In response to pleas from clients with campus visit invitations, I am devoting the post today to a quick discussion of how to dress for campus visits , particularly in the cold weather. This post is for women (who present as women), since everyone who has written in a panic has been in that category.
The typical campus visit often involves a pick up at the airport by a faculty member, and an immediate drive to a meal with that faculty member, and possibly others. Because of that, you will need to be appropriately dressed on the airplane, in dress pants and a blouse or sweater, with a cardigan or jacket. A matching suit is unnecessary at this stage. (I will discuss shoes and outerwear below). Make sure that the clothes you are wearing are not linen or silk or any fabric that wrinkles badly on the plane. It is important that you can make the flight–>dinner transition looking as cool and collected as possible. Be sure and take a quick trip to the restroom on the flight, before arrival, to brush your hair, check your makeup and jewelry (make sure no earrings fell out), and possibly brush your teeth.
Pack your clothes for the visit in a small carry-on and do not check. Checking bags leads to awkward delays that nobody wants to deal with, and can potentially throw off dinner reservations. Carry your materials in a shoulder bag briefcase, and let that be all that you carry with you on the trip.
In terms of dealing with this first meal, be aware that in this meal and all others that follow, you likely will not be able to eat well or easily because of your nerves and the level of questioning. Therefore, be sure and eat well before boarding the flight, or on the flight. In addition, pack a number of protein/meal replacement bars, and make sure that you have at least one of those available at all times. If you have brief breaks in your schedule, or even bathroom breaks, you can grab a bite and keep your blood sugar level.
Do not order wine at dinner unless it is clear that “everyone” is ordering wine. Then follow suit, if you drink alcohol. If you don’t, politely decline, without explanation (or just saying that you are tired from the flight). Be sure and drink only one glass.
Don’t order dessert unless others initiate it. People may be exhausted and anxious to get home.
When ordering a meal, be sure and order the easiest and neatest item on the menu. Risotto is an example. A piece of meat or fish that can be easily cut into pieces is another. Do not order pasta or soup or anything that drips. Beware of flaky rolls and croissants that scatter crumbs all down your front.
The next day is likely your big day on campus, going from 8 AM to at least 8 PM, with the job talk. This is the day you wear your actual interview suit. As I’ve mentioned before, the suit can be skirt or pants, it usually doesn’t matter, unless you are interviewing at an exceptionally conservative institution (check on that ahead of time as best you can). In which case you need to wear a skirt. You should wear a sober, low-maintenance blouse or top or sweater underneath the jacket, and jewelry that is not showy or loud.
If you wear heels (and you certainly can choose not to), have them be between 1 and 3 inches in height. Any higher and you’re tottering. I strongly advise against any stillettos or skinny heels. Glamorous shoes with stiletto heels and pointed toe shoes stick out in university settings and often invite ambivalent comment from both women and men (I speak from experience). More importantly, they are treacherous to walk in, because they stick in sidewalk cracks and grates (I speak from experience). Find a shoe that has stacked heel, and preferably a rounded or squared toe, for comfort and ease of walking. Don’t wear clogs, please. Be sure your shoes are comfortable, and do not wear brand new shoes unless they have been thoroughly tested for comfort. At the same time, the shoes should be fresh and not worn down in the heel, the sole, or the overall appearance of the leather. Your shoes should be black or brown, matching your suit, and one color (no interesting patterns!) Shoes matter. People notice.
Tights are better than stockings because they stay up better, and don’t snag.
I recommend suits that are not black, because black is severe. I prefer greys, browns, tweeds, etc. Black is not out of the question, however; just make sure that you break it up with the top underneath and the tights.
Make sure your underwear is comfortable and fits! If you’re going to wear a Spanx (and I don’t recommend this, but want to mention it just in case), make sure that it is a style that doesn’t ride up and need tugging at!! Make sure bra straps are completely hidden. Make sure your slip doesn’t show beneath your skirt. Test out your outfit ahead of time; actually move around, walk, and sit in it.
If you wear a skirt, make sure that it stays put and doesn’t twist around. I was once at a campus visit at Stanford and halfway through the day realized my skirt had worked its way around 180 degrees, and the zipper and kick pleat (and butt sag area) was in front….for who knows how long. (Is that why I didn’t get the job?)
Make sure your blouse does not gap, and ruthlessly reject any blouse that does (to the Goodwill it must go). Buy blouses that actually fit. If it is a tiny gap deriving from button placement only vis a vis the girls in a blouse that otherwise fits perfectly (and not an issue of incorrect size – be vigilant for that! The pounds add on when you’re writing that diss! Buy the new blouse if you need it!) try sewing up the placket inside, turning the blouse into a de-facto pullover. Oftentimes that will take care of the problem completely. You can also use wardrobe tape. (Here’s one that I use; 2016 update: buy from Target, not Amazon!) Make sure the blouse stays inside your waistband if that is where it belongs. In general, silky, slippery blouses are treacherous because it slides around, and you discover that it’s been hanging out from under your jacket. Avoid that by buying blouses in rougher fabric, or better yet, wearing knit tops. Thoroughly subject all ensembles to testing prior to the campus visit, not in your house, but rather in a full day of work/school.
Make sure that ALL your clothes are spotless and pristine (and as commenter below points out, freshly dry-cleaned and pressed). Do not wear stained or ripped or patched clothes to your campus visit, or any interview setting.
Returning to an earlier point, make sure ALL your clothes fit you at your current weight. No exceptions. If you’ve put on some pounds, buy new clothes. Nothing, I repeat, nothing makes you look worse or less professional than too-tight clothes. You may not be able to trust yourself on this question (denial and wishful thinking abound), and have a trusted harsh critic review the fit of everything, including the arm-raising test, the bending over test, and the reaching test.
You may, if you know that you’re a bit of a slob, pack an extra top/shell in your briefcase against the terrible possibility of spilling pizza sauce down your front at lunch. I needed this.
If you have a break after the job talk, and before dinner, possibly back at your hotel, you are lucky and have the option of changing if you wish. You may change, but downgrade in formality only slightly. You don’t know the conventions of campus and/or the type of restaurant to which you’re being taken, and it’s better to err, for dinner, on the side of dressy.
Pack all of your regular toiletries, hair products, etc. Do NOT depend on whatever random products you find in small travel sizes at the drug store, or, god forbid, the hotel they put you up at. They will not perform the same! You don’t want to end up with weird, flyaway hair or moisturizer that you find out, too late, you’re allergic to, when you’re in the high stakes environment of a campus visit. Go to the trouble of getting travel bottles and filling them with your products.
With regard to makeup: No need to wear if you don’t normally. But if you do… Now is not the time to experiment with new and unfamiliar makeup. Severely test all your makeup for smearing. I am referring particularly to mascara here. Expensive department store products are no guarantee! Buy products that are labeled “long-wear” or “all day,” but even then, don’t just trust the packaging–test it out on yourself. Mascaras vary quite a bit in their “heaviness” level, and you want a type for this setting that is relatively light and natural looking, and not clumpy or “high drama.” I have always had good luck with Revlon Colorstay products. Lipstick is the other major problem area. It can smear onto your teeth, so beware that. “All day” lipsticks, unfortunately, can go on as a stain, and wear off in unusual and distracting ways. If you’re not accustomed to wearing lipstick, just skip it. Neutral, “nude” shades of all makeup, and certainly lipstick, are probably best for relative beginners. Also thoroughly test all makeup for allergies. As I’ve grown older I’ve developed allergies to many products I could previously wear, and my eyes tear up and my mascara runs down my cheeks. Not a good look.
OK, moving on… the next day is likely a short day, but a day still filled with meetings. Sometimes this is the day you meet the Dean (on the campuses where this still happens). You may downgrade formality slightly, but only slightly, by wearing your dress pants/skirt from the previous day with a sweater, or a different top and jacket or very dressy cardigan.
Cold Weather Adaptations:
If the weather is genuinely cold, you can switch to heavy tights, if you still plan to wear a skirt. You can certainly switch to pants, and that is my recommendation. You can wear tights under the pants to stay warm in really cold situations.
Invest in a quality, stylish quilted jacket or cold-weather dress coat, if you have a number of visits in northern climes. With advances in technology, cold weather dress coats can now be quite stylish and non-bulky (look for Thinsulate). Check out Michael by Michael Kors. While the traditional winter wool dress coat is always appropriate, you can also search “quilted parka” at Zappos, etc. and you’ll see some great options in stylish urban quilted coats that are appropriate. I suggest getting one nicely fitted at the waist, or with a belt, so that you don’t look like the Michelin Man. Coats of this type can often be found second-hand, and if you can’t afford a significant outlay for what might be only one northern campus visit, it would be worth checking at quality second hand boutiques for this piece. Conservative East Coast campuses still apparently expect the classic woolen dress coat.
A chic scarf and nice “grown-up” leather gloves make everyone look good. Hats are trickier, because they can leave you looking disheveled. Find a style that is not a knit cap or beret, but rather a formed hat that easily pulls on and off with minimal hair disruption.
In terms of the ice and snow shoe-boot question: my advice is: buy La Canadienne boots. They are insulated and made for cold northern climes, but somehow, I don’t know how, look incredibly chic. They come in a range of heeled and flat styles, are generally in suede, which is a great subdued look for academic settings (but be sure and treat to protect the suede), and several basic colors to match any outfit. They come in ankle height, mid-calf, and full length. They have rubber soles that grip the ice, but you would never know by looking at them. They have arch support in many styles, and are exceedingly well made. I wore mine through the depths of Illinois winters for years, and my feet were always warm and I never slipped! I got endless compliments on them, and still do, because I still wear them in balmy Oregon, just because they’re some of the cutest boots I own.
Readers: Other advice? Please share below. Anything I forgot to address? Feel free to ask!