Dressing for the MBA interview is about being memorable for the right reasons. In the business school interview context, this means standing out for what you say versus what you wear. As an expert coach at Fortuna Admissions, I field a lot of anxious questions about wardrobe this time of year. First, it’s perfectly valid — and advisable — to give your appearance thoughtful consideration.
Why? Clothes in this context are part of your strategy, and success has a lot to do with situational awareness and professional presence. For the admissions interview, this means knowing your audience, and interviewers from AdCom to alumni want to see that you’re discerning and savvy about self-presentation in a business context. For those of you with a penchant for big heels, bright colors, bold jewelry, or shaggy-fabulous facial hair, trust that your ability to be authentic needn’t hinge on making a fashion statement. (Let’s save that for day one of welcome week.)
Here are a few top tips on dressing for the interview from my experience as an MBA admissions consultant, Columbia Business School (CBS) alum and fashion industry veteran:
Clothing: For a formal on-campus interview (such as Harvard or Wharton) you can’t go wrong with business formal attire. For women, it can be a pantsuit, a skirt suit — my personal favorite is the dress-and-jacket combination (it’s a little more modern yet still appropriate). For men, that means a suit and yes, a tie. If you’re not comfortable in your tie at some of the additional events you can always take it off, but if you go without you might regret it (especially if your interviewer is wearing one). Meeting an alum at a coffee shop may be a signal to dress down. But first, do your homework. If it’s a 6 p.m. post-work meeting and your interviewer is coming from their Wall Street job, chances are you’ll want to be in a suit, too. If you’re meeting up near a Silicon Valley tech campus (where many folks have sworn off ties forevermore), you’re probably fine in business casual.
Business casual, for men, is a dress shirt and dress pants; for ladies it can be a dress, or professional top with a skirt or pants. That said, avoid showing too much skin (eschew low necklines, bare arms, short skirts, tight fits that might reveal underwear lines). You don’t want to be self-conscious about feeling overly exposed.
Accessories: It’s important to keep the accessories really subtle, from jewelry to footwear. One of your superpowers may be strutting in five-inch stilettos, but practical, on-trend shoes will be more comfortable. Avoid big earrings, as these can be overly distracting.
Grooming: Sure, you always want to be comfortable. But for facial hair, err on the side of more conservative. A clean shave is advisable — your beard/mustache/sideburns will grow back! If you’re really attached to your facial hair, fine, just make sure it’s well groomed. The same goes for nail polish: Think neutral colors – it’s not the time to wear wacky colors.
If you’re on-camera: For video interviews, the rules for attire are essentially the same (except no one will be the wiser if you’re in slippers). Test your video beforehand and ensure your face is well-lit, that you have good posture, are making appropriate eye contact, and that your voice sounds natural.
“Sometimes I laugh when I’m running mock interviews on Skype and see someone’s Hello Kitty collection on their bookshelves in the background,” says Fortuna Co-Director Judith Silverman Hodara, former head of Wharton MBA admissions. You’ll want to ensure your background is uncluttered and absent of any distractions. No posters on the wall that might steal your interviewer’s precious attention; instead of any elaborate staging keep it simple and plain.
Finally, the message on dressing for the MBA admissions interview isn’t that you can’t have a bit of fun. It’s that you don’t want your attire — from nails to necklines — to make a bigger statement than you do.
For more on how to dress for the MBA interview, check out my short video strategy session with Fortuna’s Judith Silverman Hodara: Dressing For the MBA Interview: Tips on Professional Presence.
Karen Hamou is an Expert Coach at MBA admissions coaching firm Fortuna Admissions as well as a Columbia Business School alum and former Deloitte Consulting recruiting lead. Fortuna is composed of former admissions directors and business school insiders from 13 of the top 15 business schools.