Almost from the minute they set foot on campus, MBAs are job hunting. Most come to their interviews well prepared. At the very least, they study up on the company and its executives, but more often than not they also consult with friends who have interviewed at the company to find out what questions will be asked.
What an MBA wears and how he behaves, however, typically receive less thought. At Columbia Business School, the Investment Banking Club felt compelled in 2010 to issue a stern warning to first-years who were letting their personal hygiene slip during recruiting events: Brush your teeth, get a haircut, lose the backpack, and, please, use a deodorant.
“We are a visual society,” says David Zyla, an Emmy-award winning stylist and the author of Color Your Style (Plume, January 2011). “Many times when you go into a job interview, the interviewer knows within seconds whether he’ll call you for a second interview.” In other words, your appearance and etiquette better match, if not defy, your smarts and skills.
If you’re worried about not making the cut, here are some tips for making a good first impression:
Set the right tone
“Display a positive energy and attitude,” says Diane Borhani, national director of campus recruiting for Deloitte in Chicago. This means you should greet the receptionists, doormen, and anyone else you encounter with kindness. Express your happiness at having the opportunity to interview, and prove you have done your homework, which includes researching the job and the company but also the interviewers. Making a point or starting a conversation that is specific to them, says Borhani, can help make you memorable.
Offer up a very firm handshake for both a male or female interviewer, says Char Bennington, director of career management at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. “Be ready with small talk and a smile,” she adds. Ask about how the person’s day has been going or the weather.
Think fashion forward, but not necessarily fashionable
Just about all image consultants suggest wearing neutral suits—charcoal gray, navy blue, or traditional black—with a crisp button-down shirt. Women can opt for skirt suits as long as the hem falls at or below the knee. And men should wear a tie, says Dawn Del Russo, a fashion expert in New Jersey. Whatever you do, make sure your attire fits you well. “You will look cheap and unprofessional if your clothes don’t fit properly,” says Nicole Brewer, an image consultant in New York.
While many say it’s all right to include a pop of color, Brewer suggests avoiding prints and stripes, because they can be distracting. Zyla suggests observing the darkest color in the iris of your eye and picking either a tie for a man or a blouse, shell, or necklace for a woman in that color.
Keep accessories simple, which means stud earrings and a nice, simple necklace for women and a watch for either sex, says Del Russo. “A watch shows you are aware of time and concerned with being punctual,” she adds. Charm bracelets, dangling earrings, or bangles can make noise and take the interview off track.
Follow up with the interviewer
Be mindful of the timeline that the interviewer offers you at the end of the meeting: Don’t nag recruiters the next day if they told you they would need a week or two to make decisions, says Borhani. On the other hand, you should send a thank you e-mail (or handwritten note, if there’s time). Be sure to keep it short and include something that excited you about the conversation you had, so that it is personalized. Says Borhani: “Thank-yous are never a bad thing.”