Before my interview at Chatham University in January, I went through a Herculean effort to discover the perfect outfit for the job. It literally took me two weeks of searching and shopping and trying on and returning and exchanging and accessorizing before I settled on the perfect outfit. And even then I still took two different dress sizes with me to Pittsburgh, because I just wasn’t sure which fit I liked best.

All of the information I had read online about what to wear for a graduate school interview sounded as though it had been written by economics professors with absolutely no clue about style, fashion, or the invention of skirts. No offense to economics professors, but I can only assume that they aren’t widely regarded for their fashion sense. In my opinion, neither are most of the people who have written advice articles on what to wear to graduate school interviews.

The various blogs and articles I had read indicated that women should wear a two-piece pant suit ensemble in black, grey, or blue. They suggested black shoes and not to carry a handbag. The handbag advice didn’t make any sense to me. What would you do with your keys and your phone during the interview? Men were told to wear the ubiquitous funereal black suit. Some blogs argued against adding any color or style. Everyone suggested it was best to err on the conservative side, which I feel as a progressive, begs the question, why? This feels particularly biased and prejudiced to me. Personally, I feel this is an assumptive argument I would love to see overturned in our greater society. (For instance, how cool would it be if people started saying that it is best to err on the side of stylish when interviewing for such and such? I can see how this works perfectly for fashion school interviews, and am just wondering why this can’t work (within reason) for Physician Assistant school interviews too?) Speaking of fashion, skirts for women seemed to be the equivalent of trying to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome sporting a miniskirt, a physical impossibility. Eventually I stopped reading and decided to forge my own path.

But in the beginning, I tried to give the conservative suit the “old college try”, and brought home one of each, a pant suit and a skirt suit. My fashion advisors consisted of a few friends, my mom, my sister, and my husband. Aside from my husband, the opinions were split half in favor of the actually very nicely fitting pant suit from J. Crew and half in favor of the grey skirt suit from Banana Republic. Neither I nor my husband liked either one.

The thing about a woman in a suit is that she instantly loses most of the recognizable characteristics that make her look like a woman. For someone used to wearing jeans every day of her life, a pant suit is pretty much the equivalent of wearing a straight jacket, not to mention that one instantly feels that style has died and left the building. For us ladies with short hair, it is also instantly androgenizing. In one instance, I paired a blue J. Crew pant suit with a multicolored button down shirt. I looked like something out of Saturday Night Fever. It was a little scary.

After almost a week of being stuck between two options that felt like no good options at all, I went back to the mall and picked up a bunch of catalogs from all the stores with promise for my quest. Anthropologie, J. Crew, Banana Republic, even Ann Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. And in the J. Crew catalog I found the inspiration I was looking for. In it, a model wore a 3/4 sleeve, knee-length, form-fitting black dress over a white button down shirt. The best part were her accessories, a men’s tie, oversized tortoise-shell glasses, and calf skin wedges. It was perfect in every possible way and stylistically provided the exact look I was going for. It said smart but stylish, and modern and strong. I mean, a girl wearing a tie to an interview? Look out!

J Crew graduate school interview inspiration

That outfit took me the next week to pull together. Here is what I wore:

J. Crew Emmaleigh Black Dress in Super 120s
J. Crew Martina Black Patent Leather Wedges
J. Crew White Button Down Shirt
Express Men’s Black Cotton Skinny Tie with White Dots
Kate Spade Black Diamond Sheer Tights
Kate Spade Gray Felt Walker Park Tate Bag
Banana Republic Black Textured Coat

In one of the blogs somewhere the author advised to spend as much as you can to get the highest quality possible so that you look the best that you can. I know I splurged on this outfit, but to me, the investment was worth it. Above all else, authenticity to self is necessary. And wearing this outfit I truly felt like myself. The reason I feel it is so important to look like yourself is that during the most important part of an interview, when you’re sitting one to one with the interviewer, you need to shine, and in order to shine, you need to stand out, and in order to do that, you really need to just feel comfortable being yourself. Who can feel comfortable and confident while being camoflaged in a sea of sameness in a world of two-piece black and blue suits? Not me.

Awareness of fashion and style is an important way to communicate about yourself to people who might otherwise find no reason to remember who you are after you get up and leave their office. Being memorable can help you stand out in your interviewer’s mind, and that might just provide the teeniest bit of edge that you need when being evaluated. Of course, you need to be memorable for good reasons, not for bad ones. Though nobody should be evaluated on their ability to afford high fashion or name brand clothing, attention to personal appearance is certainly part of one’s interview evaluation. So I agree with the person who said you should buy the best you can afford so that you look your best. But I also believe that while needing to look professional, there should be no reason why a bit of tasteful personal style can’t be infused to help you feel like yourself.

Of course you must also consider any advice you evaluate or receive regarding anything you do in life within the context in which you will apply it. I knew, having read Chathm University’s mission statement that they honor and welcome citizens for democracy, and that within the Physician Assistant program, they are looking for diversity. Knowing this, it seemed reasonable to me to assume that my outfit would be perfectly appropriate.

It turns out I am so glad that I wore what I wore. On the day of the interview, aside from the fact that I was sick, and that my feet hurt almost instantly in those heels, I felt great. I felt comfortable, confident, and I felt just exactly like myself. When it came time for the small group interview, I was excited and friendly and I think I even saw one of the two women interviewing my group smile as I entered, perhaps appreciating what I had on. Probably admiring the awesome Kate Spade handbag I was carrying.

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