Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

The Community-College Interview: What to Wear

Full costumes parisiens

Image: Costumes Parisiens, Nos. 77, 92, and 90 (1913)

If you have an interview this spring for a full-time teaching position at a two-year college, you’ve already made it past a number of obstacles. Your application materials clearly impressed the search committee. So you’ve been busily doing your homework — reading everything you can find about the campus, the interview process, and the community-college sector in general, and preparing a killer teaching demonstration. You’re as ready as you can possibly be.

Except for one thing: What the heck do you wear?

I broach that rather sticky topic with some trepidation — but before I do, a couple of caveats. First, I am talking here about an interview for a full-time faculty position at a two-year college. What I say might not apply to interviews at other types of institutions, and it definitely would not apply to interviews for administrative positions. Second, I am primarily addressing cis-gendered candidates, although I do have some advice for transgendered ones, as well.

The main thing to keep in mind in choosing your interview outfit is that, while community-college faculty tend to dress casually, they are also fairly conservative in their approach to fashion. Men are generally expected to wear coats and ties to the job interview, and women to wear skirts, dresses, or pants suits. That means jeans, shorts, sneakers, sandals (for men), and T-shirts are out. (Remember, I’m talking about the interview here. What you will actually wear to work is a different matter. Usually, jeans are fine in the classroom — but maybe not shorts or T-shirts.)

It is certainly possible to overdress for a job interview at a two-year college. A male candidate who showed up wearing an expensive, trendy suit complete with cuff links, tie bar, and pocket square, for instance, might be regarded with some suspicion. Committee members might wonder if a candidate in a pricey suit was looking to interview for a news-anchor job and had ended up at our college by mistake.

(As a side note, I don’t know if this is indicative of some kind of sexism, but it’s much more difficult for a female candidate to overdress to that degree. What’s perceived as “trying too hard” in a male might simply be regarded as normal attire for women. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong, just pointing it out.)

It’s probably best to stick to traditional colors in your interview clothing: basically, dark shades (navy blue, black, brown, gray) and variations on beige (tan, light brown, off-white). Women can typically get away with wearing brighter colors, especially if they temper them with dark or neutral shades — for example, a lavender or turquoise blouse under a black suit jacket. Men can add a splash of color in their necktie, and women can do the same with jewelry, although in both cases “understated” is a good word to keep in mind.

For men, then, I would recommend something like a gray or brown tweed jacket or navy blazer with neatly-pressed tan khakis or gray dress slacks. Dress shirts should be solid white or light blue, although you could probably get away with a muted pattern (such as small checks). A striped repp tie in coordinating colors adds a nice finishing touch. And if you’re not sure what colors “coordinate,” please ask a more fashion-conscious — or less color-blind — friend for help.

A suit works well for men, too, so long as it fits reasonably well, is made from some not-too-obviously synthetic fabric, and avoids extremes in color and cut. No super-narrow lapels and skinny ties, as those things will mark you (in the eyes of the geezers on the search committee) as an unserious person. Remember, too, that a suit is dressier and therefore requires actual dress shoes — black or brown — whereas khakis look fine with loafers or even deck shoes.

Long hair is not a problem, as long as it’s neat and clean. The same goes for facial hair. Again, extremes — like mohawks, colored punk-rock spikes, or those dreadful “Duck Dynasty” beards, with hair sprouting from the neck and cheekbones — are best avoided.

For women, I would recommend a dark or neutral pants suit with a white or pastel blouse, accented by coordinating, understated costume jewelry. A skirt is perfectly acceptable but probably requires hosiery. High heels are OK, although medium heels or flats are probably better. Women, too, should avoid extremes in hair style and makeup.

Above all, whether your attire is new or not, stylish or outdated, your clothes should be clean and neatly pressed (which does not necessarily mean heavily starched). And of course you yourself should appear clean and well-groomed.

Your objective should be to present a pleasant and professional image without calling so much attention to your appearance that it detracts from your character and qualifications. It’s hard to pay attention to your teaching demo when we are distracted by that big mustard stain on your shirt.

All of these suggestions apply to the non-cis-gendered, as well. For you — as for all candidates — the operative words to describe your interview outfit are “conservative,” “understated,” and “professional.” For an example of someone who doesn’t necessarily conform to standard gender stereotypes yet always looks well put-together and professional, consider Ellen DeGeneres. Regardless of your gender or gender identity, you probably can’t go wrong with a dark suit, white dress shirt, neat haircut, minimal makeup, and sensible shoes.

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