Interviews: Dressing to Impress

Whether you like it or not, how professional you look will factor into your overall success during recruitment. You certainly don’t want to leave a negative impression based on your appearance and undermine your otherwise stellar interview performance. In this spirit, we’ve compiled some useful rules to help you make good choices.

10) Color

For girls and guys alike, there is a time-honored suit color palate for traditional industries: black, grey, or navy blue. You may choose plain or pin-striped. You may choose wool crepe or silk or some other exotic fabric from Italy. But you may not break this rule. In related news, black does not go with brown. These colors are not mix-and-match; a black suit requires a black belt, shoes, socks (!), and (ideally) bag. Navy can pair with black or brown accessories, but consistency is key.
When it comes to shirts (and ties), you can inject some color, but loudness only detracts from your finished look (see #1 below). Prints should be small – no cartoon characters, golf balls, or impressionist paintings that consume your tie. And gentlemen, it’s best to choose an accent color for your tie (no matchy-matchy, but nothing off-the-wall either). When in doubt, buy a shirt and tie at the same store with input from a salesperson. (We recommend Brooks Brothers.)

9) Fit

Here’s where a great suit can go terribly wrong. As Tim Gunn from Project Runway likes to say, “a suit is meant to enhance your figure, not hide it.” Unless you won the genetic lottery, chances are an off-the-rack suit will not fit you perfectly. This is where a tailor comes in. You may need to shorten the sleeves or lengthen the pant hem, or adjust the darts. Generally, you should make the appointment at least two weeks in advance and be sure to bring the shoes you want to wear with the suit. This may cost between $20-100 depending on the amount of work needed, but (honestly) it is totally worth it.

A couple of common fit questions:

Ladies: skirts should hit at the top of your knee. If thigh is showing, go back to square one and try again. Anything longer than the bottom of your knee looks matronly. There is a small window of opportunity here: your knee. Also, if you have a gap between buttons of your shirt, you have two options: buy a safety pin or wear a camisole. It is unadvisable to flash your interviewer. (This includes any variation on cleavage; just don’t do it.)

Gentlemen: don’t swim in your suit. Baggy = sloppy. You don’t have to like the slim cuts of Thom Browne, but if it looks like you dropped 30 pounds and forgot to buy a new suit, this is a problem. In the same vein, the length of your jacket should hit at the hip – there is no reason why you should ever sit on it.

Both: Sleeve styles vary, but the general rule of thumb for length is halfway between the wrist and knuckles when your arms hang naturally. Shirts and jackets should have similar sleeve lengths. Pants should cover the top of your shoe but not hit the floor. A good tailor will know how to fit this properly. Being tall is no excuse for poorly fitted pants. We are both vertically advantaged ladies (35+” inseams), and we have been able to find options. (J. Crew has an amazing tall line with long inseams and generous hems. We suggest you start there.)

8) Hygiene

Where to start? The obvious is a great place: take a shower the morning of your interview. Second, use deodorant liberally; you may be nervous, and a second (or third) application can never hurt. Pack it in your bag and consider reapplying once you arrive. (Seriously.) Third, do not, under any circumstances, wear perfume or cologne. You never know who might be allergic, and you run the risk of leaving a pungent trail in your wake. Better to wear more deodorant. Last, keep a stash of mints (NOT gum; you might forget to spit it out) in your bag for a quick burst of freshness after you inhale the chocolate-covered pretzels and other goodies in the waiting room. If you want to keep a toothbrush handy, even better. Also, did we mention you should wear deodorant?

7) Shoes

As much as we both love some crazy, fabulous, ridiculous shoes, this is neither the time nor the place to break them out. Ladies, you have one option: pumps. You may choose a heel between 1-3 inches, you may select round or pointy toe, and you may be creative with textures like soft, supple leather or shiny patent (no scuffs!), but you may not wear anything other than black or brown pumps. We know this sounds harsh, but it is clean and professional and, after all, isn’t that the look you are going for? Save those gladiator heels or snake-skin booties for Thursday club nights.

Guys, it’s not that hard: high-quality black or brown lace-ups (also known as “oxfords”) in near-perfect condition. How do you know if your shoes are high-quality? They don’t have rubber soles. How do you know if they are in near-perfect condition? If you are asking, they are not.

For all shoe-wearers: shine those shoes! The best way to keep nice shoes in good condition is to take care of them with regular shines and other fix-ups (like getting shoes re-heeled, scuffs polished, and laces replaced). Our favorite cobbler is Felix in Harvard Square (1304 Mass Ave).

6) Hair and Makeup

The number one rule for hair is CLEAN. This can be interpreted several ways. First, refer back to #8 and be sure to launder your hair appropriately. Second, if you have biological concerns (i.e. dandruff or a pet that sheds), be sure to pay extra attention to unsightly accumulations on your suit. Keep a lint roller in your bag if you are super-concerned. Third, “clean” also applies to overall neatness. Guys: get a haircut (and neck/sideburns trimmed) 1.5-2 weeks before interviews. Also, facial hair is traditionally discouraged, but if you insist on it, keep it short and neat. Girls: just check the split-end situation and shave your legs if you are wearing a skirt. Fourth, we really wish we didn’t have to say this, but we will: check eyebrows, nose, and ears for flyaways. That is, if your nose or ear hair is visible or you sport a unibrow, then you must apply the proper hair removal techniques. We hope we have been clear enough on this subject.

The flip-side of the hair conversation regards styling. Ladies: while we agree that hair should be off of your face and out of your eyes, we personally think high ponytails are a bit unprofessional. Best to secure bangs or wispies with bobby pins or barrettes, or pull it all back into a topknot. Above all, do not fidget with your hair, and do not show up looking like you just stepped out of the shower. Guys, your situation is much more straightforward: use a light touch with the gel and keep it classy.

Finally, with make-up the goal is to look natural and professional. Avoid bright colors and use a light hand in application, especially with regard to eyeliner and lipstick. You don’t want to end a long day of second-rounds with the raccoon look nor do you want to find out that you sported lipstick smears on your teeth for your last two interviews. We recommend keeping powder and lipgloss on hand for last-minute touch-ups.

5) Jewelry and Accessories

Ladies, we know that accessories are often the most exciting way to showcase your personality, whether through a gorgeous silk scarf or vintage cocktail ring. The key for interviews is to choose accessories that complement your outfit, not flashy baubles that distract. This means diamond or pearl studs, simple chains or strands of pearls, and rings limited to the engagement or matrimonial kind. A small brooch or subtle scarf may still work, but be thoughtful about your complete look.
Gentlemen, once again this may seem obvious, but keep your chains and earrings at home. Appropriate accessorizing includes watches, wedding and/or class rings, and classic cufflinks. If your cufflinks are meant to be funny, please choose another pair.

4) Bags

You have two options in this category: you may bring any bag you like and leave it in the waiting room, taking in only a leather portfolio with a pad of paper, a pen, and several copies of your resume; or, you may bring a black or brown leather briefcase or structured totebag. Backpacks and messenger bags should never see the inside of the interview room. Ladies, handbags should be left at home unless they could theoretically fit a legal pad and laptop, and therefore fit the description of structured totebag above.

3) Note for Creative Industries

We realize that some industries expect you to dress outside the box in order to showcase your personality. Some examples of such industries include advertising, luxury goods, and media/entertainment. In this case, do your research ahead of time about which rules can be relaxed (i.e. color, accessories, etc.). Still, we maintain that fit and classiness never go out of style, and a great suit is the base for a professional look. In the case of interviews with start-ups, use your own discretion, but it is better to overdress than underdress. (You can always take off your jacket.)

2) The Complete Package

Before the big day(s), there is one last step you must complete: assemble the entire look, put it on, walk around, and sit down in front of a full-length mirror. Ladies, practice sitting so that no one can see up your skirt. Everyone, check your posture and assess your overall look. If you are unsatisfied with your presentation, fix it. Finally, be sure everything is laundered, ironed, and shined for your big day. A quick tip: never put away a dirty suit; you’ll forget to clean it until you pull it out to wear again.

1) The Golden Rule

This may sound like a lot of rules to remember, but we think they can be summarized in one sentence: you don’t want to be remembered for how you dressed, but rather for what you said. In the pursuit of this goal, try to dress in a way that complements how much energy and effort you’ve put into your preparation. Keep your look clean and professional, and you’ll be just fine.