Reader Question

Reader Question: What to Wear to College Career Fair?

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!