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Judge a Book by its Cover

By Katy Echols

As the semester draws to a close, students are looking to what lies ahead. As they move on to various jobs, armed with vast knowledge and training, students often rely on their degrees to represent their qualifications. But is that all there is? Is an impressive resume enough to get the job? Arguably, no.

To get the part, you have to play the part. To play the part, you have to look the part.

Dress matters. It is one of the most tangible ways you can express your interest and ability. Dressing well shows you take your career seriously. If you look like a highly trained and successful professional, you will be treated as such.

Even before you sit down for your interview, your potential employer has a first impression of you, which can matter much more than your credentials. Author Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book Blink that a person usually forms an opinion of someone during the first two seconds of meeting them. And often, that initial two-second judgment is more accurate than opinions derived from lengthy analyses.

In those first two seconds, a potential employer will not see a piece of paper detailing how qualified you are. He will see you. So you have to show him how qualified you are through your appearance.

As PR professionals, we are in the business of impressions. It’s our job to make a good impression for our client with the public so that relationships can be formed. The same goes for us as individuals. We have to make a good impression so that relationship building opportunities arise. We have to present ourselves in the best light possible.

Additionally, we have the responsibility of representing our clients. When others meet us, we are not only making an impression of ourselves, but also of the company we represent. With that responsibility in mind, it’s crucial to set that impression up for success. In other words, it’s crucial to dress for success.

Here are some tips on how to dress for success:

  • When in doubt, overdress. Every company’s culture will be different. Some will expect more formal attire, while others will accept casual dress. It’s important to do some research ahead of time. Sometimes it’s hard to determine a company’s standard, but as a general rule, it’s always better to be overdressed rather than underdressed.
  • Quality over quantity. It’s better to have a few quality pieces rather than several cheap ones. Investing in some expensive basics will give you a more “expensive” look, a more successful look. Wearing a suit that is fake and lacking in quality associates you with those attributes. Not a great idea.
  • Stick to the basics. Choose basic pieces and use accessories to showcase your personality. You can always show your personality and style, but do so thoughtfully. Bags, shoes, ties, cufflinks and jewelry are a great way to show off who you are while remaining professional.
  • Don’t be stinky. Obviously, take a shower. Perhaps not so obviously, don’t overdo your perfume or cologne. Dousing yourself detracts from yourself. Don’t allow something as simple as fragrance to distract those around you. Many people are allergic to certain perfumes – don’t risk an awkward situation.

For Women
Stick with a well-tailored skirt or pant suit. Colors like black, navy or charcoal are best. If you wear a skirt, it should at least come to your knees, but can be longer. Err on the side of Amish rather than stripper. Also, when wearing a skirt you should wear pantyhose. Nude color or black is acceptable. Don’t be that girl with super tan legs and white arms, it’s obvious and tacky. Low-heeled shoes are a must. Shoes are a great way to express yourself with style and color, but 5-inch stilettos are a no-no. This is work, not a night club. For your own benefit, you should also consider the comfort level. Tops should be well tailored and not over-the-top (pun intended) in color or style. Avoid anything too low cut or tight. Again, err on the side of conservative rather than risqué.

For Men
A well-tailored suit in black, navy or charcoal will do the trick. Grooming is more important than you think. A nice haircut, shaven face and clean nails can go a long way to make an impression. It’s all about the subtleties. Ties, pocket squares and cufflinks are a good way to be expressive, but don’t go over the top. A note on ties: remember that one size does not fit all. Consider proportions when choosing ties: a tie size should be proportionate to the suit size, which is dependent on the man’s frame, and the dress shirt’s collar type.

Business Casual
The standard for what is appropriate casual wear will change from company to company. The slight nuances and limitations can be gleaned after working somewhere for a while. However, until you know, overdress. In the meantime, here is the dressier side of business casual. Khaki pants or dark slacks paired with a long-sleeved button-down is a safe bet for both men and women. Even when dressing casually, having everything clean, well-tailored and ironed is important to looking professional. In some cases, polo shirts for men and sweaters for women are appropriate.

Recently, there has been debate whether businesses are becoming too casual. Mary Harris, a business etiquette consultant, agrees that they are.

“Our culture has gotten so relaxed that casual to many [people] means what you would wear around the house on a Saturday,” said Harris. “It’s gotten lost that the meaning is still professional but somewhat relaxed.”

As attire has grown increasingly casual, so has behavior. The two go hand in hand. A study cited in Entrepreneur indicated that 44 percent of surveyed companies noticed an increase in employee absenteeism and tardiness when casual dress policies were introduced. Casual dress is having a negative effect on productivity.

Formality is slowly slipping away, as formal titles are no longer used, profanity is increasingly common and taboo topics are no longer taboo. This trend needs to be reversed. Bear this in mind when you have casual dress days. Don’t allow the laid back clothing to translate into your work. Define the line of professionalism and stay within that boundary.

Your clothing speaks volumes about who you are. In the PR industry, image is especially emphasized, so taking time to present yourself in the best light is important. Putting in that extra effort can give you an advantage over the competition. Despite the adage warning not to, people do judge a book by its cover.

What does your cover say about what’s in you?


  1. Post comment

    Great question. Personally, I feel like those rules are already in place just not explicitly written out. When interviewees don’t adhere to those unwritten rules, it just shows they haven’t been paying attention. Doing your research pre-interview matters. To me, getting the job takes attention to details. It shows you’re intelligent and thoughtful.

  2. Post comment

    Love the “5” rule! Overdoing it is tacky and takes more work. Great advice!

  3. Post comment

    At first glance, this post could be mistaken by most readers to be another run-of-the-mill professional etiquette post. I feel that the author elaborated on the idea of interview techniques by providing advice in the vernacular of college students. Too often we fall into the rut of the mainstream “C’s get degrees/my resume speaks for itself” falsities, and quite frankly–those views are killing our chances to protect our personal brand.

    Bravo, Katy! You have affected me to the point of shaking the dust off and reinstating the drive and passion to truly pitch myself to potential employers!

    -Justin Lindsey
    [email protected]

  4. Post comment

    When pursuing a job, no one wants to believe that their outward appearance matters more than how intelligent they are. Intelligence should be the main reason that you are most qualified for a position, but in most instances this is not the case. In such a competitive world you must have the education and look the part. I love what you said about the way to dress, “Dressing well shows you take your career seriously. If you look like a highly trained and successful professional, you will be treated as such”. When I went to my last job interview, I was shocked by the number of woman showing cleavage and men wearing jeans. This is not appropriate and needless to say they didn’t get the job. Do you think employers should impose a standard set of rules for interviews, so they are clear about their expectations in the hiring process?

  5. Post comment

    I would add for women the “5” rule when it comes to jewelry. One ring + one watch + one necklace + two earrings (one in each ear). Sure, some places may be less conservative than this, but when in doubt, only wear five pieces of jewelry.

    Great article–something all interviewees should consider!


  6. Post comment

    I t hought this was a really useful blog on a topic that all college students need to be aware of. As someone who has attended career fairs and interviews, it still amazes me to see how some people choose to dress, in particularly young women. It’s important that young women looking for jobs realize that the type of clothing they wear makes a huge impression on potential employers. I definitely agree that if you’re in doubt of the dress code, always dress up.


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