I have interviewed thousands of young adults and every year I have countless people show up to their interview wearing a t-shirt and shorts, sunglasses, flip-flops and a funky baseball cap turned sideways, or in a tube top and cutoffs. Dressed for the beach is not the way to make your first impression in an interview. Depending on the time of year, I’ve seen sweats, ripped jeans and sneakers, or the worst…Crocs.
Don’t get me wrong—unless you’re applying to be the drummer for a rock band or a Hooters waitress, it’s exactly the wrong way to dress for a job interview. But, I’ve learned, because I work with so many young people—it’s not your fault and you aren’t dumb. You just haven’t broken the code yet. Nobody explained it to you.
I also know that what you look like does not define who you are, nor does it predict whether or not you’ll be successful. I’ve discovered that there are plenty of smart, motivated, and engaging young adults hiding behind costumes of self-expression, or who appear to be careless about their appearance. We can fix the rest as we go. I’ve given many a chance to prove me right and I’ve been very pleased with the results.
You’re no Mark Z…yet.
It’s true that we live in a society that has become informal in many ways. When I applied for my first job as a dishwasher at a little backwater restaurant in central Pennsylvania more than twenty years ago, my father explained that no matter how mundane a job it may be, I should always wear a tie to an interview, to show I was serious and respectful. Today, billionaire Mark Zuckerberg—not yet 30 years old—can attend a shareholder meeting of Facebook in a t-shirt and hoodie and no one thinks anything of it. But you’re not Mark Zuckerberg. You are a blank slate on which anyone who meets you for the first time is going to write their first, and lasting, impression. You might be a future Mark Zuckerberg, or destined to become an Oprah Winfrey, but what people in business are going to see, in their mind’s eye, is at best a clueless kid, not worth their energy and resources.
What I’ve learned over the years is that you are healthy, normal, hopeful young adults who may be compensating for insecurity, or anxiety about rejection, or maybe haven’t yet gotten the memo about never getting a second chance to make a first impression. Virtually every study of human psychology turns up the same result—the first thing you think when you meet someone new is how you tend to define them, forever. That’s why my grandfather who is 89 years old can look at his wife and still see the cute young girl he walked home for the first time on the streets of west Philly seventy years ago.
Freak flag…yay or nay?
So if your ears look like you just stepped out of a National Geographic special on the lost tribes of the Amazon, and the man or woman across the table wants to hire someone to work the geriatric products counter at a drug store, you might want to reconsider your career path or else get your lobes sewn back on. Either way, you’re just starting out. Why fly your freak flag if it’s going to limit your opportunities? Get the job, and then see how flexible your employer might be.
When making that first impression, bring a smile, a firm handshake, not too much make-up or jewelry, be dressed to impress, and look ready to start work tomorrow if necessary. Do some research on the company and find out what’s appropriate. Call the receptionist and ask what the dress code is.
Perfume or fragrances are out. There are people with allergies and that is not the impression we are after today.
Wear polished dress shoes, flats or low heals, and if you’re wearing a belt make sure it matches your shoes. A black belt with brown shoes is a no go. Oh, and save the stilettos and platform heels for girls’ night out.
If you have tattoos, great. Who doesn’t love a gnarly tatt? Wherever it is, unless you’re applying to work at a record store, cover it for the interview. Wait; do we still call them record stores?
Wear a white t-shirt under your dress shirt. Wear a tie, but if necessary, have someone help you tie it before you go. It’s cool to wear a shirt un-tucked to the club, but not to the interview. And double check that all buttons are buttoned. Not buttoning the buttons on your collar is equivalent to leaving your fly down.
Finally, make sure it fits when you sit. Jacquelyn Smith, a Forbes staff writer suggests that you "test drive your interview outfit". How to Dress for Your Next Job Interview. Something that looks good standing up may look super tight and uncomfortable when you sit. Do a quick sit test.
Give yourself the best chance of making the right first impression. Make the right decisions while your young so you can put yourself in a position to make amazing decisions when you’re older.
by John Wasserman
Proceeds benefit Children's Dyslexia Centers