Graduates, take note. The hour has arrived to put away th textbooks and pull out the resume. Time to shed that cozy, casual student shell and treat yourself to some professional polish. Those well-worn jeans and second-skin T-shirts that kept you going through endless rounds of finals will not prove much good now that you're heading out into the job market.
Unsure about how to create that first big impression once it's time to pound the pavement? Take a look at the winners of our makeover contest -- Nicole Graner and Ana Grant, two new graduates who wrote to us asking for help with their hair and wardrobes. Their appearances were transformed from college student to career woman with the help of a makeup artist (Nora Garver), hair stylist (Kevin Depew) and clothes stylist (me).
"A common mistake often assumed by recent graduates is that credentials alone will carry the interview, with no bearing on appearance," says Mary Kraft, owner of a recruitment company in Towson.
Another frequent error among young job candidates, says Karen Weatherholtz, vice president for human relations at McCormick & Co. Inc., is "dressing
too casually for a first interview, which raises questions in the interviewer's mind about that person's business judgment."
With so many graduates of equal status vying for the same entry-level positions, appearance usually ends up the determining factor in who gets hired. Fair or not, it's all part of the editing process, and dressing the part helps establish your credibility.
In such a tension-producing situation as a first interview, not feeling comfortable with the way you look can add to your anxiety. Best to take the time to dress appropriately so as to present a confident, dynamic impression when first entering the interviewer's office.
"The traits you are expected to bring to an interview are what you want your clothes to communicate," advises national image educator and author Judith Rasband. The message your appearance conveys upon first impression is interpreted at once. Therefore, the image you project must mirror the position you are seeking.
What's appropriate can vary
A local administrative recruiter told about a recent grad who was not called back for a second interview (even though she was the most qualified for the position) because the interviewer felt her skirt was too short, reflecting lack of judgment.
Dressing appropriately, of course, will vary according to the type of work and style of grooming and dress that's usually worn at the level job you're seeking within a company. After all, the whole point of the interview is to allow the interviewer to envision you in the job. If you are interviewing with a retail chain to join its in-house advertising department, you want to dress with a more creative flair -- perhaps touching on a fashion trend or wearing more color -- than if you were applying for a position in accounting.
"The best way to be prepared is by doing your homework," says Ms. Kraft.
How do you find out about a company's image? "Annual company reports that can be found at the library often have pictures of employees in them," says Ms. Kraft. "You can also get a feel for image by talking to other people within the company or even parking your car outside to observe employees going in and out of the building."
Details count. Nordstrom's Personal Touch shopping service manager, Melissa Ford, who conducts corporate seminars, stresses the importance of the three-dimensional package when making that first big impression. "A person can be dressed and groomed impeccably, but the smallest details can signal someone who does not follow through," says Ms. Ford.
"Men are infamous for this," says national fashion consultant Tina Sutton, who has written and lectured on dressing appropriately for business. They often buy the finest suit, shirt and tie but forget to polish their shoes. Or they'll wear athletic instead of dress socks, she says.
When in doubt about investing in a good first-interview look, go dark -- particularly if you cannot afford the finest quality. Dark colors help mask not-so-fine tailoring, whereas light colors reveal every flaw, Ms. Sutton notes.
For women, a tailored navy or gray suit or coatdress in a tropical-weight fabric like wool gabardine, rayon or silk will take you year-round into any interview situation, provided you complete the package for the appropriate position.
Avoid linen, which never looks quite polished. Cheap rayons can be just as bad. Before buying, crumple a piece of the fabric in your hand. If it doesn't spring back and stays messy after you let it go, don't buy it -- chances are that's how you will look once you arrive at your interview.
Color is a good way to inject life into a ho-hum outfit. "Stick to strong hues in small doses," advises local image consultant Jane La Russa. "Men can introduce it with their choice in a tie and women with a solid color blouse or print scarf."
Personnel executive April Powell of the advertising agency W. B. Doner & Co. admits, "I remember the people better who wear something different that makes them stand out, such as an unusual tie or bright color, vs. a corporate clone -- particularly when interviewing so many different people for the same position."
Although women have come a long way from the boring navy, bow-bloused, dress-for-success suit of the '80s, things in the corporate world haven't changed all that much. As acceptable as they may now be for the workplace, pants for women are still frowned upon for a first interview. Even a major local law firm restricts women from wearing pants of any kind to the office.
A skirted suit is still always appropriate, but leave the sarong style for the beach and tight high-slit looks for evening, says Ms. Rasband, the image educator. "Whether it's a matched or unmatched suit, tailored necklines makes you appear more knowledgeable and capable, as straight lines and angles communicate visually," she says.
The second interview
Always be prepared to come back. "People almost never get offered the job on the first interview -- something graduates often overlook," says Ms. Sutton. Men should have at least a different shirt and tie for backup, and women another blouse or scarf if not another suit or dress.
There is no need to give up all forms of personal expression to fit a corporate mold. But there is a fine line between attracting unnecessary attention and making a good impression.
"Believe it or not, men coming out of college often show up to an interview wearing too much jewelry -- a school ring, ID bracelet, chunky necklace or religious medal -- when just a nice wristwatch and maybe one ring should be it," says Ms. Sutton.
"Women should avoid long dangling earrings that move when you talk, or clanking bangle bracelets that can be annoying and take away from what you're saying. A medium-sized pearl or metal earring draws attention up around your face and holds it there -- right where you want it for an interview," says Ms. %J Rasband.
"Anyone can dress up nicely, but what I look for goes way beyond professional attire. Good personal hygiene such as cleanliness and [being] well-kempt is important because it says something about the image that person holds for themselves, which often is reflected on the job," says Sharon Smith, senior employment representative for human relations at Blue Cross and Blue Shield.
Nothing looks messier than the shoulder line of a suit specked with fly-away hairs or hair that keeps falling in your eyes. Hair stylist Kevin Depew, who transformed our makeover contest winners, suggests investing in a decent cut and color if needed to blend through and brighten the face.
Ponytails are out
"Short hair always looks more polished in a professional environment. However, for those who just can't part with those college locks they've been lugging around for four years, at least get a trim and wear it softly pulled back for a more grown-up look at the interview," he advises.
"But no ponytails -- and that goes for men, too, for the most part. Nor should hair be plastered severely back. Keep it soft with a French twist or low chignon," he says. Men should also get a good haircut and always be clean-shaven.
"Makeup should always be minimal in an interview, with no part of your face heavily lined, particularly when you're up against office fluorescent lighting," says makeup artist Geri Falek, who also advised our make-over winners. "Go stronger on the eyes with neutral colors and bring out your brows with a powder vs. a liner to look more alert and expressive. Lips and the apples of cheeks should have just a hint of color."
And remember, no matter how appropriate you may look, there is no faster way to generate a further favorable impression than to enter an interview poised, with a firm handshake and a sincere smile. "Image before qualifications," explains Ms. Kraft. "It takes image to get in the door, and then what you've got between the ears to land the job."
Impressive look to match a resume
Ana Grant, 28, has just completed a very busy eight years, attending school at night, working full-time outside the home and raising two children. She recently received her bachelor's degree in marketing from Daniel Webster College in New Hampshire and a few months ago moved to Columbia, where her husband has a new job.
When she came to us, she was looking for a change in her appearance that might increase her chances in the job market.
We chose to dress her in a safe but stylish tropical-weight suit with clean lines from Jos. A. Bank Clothiers, an outfit appropriate for a variety of jobs. Ms. Grant walked into our photo studio totally hidden by her hair -- a look that does not win points in the job market. Hair stylist Kevin Depew emphasized her lovely, long neck and elegant jaw line by cutting her hair. The style frames her face, and softly styling it back gives her a more polished, self-confident look.
"I feel wonderful," Ms. Grant said after her transformation was complete. "With my new look, I am ready to be taken more seriously."
Communicating right message
Nicole Graner, 22, has just graduated from Goucher College with a bachelor's degree in communications. Uncertain about how to polish her image for the professional world, she gave our stylists free rein to try a new look.
A new hairstyle was the first step. Hair stylist Kevin Depew wove in honey-blond highlights to brighten her face. Then he lopped off 5 inches of permed hair and added soft layers to the remaining hair, working with her own wave to create volume.
Makeup artist Geri Falek cleaned up her brows and enhanced her beautiful eyes, and suddenly she had cheekbones. Because Ms. Graner will be seeking a job dealing with the public, her wardrobe options are fairly flexible -- i.e., not limited to a conservative suit. We suggested unconstructed separates in a season-less rayon fabric by Jones New York from Macy's,
Owings Mills, for the round of interviews to come. A mid-heel modified platform pump and matte gold earrings, both from Nordstrom, polished off her new look.
"It's awesome -- my mother will never recognize me," she said when she looked at the final result in the mirror. "I feel so much more confident about discussing my capabilities with potential employers."
If you're interested in participating in one of our future makeover stories, write and tell us why. We're looking for men and women of all ages. Please include a recent photograph (sorry, photographs cannot be returned). Address entries to Makeovers, Vida Roberts, The Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278.