As if college applications aren't stressful enough, an interview with the admissions department can ramp anxiety up to eleven. Though an interview is a great way to make a lasting impression, it also introduces some new things to worry about in addition to your application, such as what you're supposed to wear.
Like all parts of the college application process, you want to make a good impression, but also be yourself. Not everyone is a fashion maven, and there are additional barriers for students experiencing academic hardship.
If you have questions about what to wear to a college interview, you're in luck—we've got answers. From how to style yourself to how to afford business casual on a budget, this guide will help you look sharp and feel confident during your college interview.
How to Pick an Outfit for a College Interview
If you’re applying to college, it’s quite possible that you’ve never needed to understand what “business casual” means. How can you be both “business” and “casual?” Is that a suit with flip-flops? A skirt and your favorite band t-shirt? If you find the concept confusing, don’t worry—you’re not alone.
“Business casual” is generally how students are advised to dress for college interviews, though some interviews in more professional settings may require you to jazz it right up to “business” sans “casual.” Be sure you get information about where you’ll be meeting ahead of time to be sure that your outfit matches the setting—no matter how great your suit is, it’s going to look a little silly in a boba tea shop.
So what does business casual mean? This style of dress fits somewhere right between business or formal wear—suits, ties, dresses, the kind of thing you’d see Cheryl Blossom wear on Riverdale—and casual wear—t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, like you might see Riverdale's Archie or Betty wearing. Business casual is meant to be professional, but not uptight; a blazer over a button-up shirt, but not a suit, or a cute dress with flats rather than heels. While a little flair is acceptable, people should come away remembering you, not your outfit.
But knowing what business casual is isn’t enough; you also need to buy it. If you or your family have money to spend, any department store will have appropriate business casual items, outlined below.
If you’re on a strict budget or simply can’t afford new clothes, many thrift stores, as well as lower cost department stores like Wal-Mart and Target, carry blazers, button-up shirts, and dressy shoes in leather or faux-leather. There may also be local charities like Catie’s Closet or Clothes for Kids that can help you find free or low-cost business casual wear for your interview. Don’t be afraid to ask for help—these organizations want to help you succeed.
If you’re unable to afford the perfect outfit and there are no organizations nearby to help you, don’t panic. Dressing well for your college interview is just one part of the application process. You might blow an interview by not showing up, refusing to speak, saying you cheat in school, or admitting that the only reason you’re there is because your parents made you apply, but your outfit probably won’t destroy your chances, particularly if the interviewer can see you made an effort.
Aim for somewhere in the middle of the Archie-Cheryl fashion spectrum.
What Should You Wear to a College Interview?
Business casual is a good starting line for what to wear to a college interview, but some people, such as students who might be auditioning for an arts department or people with tattoos and piercings, may have some additional concerns about what to wear. And with pictures being worth a thousand words, here are a few outfits to help you plan your own college interview outfit.
This look is the perfect business casual—sharp, flattering, and not distracting.
Business Casual for College Interviews
Let your personality shine through in your words, not your clothing. Though these outfits might feel bland in comparison to your normal clothes, they’re the most appropriate thing to wear to an interview. "Business casual" doesn't have to mean unflattering or without personality—as the above outfit shows, you can look confident and work-appropriate at the same time.
Dress a little more conservatively than you normally would. Even if you’re wearing a dress, your shoulders shouldn’t be bare—throw on a nice cardigan or blazer to go with your outfit. Your shoes should be clean and unscuffed, and preferably made of leather, fake leather, or suede. Nobody’s going to bend down and check that they’re the real thing, but they should look clean, polished, and professional.
For colors, lean toward neutrals, pastels, and cool tones. Bright colors are fine, but try not to go too wild with mixing and matching patterns and bold tones—a blazer over a bright button-up is great, but a pink skirt with an orange shirt and blue shoes is probably pushing it. You want your interviewer to remember you, not your outfit.
Opt for a high neckline over a low one. Leave v-necks and plunging necklines at home. Collared shirts are always a good idea for a college interview, and easy to find at any clothing store, including Wal-Mart or Target, as well as thrift stores.
Choose no patterns over patterns, and conservative patterns over flamboyant ones. Checks are fine, but plaid is pushing it—and also tends a little more casual than business casual. A simple pattern of chevrons is fine, tropical toucans is not. Think a navy blue shirt with white embellishments or a white shirt with a cute pattern rather than bright with an eye-catching pattern.
No jeans, no leggings. Tights should be plain, not patterned or extremely textured. Opt for dress pants, chinos, corduroys, or similar. You might be able to squeak by with dark denim with no holes or embellishments, but if you have another option, take it.
Your shoes should be closed-toe and dressy. Heels aren’t necessary, particularly if you’ll also be touring the campus—you want to have sure footing and be comfortable. Still, ditch the sneakers and opt for a comfortable ballet flat, wingtip, loafer, or boot. Opt for simplicity over elaborate decoration.
Something like this is great for an interview or an interview with an audition.
What to Wear for College Auditions
If you’re a musician or other performing artist and your interview also includes an audition, dress appropriately. Most of the same rules apply; think button-up shirts and khakis rather than jeans and t-shirts. But if you’re a classical musician, a black and white theme might be appropriate—black pants, white button-up shirt, black blazer, for example. Again, this won’t make or break your chances, but do be aware of what field you’re applying to and keep that in mind as you’re choosing outfits.
Though the earrings are a little too big for a college interview, this classy look is perfectly fine with visible tattoos and piercings.
What to Do If You Have Tattoos and Piercings
If you have facial piercings, please, don’t try to hide them with a bandage. It looks far more unprofessional to try to cover them up with a bandage than to swap the jewelry out for something more understated, if necessary.
College campuses are fairly used to wild hair colors, piercings, and tattoos. A nose stud isn’t likely to raise eyebrows unless you’re applying to a particularly conservative school. Use your best judgement—search social media for what students at that college look like, and decide whether it’s better to take your piercing out for a day or to just go with it.
Tasteful tattoos are fine for most colleges, and will likely be covered up by an appropriate outfit anyway. If you have a tattoo of anything obscene or offensive, you should make efforts to cover it up. Makeup can help, but be sure to practice before your interview.
If you have stretched piercings or body art in unusual places (such as your face or neck), there are ways to cover up or hide them. You can use makeup or a piercing retainer to temporarily hide tattoos or piercings. But keep in mind that neither of these options is foolproof—a retainer won’t trick anybody into thinking you don’t have a piercing on close inspection, though it might make it less obvious at first sight.
If you feel like you’re going above and beyond to hide your tattoos and piercings, it might be worth considering whether this is the right school for you. Changing your entire personal appearance to get into college might mean that the school isn’t a good fit. If you’re willing to let the piercing go or have the tattoo removed if you get accepted, hiding it might be worth it—but if not, think about whether it’s really the right school for you.
A bun and natural makeup are perfect for a college interview.
How to Do Your Makeup and Hair for a College Interview
Don’t go wild with styling your hair. Keep it simple: don’t worry about lots of gel, hours with a curling iron, or getting a whole new ‘do just for an interview.
If you have long hair, consider putting it up in a bun or ponytail to keep it out of the way. Long, flowing waves are nice, but be sure that they’re styled well enough to hold up during an interview. If you’re not sure, a bun or ponytail will look fine.
Colored hair shouldn’t be a problem for most schools. Follow business casual styling standards and you should be fine. If you’re concerned a school will frown on dyed hair, you can dye it back before the interview, but, as with piercings and tattoos, consider whether that’s something you’re willing to do for as long as you’re attending. If not, think about whether this is the right school for you.
Keep your nails trimmed and clean. A simple manicure—a single color, French tips, and so on—is fine, but now’s not the time for those claw nails or elaborate nail art.
Makeup should be natural and simple. There’s no need for heavy eye shadow, lots of eyeliner, or bright lipstick. Stick with neutral colors rather than being adventurous.
Any perfume or cologne should be light, if worn at all. If someone can smell you more than a foot away, you’re wearing too much. Do opt for deodorant, though!
Keep any accessories simple and understated.
What Accessories to Wear at a College Interview
Again, go simple. A light necklace, bracelet, or watch are perfect accessories. If your jewelry might be distracting—whether for you or for the interviewer—leave it at home. Clanky bangles, a statement necklace, or particularly flashy earrings are better for other settings.
One accessory you should bring is a bag. You can keep any papers you get during the interview and tour, a water bottle, and anything else you might need safe and out of the way with an appropriate bag. Avoid backpacks or totes with flashy logos or energy drink branding.
A simple brown or black messenger bag, a plain tote, or similar is a good choice. A plain backpack will also get the job done, but plain is the operative word; again, you don’t want to stand out for your clothing choice.
A good business casual outfit should have you feeling like this.
General Tips for Confidence During a College Interview
All this information about outfits will help you dress the part, but what else can you do to look and feel your best during a college interview?
#1: Wear Something Comfortable
If you’re uncomfortable during your interview, you’re not going to be at your most confident. If your outfit isn’t working for you, swap it out for something that does. Break in your shoes and leave the itchy fabrics at home.
#2: Find What Looks Good
Business casual may not be your normal attire, but you still want your outfit to make you feel good. If you’re tugging at your sleeves or checking the height of your pants all day, you’re not projecting confidence. Other things may make you nervous, but your outfit shouldn’t.
Have a firm (but not overwhelming!) handshake and a confident greeting. If these aren’t things you’re already adept at, practice! Don’t just practice on your friends, who might laugh or go too soft on you. Find someone you trust to put the pressure on a little and see how you perform.
#4: Be Prepared to Answer Questions
Running through practice interviews will help you develop answers to questions ahead of time. Anticipate questions about your strengths and weaknesses as a student, and have genuine answers—admissions officers have heard every kind of humblebrag in existence, so be genuine.
#5: Stay Healthy
The night before your interview, get plenty of sleep. Eat a healthy breakfast the day of your interview, and drink plenty of water—and please, go to the bathroom before the interview. Good self-care will help you ace your interview because you’re operating at peak performance.
You want to the right outfit for a college interview, but there's a whole lot more to prepare for, too. Check out this list of college interview tips to be sure you know exactly what to prepare for during your interview.
Not every college requires an interview for admission. If an interview intimidates you—or you're certain it'll help you land a coveted acceptance letter—check out this list of colleges that require interviews to help you plan your applications.
Though you're the one getting interviewed, a college interview is also a great place to ask questions about the college you're applying to that you can't find online. This list of questions to ask a college interviewer will help you get the most out of your experience.
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Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.