Elbows plowing through crowds of black, cashmere rubbing with silk, smiles screwed on tight. Quick feet navigating in a minefield of high heels, each well–coiffed Quaker hoping to be the first to deliver a resume, the first to secure an interview.Forsaking the sweatpants Penn students never wear anyway, juniors– and seniors–turned–job–applicants stormed the Sheraton Hotel in a swarm of suits, ties and Sunday bests to play the roles of future I–bankers and analysts at the Penn Links Career Fair on September 11. The two–day annual event drew employers in marketing, finance, consulting and beyond to Penn, marking the beginning of on–campus recruiting, not–so–lovingly known as OCR. In general, outfit was uniform: girls in knee–length skirts and conservative blouses, guys in stiff jackets and ties. Two girls clad in jeans navigated the pre–professional masses as an inseparable duo, standing out for their lack of conformity. All those falling on the less formal end of the business casual spectrum proved conspicuous. For many of the students in attendance, the conference presents a turning point: teetering somewhere between impressionable college student and regulation adult, seniors start making plans. Recruitment meetings like the Career Fair and subsequent interviews allow soon–to–be alumni to try on future careers much like a high stakes game of dress up, but this time the heels fit and were buried in your closet—not mom’s.
After two decades of formal education and preparation, members of the class of 2014 prepare to suit up, packing away the knight’s sword, plastic policeman’s badge, princess’s tiara and astronaut’s helmet for good. The conversation stops revolving around majors and extracurriculars; it’s about what comes next. G, a College senior, sits at her kitchen table in a crisp navy shift dress and simple silver necklace, heels off, just back from an informal coffee meeting with a recruiter. She explains that she didn’t originally intend to go through OCR since it’s not necessary when entering the healthcare field, but signed up so she could interview for management and consulting positions. “All anyone talks about is OCR, and ‘what are you doing next year?’” says G. One of the most stressful parts of the process, she says, is that it dominates not only all of her time but also her day–to–day interactions. There appears to be a need to tailor a clean image fit for employment, from purging Solo–cupped photos from Facebook to opting to remain anonymous in an article about dressing for the recruiting process. “[Employers are] googling us now and you never really know what they might think.” Her two roommates, dressed in similar variations of business casual, nod in agreement.
In the fall of 2011, more than 400 employers flooded Penn’s campus to hold over 350 information sessions and conduct close to 13,000 interviews. With such stiff competition, the need to stand out—and stand tall—becomes all the more pressing and the art of presentation becomes all the more important. While clothes may not make the man, they can certainly make him look more employable. Wharton professor Adrian Tschoegl noted in an email that “There is a tendency [in recruitment] to prefer PLU (People Like Us), and one marker is dress. Firms say they want diversity, but they say that ‘fit’ is critical.” Tschoegl, who teaches management with a focus on international business, added that many employers send recent Penn graduates as recruiters who lack the same level of experience as older employees and fall back on superficial indicators because they may struggle to confidently judge talent.
Because employers receive an abundance of applications—some applicants hand out upwards of fifty resumes—job offers don’t hinge on something as trivial as the color of a tie or cardigan. At the same time, employers are forced to make snap decisions and weed out potential employees based on any number of factors that could be a potential detriment to the company. Just as important as the outfit itself, for example, is the way an applicant presents himself or herself in it. Mehreen Mudh, an analyst at Boston–based equity firm Audax Group, cautioned in an email: “Don’t be the interviewee who is soaking wet because he didn’t check the weather when there was a 100% chance of rain.” In fact, many employers noted that the details were just as important as the overall ensemble. James Peng, another associate at Audax Group, added that a second mistake is “wearing clothes that looked like they haven’t been washed or ironed in months.”
Some seniors have been preparing for OCR from the beginning of their Penn careers. One senior, A, who estimates she owns eight or nine suits—outnumbering the collections of most of her male friends— describes the gradual process: “I’ve been accumulating my work wardrobe over the years… [Wharton students] have so many events where business casual is the norm.” Others, not so much. College senior G said in an interview, “Never before have I had to wear business attire at school because I’m in the College, and that’s not what you do.” The pair both noted the staunch differences in the pre–professional atmosphere between the College and Wharton. While most Wharton students own at least a suit or two, many students in the College are buying theirs for the first time. Though not necessarily at a competitive disadvantage, there is an element of catch up. With the average suit ringing in between $600 and $900, a first–time buyer making roughly $10 per hour at a work–study job would have to clock over 60 hours to offset the cost.
For men, the central debate when deciding what to wear boils down to one crtical question: tie or no tie? Or, at a slightly higher level of discernment, red or blue? “The only real thought that went into my attire was making sure not to wear the same clothes for the second round as the first round,” senior J recalls of his experience going through OCR when applying for internships last year. “I had three outfits in my rotation—a black suit, a blue suit, and khakis with a blue blazer. All hand–me–down, but fit pretty nicely I must say.”
Women, on the other hand, must balance a more sensitive set of variables. Senior Associate Director of Career Services for Wharton Students Barbara Hewitt cites the two most common fashion faux pas among female students going through OCR as “too short, too tight.” By looking sexy, women risk looking unprofessional. As A put it: “Nothing is more annoying as a girl than business casual.” Wearing a suit, she explained, is simple; the pieces are easily assembled and always polished. Business casual, however, poses a series of decisions that straddle the line between overdone and underdressed.
Additionally, many of the female students interviewed complained that it was difficult to find suits that looked professional while maintaining femininity—especially at an affordable price. Theory, Donna Karan, Stella McCartney and other high–end designers artfully maintain a balance between femininity and professionalism, but cheaper brands often struggle to do the same.
Curvier girls, in particular, found difficulty dressing in a manner future employers would deem appropriate. Scoop neck sweaters that would look modest on girls with petite figures could be distracting. Further, a study conducted in 2010 by economists at Ben–Gurion University of the Negev in Israel examining the relationship between attractiveness and securing an interview showed that attractive men were more likely to be called for an interview, but good–looking women were actually at a competitive disadvantage. Paradoxically, there’s a certain element of dressing down for women that comes with dressing up for OCR: Makeup is minimal, hair is simple and clothes are modest. To address this concern, Wharton Women hosts an annual philanthropy event, held this year on September 25, to “dress for your dream job, while maintaining your style,” says the organization’s president, Allegra Margolis.
According to G, “[Penn tends to] judge your intelligence and your skills on what job you have and when you get it.” But suit culture doesn’t fit everyone. PennApps, a biannual hackathon that took place from September 6–8 and attracted over 60 sponsors, rewards its top competitors not only in cash prizes but also opportunities to network and interview with top tech companies—all while wearing jeans and a hoodie. At PennApps, the uniform is more relaxed than the stiff suits of Huntsman classrooms overrun with OCR madness. For students looking to make a career in startups and tech, the competition. “There’s this expectation that if you’re a senior, you’re doing OCR because why wouldn’t you, but in reality it’s not applicable to most people,” says G. In reality, only 10% of students end up accepting a job through OCR.
If a majority of students won’t sign offers at the end, why are so many of them running around in suits and heels, going through the motions of OCR? When thrown in an academic and social pressure cooker with 10,000 other students, it’s hard not to feel like everybody is always doing something all the time. We never need time off, every night is a late night and we are always way busier than you are. Dressing up at Penn is a means of presentation and identity.
The adage goes: dress for the job you want and not the job you have. Fifteen years ago that might have been a ballerina who moonlighted as a firefighter, decked to the nines in a fluffy pink tutu and a siren–red fireman’s hat. Today, you might opt for a Brooks Brothers three–piece. Or maybe you go for jeans and a t–shirt. Perhaps, if you’re lucky, the tutu and firefighter cap are still hanging in the closet. The important part is finding what fits—or more importantly, what doesn’t—and trying it all on until you know for sure.
So suit up. Or don’t. As much as the jobs we will choose in the future will grow to define us and the way we present ourselves, the jobs we have now, as students, are truly what lay the groundwork for what lies ahead.
Marley Coyne is a sophomore from Tulsa, OK, studying English and History. She is a Food & Drink editor for 34th Street Magazine.