Why a Handshake Matters (more than you may think)

Study after study suggests that first impressions matter; indeed, in terms of creating a lasting impression, they matter more than anything else. An equal body of research often suggests that, once made, first impressions are exceptionally difficult to change. You are going to be remembered from the first few minutes of your initial encounter—the question is, how do you want to be remembered?

Think deeply, then, on the handshake. It is one of the few things that is entirely gender, race/ethnicity and aesthetic independent. We almost all can (and should) give a handshake, and we all can do it well. Yet from my experience in admissions, in hiring job candidates, and even in visiting prestigious firms leads me to the conclusion that the vast majority of people do not. From other admissions deans I have heard the same thing. From hiring partners I have heard this lamented. Professionals look for a certain kind of handshake and hardly ever get it.

This is good news! Because of this fact, YOU can stand out in a first meeting with a hiring partner or admissions officer.  You can do something that is simple, easy, and likely you already know how. As absurd as it may be, here is a refresher:

  1. Smile! When people are nervous, they often forget to. I sometimes think I made a career visiting hundreds of major firms simply because I enjoyed meeting people and thus smiled naturally when I did.
  2. Look the person in the eyes. This is where most people break down. Again, when nervous, you may be inclined to do the exact opposite. I had to actually train myself to do this, because it was my nature to look away. It matters, and if you look them in the eye, they will remember you, I promise.
  3. Be the first to extend your hand. I mean, don’t walk across the room with your arm horizontally extended, but if possible try to initiate the handshake. This shows confidence, and research shows that, in interviews, confidence is consistently rated the 2nd or 3rd most important trait you can exhibit (behind “similarity” and “trustworthiness”).
  4. Shake their hand firmly. Don’t rip their arm off or squeeze the capillaries out of their hand (some people seem to make a competition out of how hard they can squeeze someone’s hand), but do be firm. A limp handshake says the exact opposite about the aforementioned confidence.
  5. Say, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Mr./Ms. Smith.” You can adjust this to whatever you are most comfortable with, but this, too, is memorable. Most people who shake hands well still do not say anything. Let them know you are glad to have their time.

That’s it. I almost cringe at the idea of telling people how to shake hands, but so few do it the right way. You can, and will! Amazingly, it will go a long way to being remembered and might just be the one thing that differentiates you from another job seeker or prospective student vying for a place in the incoming law class.