Work Style

    Reader Question: What to Wear to College Career Fair?

    8th October 2012

    Maybe it’s the fall weather that has me nostalgic for football Saturdays, maybe I’m just tired of looking at almost- or recent-college grads’ resumes chock full of grammatical mistakes and boasting seven different fonts in ten different sizes… Whatever it is, I’m feeling eager to talk to the young people in the crowd today.

    (Or perhaps I’m just wanting to gradually turn over my hard-won wisdom to the next generation before I die, since I now, apparently, am a million years old and say things like “the young people.”)

    Either way, today we address a college reader’s question about career fair attire!

    Derek asks:

    I’m currently attending career fairs and info sessions that my school is hosting in hopes of landing an internship or experience of some sort. The problem is I’m extremely poor and don’t own a suit. I do have a solid casual wardrobe though and I’m wondering what exactly I could wear to these events.

    I was thinking a sportcoat (Target Merona), OCBD, tie, raw jeans, and chukka boots. But I think it might be too casual/trendy for a career fair. Keep in mind I’m in engineering and most kids there will be in oversized department store suits, so I don’t want to stick out like a sore thumb. What should I wear that would fit the occasion?

    Great question, and one that I think a lot of college guys face as they start presenting themselves as grown-ups to the world in hopes someone will buy the ruse:

    How do you look professional, while still feeling like yourself?

    It sounds like you have the right idea in 1) not wanting to bust your credit limit to buy a new suit you may never need to wear again, depending on what kind of office environment you eventually land in, and 2) wanting to look appropriate and not under-dressed.


    {Banana Republic}

    I remember my own career fair experience. It was April of my senior year at Penn State, and I knew I was headed back to New York after graduation. I’d spent spring break in the city like the nerd I was (cough *am* cough), going on informational interviews, so by the time I made it to this career fair, I was seeing many of the recruiters for a second time.

    They tossed us on a bus in State College at the crack of dawn and pointed it towards NYC, where we finally spilled out and got herded into a big hotel ballroom downtown, chock full of companies who were looking for fresh, young, eager, cheap talent.

    After returning from a lunch in midtown I’d set up (ABH: Always Be Hustling), I had a surreal moment upon walking back into the ballroom, staring at my peers, and thinking:

    We look like children playing dress-up.”

    The girls were all dressed in boxy Ann Taylor Loft suits set off by varying shades of pastel dress shirts, perhaps a string of pearls peeking out from the collar. Heels more suited for a night at the bars then a day of networking peeked out from the bootleg-cut pants.

    And the guys? Well, the guys all looked as uncomfortable as they seemed to feel. I was uncomfortable for them.

    Each one had on a suit that looked like it’d been made using a potato sack as a fit model.

    {Club Monaco – but lose the jacket when you get inside}

    There was lots of pulling at ties. Plenty of square toe shoes welcoming puddles of material at the ankle. Even at 21 years old, I knew, “This isn’t what being a grown up should look like. Either we’re doing something wrong, or being a grown up is ridiculous and I want none of it.”

    Turns out it was a little of both.

    As soon as the event ended, all the students rushed to the side room where bags had been dropped upon arrival, sort of like a preschool’s mud room. After retiring to separate bathrooms to change, we re-emerged as ourselves – Superman in reverse. Some of us in jeans. Most of us in PSU hoodies. All of us ready for a cold beer.

    We checked with the bus driver, who told us we had approximately twenty minutes before departure, then immediately headed for the closest bar we could find – one of the city’s countless faux-Irish taverns, where we all choked upon finding out the Yuengling drafts we were so used to ordering at off-campus bars for $2 had suddenly jumped to $11. If it had been a movie, this would be the scene where the bartender would have drawled, “Welcome to New York,” with a huge smirk and possibly overly-dramatic evil laugh. But because those kind of things don’t happen in real life, he just closed our tabs, grumbling, and shuffled off to finish scratching off his lotto tickets stacked at the end of the bar.


    {Gant Rugger}

    I had swapped in sweats, because, well, it was college, and I knew I had a finite amount of time to sport sweat pants all day, er-r-r-r-y day. but I wasn’t dying to get my suit off like most of the other students.

    That’s because I’d wisely made an investment in a J.Crew suit that I loved and spent the extra time and money to have altered.

    That suit fit like a dream. Still does, though the fabric’s a little shiny with wear at this point (give me a break, that was a few years ago now). I also wore kitten heels, a lower-heeled shoe that’s looked down on by “fashion-y” types, but I could have run a 5k in those suckers and come away without any blisters. I wore a similar shoe to my friend’s wedding this summer and was the only girl not hobbling around barefoot at the end of the night. What I lacked in longer-looking legs I made up for in not worrying about contracting hepatitis when that first vodka soda slipped and crashed on the dance floor.

    If you can’t afford a new suit, of course, that’s totally fine. See the examples throughout this post for ways to dress up without necessarily suiting up.

    The other way I personalized my outfit, that’s also in two of these images, was with a sweater layer. After trying on my suit at home, I still felt like Corporate Barbie, playing dress up in a power suit. I knew I had to do something different so I would still feel like me. So I topped my dress shirt with a v-neck sweater and instantly felt a million times more comfortable, more like myself. I know that confidence showed through when I chatting up recruiters.

    What does that mean for you?

    College guys looking to step up their businesswear style without breaking the bank should already have most of the elements in their closet as they begin the job search process.

    For an informal, informational session, aim for a casual-yet-pulled-together look. Think about what you’d wear in high school on game days – khaki pants, a dress shirt, maybe a tie. Shoes that match your belt.

    For a career fair, dress up a little more. Like I said, if you don’t own a proper-fitting suit, and don’t want to invest in one, that’s absolutely fine. I think jeans are probably too casual for a job fair, even if they’re a straight leg, dark denim style like you know I like. Why not upgrade to dress pants in a separate color (a navy sport coat with gray slacks, for instance)? Or perhaps a khaki pant and go for the preppy look with your OCBD? Even a dark-colored cord would feel a bit more polished.

    Once you make it to an interview (and congrats when you do!), bust out that sport coat with a dark-colored dress pant, and then wow them with your impressive answers.

    Spend the rest of your free time not spent suit shopping on 1) polishing your resume, 2) going over the accomplishments in your internships, school and part-time jobs you can brag about to potential employers (numbers! employers love numbers!) and 3) practicing a firm handshake.

    Good luck!

    • average joe

      In 2000, I showed up to college in downtown Chicago wearing those over sized stonewashed cargo jeans and carpenter jeans that everyone had back then. (I may have even had an old navy sweatshirt on too).

    • average joe

      I almost spit coffee out at this line. Hilarious! What I lacked in longer-looking legs I made up for in not worrying about contracting hepatitis when that first vodka soda slipped and crashed on the dance floor

      • Style Girlfriend

        Those dance floors get dangerous…

        • Dreadpiratehurley

          Never know when shorty’s gonna light a fire.

    • Harvey Spector

      Funnily enough, law school students some 4-5 years older than college kids still dress the same way at career fairs and interviews. At my college career fair, I skipped the tie but felt comfortable in a blue dress shirt, slim suit, and a pair of black oxford lace-ups. It’s all about feeling the right mix of confident and comfortable.

      • Tom Allan

        Absolutely right, feeling comfortable and confident are far more important. Big part of that is clothes that fit properly which can be hard to achieve with ready to wear suits. In my old career I spent quite a bit of money on suits and I now never wear them so be careful about making that investment when it is not needed.

    • TJ

      Do not wear jeans to a career fair. It is way to casual, no matter how nice they look. I agree with Megan, you need to go with a pair of dress slacks and a blazer (navy preferably), a conservative color dress shirt, and a conservative tie. If nothing else, just the slacks, shirt, and tie. I know it sounds boring but it is always best to err on the side of conservative. On another note, don’t wear any cologne. Just shower before. You never know who will and won’t like your cologne, or be allergic to it for that matter.
      Whenever I go to career fairs, I like to go to companies that I’m not as interested in first, to kind of get some practice in. Save your top choices for later, once you have built up your confidence. Good luck!

    • Andrew So

      Dress like this, paying close attention to the fit, as well as to the understated color combination:

      Congratulations, even without a suit, you’re now the best dressed man at the event, including the company reps.

      A word of warning: DO NOT TRY TO “EXPRESS” YOURSELF. I’m a fellow engineering student so I know how being fashion-savvy is considered deeply uncool in our circles. The goal is to get hired, not to look cool.

    • Derek

      Oh, wow, I didn’t think my question would get answered haha. Thanks, Megan!

      Loved the article. It’s comforting to know you and other people went through what I’m going through haha. Alright, so I’m definitely ditching the jeans; I have some Alpha Khakis that I’ll swap in. It still bugs me that I’m not wearing a legit suit like the other guys, but I guess it’s not a big deal. I really oughta save up for a suit when it comes time for real interviews though.

      Thanks again for all the help!

      • Style Girlfriend

        Of course! Let us know what you end up wearing…and how the eventual interviews go :)

      • LachlanS

        You will look much more respectable in khakis and an oxford shirt that fits than the guys wearing suits that don’t fit.

        Buying a suit is a tough decision. I bought one when I finished school and I regret my decision because I think I should have spent more than I did to get one that fits well, but at the time I had not a great deal of money. Eventually I will buy another, but I won’t be graduating from my degree for another 3 years so that will have to wait.

        Good luck with your fairs.

    • Adventurer627

      Get yourself measured for a suit and then go to thrift stores. Cheapest will be around $20 at Goodwill or Salvation Army. Make sure the shoulders of the jacket fit as that is the only thing that can’t really be altered. Also try to stay away from any alterations that require lengthening as it’s safer to shorten.

      Also for Jackets when thrifting pay attention to short, regular or long and get the correct size

      Areas for alteration:
      Back of the neck/collar
      Jacket sleeve length
      Sides of the jacket taken in
      Optional jacket sleeves narrowed

      Pants waist – Should be an inch or less. If more than inch get correct pant size
      Pants rise/crotch adjustment
      Pant length
      Pant cuff/ no-cuff – should have cuffs if pants are pleated
      Optional pant leg narrowed

      • Style Girlfriend

        All good advice!

    • D

      Just something to keep in mind, I don’t know what part of the country you hail from, but if you’re on the west coast, an engineering student should not be wearing a suit (or even a tie) to a career fair (if it’s aimed at engineering students only; if it’s a general career fair, ignore this). A button down, v-neck sweater and dark jeans is proper attire here, so keep your location in mind, otherwise you will come across as stuffy. Also, if you know any upperclassmen who have had great success landing careers/internships in your field at your particular school, I would highly recommend asking them what they feel is appropriate.

    • JT

      From being an engineering undergrad at a career fair to being a company representative at a career fair, I would suggest wearing something that suits your personality. As a company rep, we are told to star any resume where the person stood out. Can’t tell you how many ppl came up to me with the same gpa straight to the point looking for a internship/job. Make an impression, talk to the rep, and don’t be nervous.