We all know the job hunt can feel just like your dating life. Both involve trying to impress strangers, both require a good elevator pitch, and both can have people ghosting on you for no reason (the worst!). Whether you’ve finally signed yourself up for a job fair or you’ve gotten an exciting interview from Planted (that hopefully feels more promising than your latest Tinder match), first impressions matter. We wish we could tell you that your brains and your accomplishments were paramount, buuuuut we all swipe right for the same reason: how you present yourself in the startup world is just as important as which picture goes first on your dating profile. You always make sure you look confident and put together in that number one shot (and save the dog selfie for picture 2), and same rules apply for your job hunt.
Startups are unique since they want you to be a complete person, with quirky interests and personal style, while still being professional and collected. The ultimate balancing act! What is “smart casual,” anyway?! The startup world is known for a lax dress code where suits are frowned upon and worn-in shirts from other tech startups are often the go-to uniform. Dressing for a startup job fair or interview is a lot different than dressing for the corporate world, and luckily that means you can have a little more fun deciding what to wear. That still doesn’t mean you can show up looking like you already have the job! We don’t have to get quite as harsh as Stacy London a la What Not to Wear (we definitely won’t make you throw out your whole wardrobe), but we do have to keep it real (because we care about you). If you have the skills, don’t let your outfit be the thing that stands in your way. Here are some ideas about how to dress the part, so you slay AND land the job!
Job Fair Style
Think of it this way: a job fair is like someone’s first swipe. Employers only have a few seconds to size you up, which means their first impression is the only thing that matters. At Planted we go to a LOT of job fairs, so you can trust us on this one – you have one chance to make or break it, and how you present yourself has a lot to do with how things turn out (whether we like it or not). Are you polished, put together, and comfortable in your own skin? How confident is your eye contact? How warm is your smile? How firm is your handshake? (How bad is your breath?)
There are a million ways to present yourself to the world, and one style isn’t better than another. Our biggest piece of advice here is to dress in a way that feels stylish to YOU, and smart, polished basics are often the way to go (if you’re asking yourself “wtf is a smart, polished basic?!” keep reading!). We think that everyone should own a few staples that mix and match for no-brainer power outfits you can rely on when you get called in for a last minute interview. Everyone should own a pair of black pants that aren’t jeans. Everyone should own a white button down and a great sweater that can go over it. Everyone should own a pair of shoes that aren’t sneakers (even though we obviously appreciate a pair of nice kicks). Having these staples in your closet is a step towards adulting, and it means you can start building work outfits that show who you are (or that you can pop into a job fair at a the drop of a hat).
This doesn’t mean you have to be boring, though! Ditch the blazer and opt for fun combinations and smart accessories to make you stand out. Bring a structured bag and folder to keep your resumes in (if you insist on bringing paper copies), and leave your dirty Northface backpack at home. You’ll do your best if your job fair flow is on fleek!
If a job fair is the first swipe, then an interview is the first date -- all the same rules apply, but it matters even more because this is your time to show that you’ve done your research (which means your outfit needs to be even more on point). It’s always a safe bet to dress a notch more conservative than you would on a normal day, but startups are all about culture fit. If you’re coming in for an interview, they’ll notice everything about how you carry yourself and how they see you fitting in with their company vibe! We’ve even heard rumors of companies not hiring someone because of their interview attire. It may sound crazy, but if you show up in a full suit and the CEO interviews you in jeans, they could see it as a sign that your personality may clash with the team.
We always suggest airing on the side of smart casual or business casual – enough professionalism to look like you can get the job done, with enough flair to look like you can hang in a startup environment! If you’re there for an interview, they already love your resume – this is your chance to show them your offline vibes are equally impressive. At the end of the day, you want to look and feel your best without seeming sloppy, and that will be different for everyone. If you’re your best self in full makeup and heels and you can do it well, be our guest. If you can rock a cool suit and boots, do it. If nice pants and a sweater feel more your style, go on with your bad self. Doesn’t matter if you only wear J. Crew or you only wear vintage from Bushwick, as long as you can show that you understand their culture and you’re tuned in enough to match it.
Startup Style Cheat Sheet
Need a few concrete pointers? If you’ve been baffled this whole time, look no further for some outfit benchmarks you can apply to your closet:
- Looking polished and put together. This means clean clothes that fit your body! We don’t care if you wear something stylish and trendy or if you’re more comfortable in classic staples – but whatever you wear, make sure it reflects who you are and shows you mean business.
- Matching a company’s style, vibe, and etiquette
- A sense of personal style – feel free to wear a necklace you love or a watch you think is awesome!
- Clean flats, loafers, pumps, boots, dress shoes, or nice kicks
- A nice bag and a folder for your resumes. Doesn’t have to be your grandpa’s briefcase and doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be a step up from your gym bag. A good power bag goes a long way!
- Neutral colors, solid colors, and understated patterns
- Clean hair, fresh face, and no noticeable scents
Safest bet if you shop in the guys’ section: Nice slacks or chinos (that means pants) in navy or black, a wrinkle-free casual button down, and dress shoes/boots/your cleanest, trendiest sneakers if you gotta. Add a sweater if you want. Stay away from suits and ties, and stay away from t-shirts.
Safest bet if you shop in the ladies’ section: Black or navy slacks, button down or blouse, and a sweater with flats or booties. Also cool to wear a dress that falls somewhere on the work spectrum, or skirt and sweater. Fresh face with a professional amount of makeup. Stay away from super corporate (no pencil skirts) or super clubb-y (no body suits), and stay away from a smokey eye.
- Looking like you just woke up (#notflawless)
- Rips, wrinkles, and stains (Take stuff to your nearest wash and fold if you really can’t get it together yourself)
- Dressing too conservative or too chill for a company vibe you haven’t researched.
- Sweats and hoodies (no matter how much we love athleisure)
- Anything with NSFW insinuations (like drugs, sex, or offensive symbols)
- Hats (of any kind)
- Shorts (of any kind)
- A baggy suit your mom bought you that's never been worn (we can tell)
- Bodycon dresses, cleavage, and tight, short mini skirts, too much chest hair, or pants that leave little to the imagination (we love that you love your body! Just might be smart to save your hottest outfit for a night out)
- Sandals, open-toed shoes, running shoes, hiking boots, studded stilettos
- Crazy patterns or neon colors that could be distracting
- Dirty backpacks with papers flying out of them when you search for your resume (If you can’t even organize your bag, can you organize your life?)
- Bad breath, food in your teeth, body odor, really chapped lips, last night’s makeup, and chipped nail polish (because apparently personal hygiene doesn’t go without saying…)
We know startup job seekers have style and substance! Your fashion choices should never be the barrier to getting your dream job. We think you and your resume are equally impressive, so make sure you keep these tips in mind when you’re prepping for your next job fair or your next startup interview.
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