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  • Writer's pictureCameron Gordon

Playing the Numbers With Interviews

On Friday I was invited to give a short presentation to UN Youth Australia on getting graduate positions. The slides are posted below. One point in particular is worth highlighting as it is relevant for many applicants undertaking interviews - the importance of hedging bets by playing the numbers.

Take the following example: a company is undertaking a bulk recruitment round with 40 positions on offer. After whittling down the applicants a final 100 candidates are invited to interview. At an interview stage most applicants can 'do' the position - so for illustration we'll consider them each equally qualified. With only 40 positions on offer 60 perfect candidates will head home empty-handed - each candidate has only a 40% chance.

Now consider that instead of interviewing for one position with a 40% acceptance rate they instead apply to four positions with the same probability. Their chances of receiving at least one offer increase to 87%. With 10 applications this is further improved to 99%. The below table illustrates this process.

We can note here that a candidate that puts in 7 applications with a 10% chance of a receiving an offer has a higher chance of receiving an offer than one that puts in a single application with a 50% chance. This point is worth stressing: many people feel uncomfortable applying for a position unless they believe the odds are firmly in their favour. This is particularly the case for those that may be applying for a promotion of their existing role in an open process. With the exception of the rare hand-picked appointee there are few 'sure thing' outcomes - a recipe for disappointment for an odds-on candidate with their eggs placed solely in one basket.

Author Annie Duke - winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker (WSOP) - makes this principle clear in her book Thinking In Bets. Poker players are practiced at making numbers work for them - and equally familiar that even favourable bets will be beaten routinely in individual situations. As an example, pocket aces (the best pre-flop hand in Texas Hold'em) have an 88.2% chance of beating a 72 unsuited (the worst) in a head-up scenario between two players. This means the 72 player will win 11.8% percent of the time, or approximately once every 9 hands. Does this mean the player with aces should despair if the cards turn against them? No, but it does mean they should avoid placing stock in the outcome of a single bet to evaluate the correctness of their decision. Similarly, an unsuccessful candidate should not worry that an individual bet does turn out well - sometimes the best of bets don't.

One final point - the actual probability of receiving an offer from an interview is not as neatly described as in this post. Performance in interviews is not statistically independent and a candidate that performs poorly in one interview may perform poorly in other ones as well. Positions will have higher or lower odds. However by playing the numbers their overall chances will improve dramatically. A candidate that only applies for positions they feel certain about needs to be wrong once only to feel disheartened. By spreading their risk with multiple bets and playing the numbers they only need to be successful once.

Graduate Programs
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