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Professional Work Wear Do’s and Don’ts

Doing internships and jobs while in college give such an incredible boost to your résumé and gives you incredible real-life applications of what you learn in the classroom. Internships can be highly competitive, but there is a way to stand out from the flood of applicants: by dressing professionally. Living in DC affords American University collegiettes amazing access to fantastic internship opportunities, but you want to make sure your professional attitude matches the professional image you want to display at the workplace. In order to get your dream internship, you need to dress the part as well! Here is a guide to dressing professionally for Her Campus collegiettes.

Let’s first start with the basics.



Too tight or too baggy pants: These can be incredibly distracting, taking away from what the interviewer needs to pay attention to which is you! Save the too tight clothing for the club. On the flipside, you don’t want to look sloppy either. Baggy pants make one look disheveled which gives the impression that you don’t care which is not good for either the interview or the workplace.

Leggings or shorts:  These are NOT pants. Nor will they ever be. Please do not try to pass them off as pants. I wish I didn’t have to reiterate this point but I have seen both of these done. It doesn’t matter if you wear opaque tights underneath, shorts ≠ pants.

Jeans: It doesn’t not matter how dark the wash is on your denim or how much you paid for your jeans, denim jeans have no place in a professional work environment (unless they are allowed on Casual “Fridays”).

A nice fitting pair of slacks: These are a classic staple to have. They should come in a conservative color such as black, navy, dark grey, and brown. Light grey and beige are acceptable too. Make sure that they sit properly on your figure and are neither too tight nor too loose. This is when listening to the sales associate is really helpful because they can let you know if your pants fit correctly.


Too short or too tight: If the skirt is just as long or just as tight as the ones you are wearing while partying then it is not work appropriate. You also have to consider how short or tight it is going to feel when sitting down!

Too high of a slit (or any slit in the front): Too high of a slit can make your work outfit look sleazy. The workplace is not the place to be showing off too much skin. Slits should be in the back and minimal as well.

No bright or obnoxiously patterned skirt that calls attention to itself: Conservative patterns can be great for skirts but if the patterns or colors draw too much attention, they can be pretty distracting especially in interviews. 

Perfect length: Knee length is definitely best. If the skirt is shorter than to the knee but you are questioning if it’s still appropriate, do the fingertip test. Put your hands by your sides and if the skirt is shorter than the point where your fingertips hit your thighs, it is too short. Conservative colors-Stick to previously suggested colors for pants (black, navy blue, brown, and dark grey). Conservative patterns and textures like tweed and can also be good too.


No casual open toed shoes: This includes flip flops or sandals. This is the workplace, not the beach.

No strappy or flashy shoes: The key is to minimize distraction and “strappy” and “flashy” are two adjectives that are definitely distracting.

No stilettos or anything that looks like it could be wrapped around a pole: If a stripper would wear them, please don’t. Just don’t.

Shoes in neutral colors that match your dress, pants, or skirt, are closed toe, and are a sensible height that is 2-3 inches maximum. Flats are a great safer option.


Anything with too much cleavage: Studies have shown women who show too much cleavage in the workplace are less respected and cannot command authority. Showing off what your momma gave you is not workplace appropriate in this case.

Anything too flashy: If you would wear it out to a club or a party, it’s probably not appropriate for professional dress.

A well-fitting button down shirt: This is a classic wardrobe staple. White always works but many other colors work provided that they are not distracting (my favorite shirt is a lavender color!) 

A nice, satin top: This can bring flare and attitude to an outfit without being too flashy.

*Prints and stripes are ok but they need to be subtle.


Your LBD (Little Black Dress): A black dress is great but the “little” part is where is crosses the line. Save your LBDs for special occasions. Nothing off the shoulder, too short or too bright in color or shine either! The key goal is to minimize distraction so wearing anything resembling your homecoming dress should be avoided.

Neutral colors, appropriate length and fit: Not too tight or too loose and knee length are great qualities for professional work wear dresses, and covers shoulders and does not show cleavage- These points are great to keep in mind when looking at work appropriate dresses.


All previous rules apply! Make sure every suit fits appropriately, is a relatively neutral color, and does not show too much skin. Suits are an incredible investment and a good suit can last years with proper maintenance. You don’t need to break the bank either. TJ Maxx can have a great selection of suit sets from time to time. H&M also always has a great selection of professional work wear basics at much cheaper prices than fancier stores. Another quick tip is that you can buy a cheaper suit and get it tailored to your body to make a $50 suit set look like a $300 suit set. 




No holes! If you have holes in your hosiery, toss them or save them for costumes where hole ridden pantyhose is deemed fitting (Ke$ha?). No patterns either because patterned hosiery can be especially distracting. 

Sheer is best: Sheer hosiery is the most conservative choice and should be in a color that complements your suit. Stay away from high contrasting colors for your pantyhose/outfit combo.


Hoop earrings, too much jewelry, over-sized jewelry pieces, costume jewelry that looks cheap, and jewelry that is too long

Find appropriately sized and colored pieces that accent an outfit but don’t call too much attention to themselves. You don’t want it to be distracting. Obnoxiously shiny or loud jewelry takes away from the professional image you are trying to set. 


No bags with chains, fur or spikes and no large, bright, or printed bohemian bags- You want to make sure that your bag matches your professional attitude. 

A leather bag in simple, neutral colours: The less distracting, the better when it comes to your purse. Great examples are simple Kate Spade purses or Longchamp bags in more subtle colours. This is where you can save up for a classic investment piece that will last you years and always look professional. 


Too much make-up (Be especially careful with eye liner or shadow) or no make-up (The au natural look can be mistaken for laziness)

Excess perfume: Overly strong perfumes or too much perfume can be incredible distracting. Especially if it triggers the interviewer’s allergies. Uh oh. 

Unkempt hair: Hair that hangs in your face, is greasy or tangled, or is obnoxiously colored takes away from the professional image you are trying to exude during your interview and your time in the workplace.

Distracting hair accessories: Now is not the time to make a bold fashion statement with your hair. Keep hair accessories to a minimal.

Simple makeup- Find an appropriate balance that suits you and shows you made an effort.  Check out this hyperlink for a great YouTube example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pSxLUTLEDrU

Minimal to no perfume- To be on the safe side, I never wear perfume to an interview because what may smell great to me could possibly smell displeasing to others.

Simple hair style- The most important part is that your hair is not covering your eyes which can be very distracting. Wearing your hair down or pulled back is great as long as it’s simple and hair is kept away from your face.


The biggest point to remember is that you want to minimize distraction. You want to make sure that your outfit encourages that you are to be taken seriously, enhances your professional image, and does not distract someone from listening to what you are saying! These guidelines are a tad more conservative but it’s always better to be more conservative than risqué when it comes to professional dress.

Photo credit: http://www.businesswomenconnect.com/media/stock%20photos/cover%20girl.JPG

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