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Articles / Applying to College / Be Smart; Dress Smart

Be Smart; Dress Smart

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | May 2, 2013

Many high school juniors wrapping up their school year now will be heading out for college visits over the summer and early fall. One thing that may happen during these visits is an admissions interview. We've discussed interviews before, but one of the most important issues frequently overlooked is appearance. You know the old saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression." Well, that's especially true for college interviews. Then, later in life, once you've graduated from college and hit the job market, interviews become a major factor again. The stakes may be a bit higher for job interviews because a livelihood hangs in the balance.

For both situations, you'll be putting your best foot forward. (I've often wondered if, indeed, we have a “best" foot. It seems to me that one would have a “better" foot, since we have only two. Anyway, why don't we care to put our “better" hand forward, which is what we do when we shake hands during a greeting? Just random, meaningless, inane observations from the mind of Dave.) I recall a story related to me by a former tennis buddy of mine. He and his family were on vacation when they decided to visit the campus of one of his high-school-rising-senior son's candidate colleges. It was a spur of the moment idea to visit. They had not planned a formal campus visit, but the school wasn't that far out of their way. So, they arrived and began strolling over the grounds by themselves, not with the official tour group. They became so enthused by what they saw, they thought this might be a good time to visit the admissions office. They did and Dad suggested to his son that he may want to ask if he could get an interview.

The son agreed, although reluctantly, and asked the office secretary if it was possible to get an interview, even though he had not called ahead and formally scheduled one. The secretary made a few calls and, since it was summer and things were at a slower pace, an admissions officer agreed to speak with the young man. And he did. According to the son, all went well and things seemed positive. At this point in our conversation, I asked the Dad about the impromptu, impulsive nature of the interview. I knew that the son was a good student and the college was a decent match for him. I asked what eventually happened after the son applied to that school. The answer was that he was denied, which came as a big surprise to the applicant and his family. I was also surprised to hear this and asked a few other questions. My first was to ask about the wisdom of making an off-the-cuff decision to get an admissions interview while passing through on vacation. My friend chuckled and said, “Yeah, Ben [the son] didn't have time to change out of his tee-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops!" Well . . . I didn't say anything, but my my heavy suspicion was that Ben's first impression upon the admissions officer was less than ideal.

Which brings me to an interesting article that speaks directly to this issue of excessive casualness among the younger generation. Managers to Millennials: Job interview no time to text, while targeted toward job interviews, is equally applicable to admissions interviews. Here's the scoop.

Some of the anecdotes related in the article seem hard to believe, but I have heard independent confirmation of similar happenings. [I'll add my comments in brackets.] USA Today's Paul Davidson sets the stage:

Many college grads [and high school students] lack interview skills. They take calls, text and sometimes bring their parents or pets to interviews [and possibly admissions interviews]. HR execs [and admissions officers] blame a coddled generation weaned on smartphones and social media.

Newly minted college graduates [and some admissions interviewees]soon entering the job market [or college] could be facing another hurdle besides high unemployment and a sluggish economy [and better mannered college applicants]. Hiring managers [and admission officers] say many perform poorly — sometimes even bizarrely — in job [and admissions] interviews.

Human resource professionals [and admissions officers like the one in my story above] say they've seen recent college grads [and applicants]text or take calls in interviews, dress inappropriately, use slang or overly casual language and exhibit other oddball behavior.

Some of the actual behaviors noted by Davidson include:

A male graduate student seeking a managerial position in Avery Dennison's research and development unit took a call on his smartphone about 15 minutes into the interview. The call, which lasted about a minute and wasn't an emergency, ruined his near-certain chance for a job offer …

A man in his late 20s brought his father into a 45-minute interview for a material handling job on an assembly line …

the father of a recent grad who received an offer for a sales job, called to negotiate a higher salary …

And for a grand finale of sorts:

A college senior brought her cat into an interview for a buyer's position at clothing retailer American Eagle. She set the crate-housed cat on the interviewer's desk and periodically played with it. … Duh!

One has to wonder that if these people think this kind of behavior is appropriate under the circumstances, what else do they think is appropriate?

I posted this article on the College Confidential discussion forum to see what parents and students thought of it. It inspired some interesting responses. Such as:

– I do wish colleges or high schools would require an etiquette class these days.

I don't think it would cross my kids minds to text during an interview or to bring their cat! Guess we did something right.

– Probably she saw Legally Blonde, and figured that if it worked for Elle it would work for her!

– As for parents accompanying their adult kids to interviews…saw that with Gen Xers and if some older colleagues/supervisors are to be believed baby boomers as well. In all cases, the appearance of parents at the interview or trying to negotiate on their behalf meant that candidate became an automatic reject from further consideration.

– My 14 year old asked my mother (his grandmother) to drive him to his first job interview. She asked me “who should I ask for at the front desk when I walk him we go in?" I was glad she asked because it never would have occurred to me that I needed to tell her to stay in the car and drive away!

– Someone mentioned up thread that schools should offer interviewing/etiquette classes. D2's school does that. Her first 90 minute session was on what to wear and not to wear, how to shake hands and make eye contact, personal hygiene (ish!), and body language. Instructions were given on cut and color of clothes, length of hem of pants, ironed/pressed clothes, hair styles, make up, nail length and color, polished shoes, use of deodorant (!) and perfume/cologne, etc. D2 said they were tough on the guys about polishing shoes, shaving every day, and tightness of suits. Each student is then scheduled for a mock interview that is videotaped. There is a panel that then critiques the interview with the student. Some of her friends thought it was awful and some thought it was beneficial. Interesting process.

– I had two high school students come in to talk about electrical requirements for an experiment they were running. Student one came in prepared and brought notes. Student two spent the time texting and websurfing. I am not a patient person and sent a nasty note to the teacher that helped them set up the meeting.

– My husband thought that it was necessary to tell son that he should not type on his computer during his upcoming Skype interview.

– Around 1987 we had a Junior EE major from Cornell who came to see her friend (also junior EE from Cornell) who was an intern in our group. The intern managed to convince my boss to give her friend an interview for internship too on the spot and the boss (a guy in his 50's) agreed. The kid shows up a couple days later wearing – I kid you not – a very nice looking pant suit, except the jacket and shirt were cut a few inches too short snowing a couple of inches of midriff. We're talking “I dream of Jeanie" type outfit here…. Judging from her name I guessed – correctly – that she was 2nd generation Middle Eastern, but still, to wear THAT in an interview?

– Where's the common sense of the interviewer who, upon being faced with an applicant who has brought her cat, says, “I'm sorry, your cat doesn't belong here. I don't think we have anything more to say here. There will be no interview, and have a nice day." Sorry, I think that the interviewer who continues with an interview with an applicant who is playing with a cat / clearly texting or tweeting / sitting next to mom and dad is just as lacking in common sense.

– I've thought this several times! And I read an article about an interviewer who was steaming because an applicant brought in both parents saying, “I need to make sure I'm given a fair shot at this job." WHY didn't he say, “I'm sorry-it's so inappropriate to bring your parents into a job interview; it makes me seriously question your ability to do your job with minimal supervision. We need people with sound judgment, self starters who don't need hand holding, and you've actually demonstrated that you are not that person. Thanks for your time."

– I'm pretty sure there were idiots in every generation. It may be easier to display idiocy nowadays.


So, high schoolers (and job seekers who may be reading this), take an objective look at your interview skills and, more importantly perhaps, your interview behaviors. The fat envelope (or job offer) you receive (or never get) may be your own.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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