How do I dress for a career fair?

By: Garvin Reid

Garvin Reid - Assistant Director at Wasserman Center for Career Development

“How do I dress for a career fair?”

A question so simple yet easily able to become complicated if you overthink it.

When thinking of what to wear for a career fair, think of it just as you would a social gathering in which that one person that you really want to impress will be there. The biggest difference is that instead of it being one person at a social gathering, there will be multiple people you seek to impress and it’s in a professional setting. As such, you want to be sure that none of the little things take you out of the running for the career of your dreams.

Just as you would ensure that your resume is primed and polished, it’s best to make sure that your appearance is as well. Appearing disheveled and messy could make an employer question your attention to detail. This is true for both customer facing and non-customer facing roles. Consider this: a recruiter may think “If this person did not notice their nail polish was chipped, how could they notice the extra 0 in the balance sheet?” Just as details matter in your cover letter, resume, business card, etc. you want to show that same level of care to how you present yourself.

What to wear

Similar to practicing your elevator pitch in the mirror, be sure to check your appearance in the mirror before leaving out for the career fair. Recruiters see attending a career fair as an opportunity to meet with a large amount of students with hopes of hiring a few or sometimes just one. With this in mind, you want your appearance to help rather than hinder you. 

Professional Attire

Suit

It’s always best to wear a business suit to a career fair. It shows that you are a professional and exudes confidence. Although you may be interested in a position at a company that you know has a relaxed dress code, you will never be overdressed when it comes to choosing a business suit for a career fair. What if you find out that the company with the relaxed dress code is no longer hiring yet there are multiple companies in your industry and all of their recruiters came in professional attire? Wearing a business suit allows you mobility at a career fair because wearing one makes you dressed appropriately to speak to anyone. 

In choosing your suit, you want to go for neutral colors (charcoal, navy blue, or gray). Black suits are difficult to make you stand out but if time or money is against you, there is nothing wrong with a black suit if accessorized properly (see below). It’s advised to stay away from the seasonal suits when attending a career fair. These are the seersucker, linen, tweed, etc. Seasonal colored and fabric suits are considered appropriate for a business casual setting rather than business professional. There is some leeway to this rule for women as colors are more acceptable. 

Get your suit dry cleaned and ironed before the career fair. A freshly pressed and cleaned suit literally fits as good as new. This also ensures that there are no stains on your suit just in case you had to get dressed in the dark because you didn’t want to wake your roommate.

Skirts

Ladies, when wearing a skirt to a career fair be mindful of the length. Anything higher than roughly two inches above the knee is considered inappropriate. When choosing a skirt to pair with your blazer you want to keep it professional. Think more “A line” or “Pencil” than “high low” or “mini”. 

Shirts

Your dress shirt is just as important as your suit selection. Consider neutral colors like white, French blue, or even a pale purple if you wish to show school spirit.

Ladies: You have more leeway in this area since you won’t have to worry about matching a tie to your shirt. If choosing to wear a button down shirt, it is important to ensure that it fits well. You want to make sure that it is not too tight which allows your undergarments to show between the buttons. Professionalism is the name of the game here.

Just as with your suit, a clean starched and pressed dress shirt says more positive things about you than a stained wrinkled one. I prefer to iron my shirts but if time is not on your side, you can drop it off at your local cleaner.

Ties

Now that you have your shirt selected, choose a tie that 1. Compliments your suit and shirt and 2. Stands out or has the ability to be a conversation starter. My personal strategy is to wear a solid gray suit; white or French blue shirt, and a conservative bow tie. I call this “Standing out while fitting in”. I’m no statistician but per my experience, if an event has 100 professional men, you are guaranteed to only see at most 10 of them wearing a bow tie. This creates a differentiating impression and also allows you to say “the guy with the bow tie” when you send your follow up e-mails (provided they complimented you on your bow tie of course).

If you’re not ready for a bow tie, fear not, there are other ways to stand out while fitting in.

Accessorize Accordingly

I remember being at a training led by Caroline Gundeck when I was an intern for Morgan Stanley in their Global Wealth Management Internship program. Caroline who is a Managing Director for Ultra High Net Worth Business Development spoke on ways to stand out at networking events. One thing that stuck with me since that training was to “wear a conversation starter”. Caroline explains it as something that is on you that may spark interest in the person that you are speaking to. For Caroline, that conversation piece is a broach, for me it’s been a bow tie and/or pocket square. You never know where that conversation may go or what that person’s perception of you may be after noticing it. The key here though is to subscribe to the mantra of “less is more”. If you are going to wear an interesting piece, let that one piece speak for you. With that said, also ensure that it’s professional.

Here are some examples of accessories you can wear to “stand out while fitting in”

  • Bow tie
  • Bracelet
  • Tie bar
  • Pocket Square
  • School Ring
  • Necklace
  • Silk Scarf
  • Lapel Pin
  • Hair Accessory
  • Broach
  • Earrings
  • Watch

Best Foot Forward

Gentlemen, it is important to ensure that your shoes are not only business professional but also shined and polished. This is particularly true for those of you with interests in the hospitality industry. Most of the customer facing roles within this industry grants their workers with the titles of being ambassadors of the brand. You want to make sure that brand looks neat, clean, and polished at all times.

Ladies, for you it’s not so much about the polish of your shoes as it is important that you choose the right shoe for the career fair. Consider going for the comfortable closed toe pump rather than a flat. With giving consideration to the weather on the day of, it’s best not to wear boots either.

Conclusion

When you think of a career fair, think of “The Hunger Games” you would like to do everything in your power to ensure that “the odds are in your favor”. Dressing the part is the easiest way to do so.  

Now that you know how to dress for a career fair, why not try out your new style. Attend the Fall 2014 NYU School of Professional Studies Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management Career Fair on Thursday, October 30th. RSVP here!

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