, I struck up a conversation with the woman next to me who turned out to be looking for someone with my qualifications, and I got the job. I'm convinced that my looking presentable had a lot to do with that," says sales rep Kate Proto. The lesson here: Be prepared.

3. Make eye contact.

Even if you have butterflies in your stomach when meeting new people, do not look over their shoulder or head or anywhere but at them. "I know I've lost a few jobs because I get nervous and fidget, but I'm learning to focus on the person, listen attentively and not let my eyes wander," says Tim Deciccio.

4. Speak clearly, distinctly and succinctly.

You may be a fan of Marlon Brando's mumbling or Ben Stein's monotone -- but these won't fly if you're trying to make a good first impression. At the same time, don't monopolize the conversation. Be lively; but above all, be a good listener.

5. Do NOT chew gum in public.

Ever. As Prince William's new fiancee Kate Middleton found out, the British royal family were not amused when her mother was seen on-camera chewing gum. "One does not chew gum in public," a royal spokesman said. Neither should you, fellow commoner, if you want an employer to take you seriously. A side note: Do pay attention to bad breath. That is a royal turn-off as well.

6. Get a good grip.

"I call it the dead-fish handshake, you know the kind where you shake someone's hand and there's no life there? " notes recruiter Schraf. No one expects or wants you to have a Conan the Barbarian grip, but a firm grasp of the hand denotes energy and confidence.

Now that you've made a good first impression, don't relax. Use the same principles you'd use in a social setting that you would in a job interview. Especially, be sure to think carefully about the questions you ask. In other words, don't do what one candidate did while looking for a receptionist's job at Dr. Ip's cosmetic surgery practice: "Can I get free breast implants?" she asked. Don't ask for free medical/legal/whatever advice at a party, either. It will immediately cancel out all the points you made with that great first impression.

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