Thanks to startup culture, casual work environments, and Mark Zuckerberg, it’s become trickier than ever to figure out what to wear for a job interview. Techies are said to balk if you overdress, and publishing editors want you to be “fashion forward.” But here’s the secret: as long as you look polished and professional, you’re fine. In fact, that’s your motto: “polished and professional.” After interviewing many, many new college grads myself, the less distracting your outfit is, the more likely the interviewer is to focus on you and your conversation. Some experts say you should work as hard as you can to figure out the office dress code ahead of time, but I say it’s mostly a waste of time. Case in point: When I was working at a women’s health and fitness magazine, I interviewed someone who came in wearing sneakers. Sure, we wore sneakers around the office sometimes—but that’s because we had to go to workout classes and events throughout the day (hard job, right?!). She just looked unprofessional. So, consider this your interview dressing master class. As long as you stick to the rules ahead, you’ll win every time.
STEP ONE: Figure out if you’re a dress person or a pants person.
Think about what you typically wore during your summer internships—or just take a look at the “nicer” stuff in your closet. Is it one big giant pants party? Then you’re going to be uncomfortable wearing a dress. Is your closet more like one glorious rack of dresses? Then stay in that lane.
If you’re a dress person: Navy blue is the perfect color to wear during an interview—it’s professional, modern, and just a bit friendlier than black. In the summer, you absolutely can’t go wrong with a shift dress like this, which hits just above the knee. (And the best part is, if you sweat when you’re nervous, no one will be able to tell!) Veering into pattern territory is a little riskier, but if one color just isn’t enough, a watercolor print will look fresh and sophisticated. Whatever you do, stay away from polka dots.
If you’re a pants person: Here, it’s best to stick with black. A perfect work trouser will hang off your body about halfway down your butt, and will come about a quarter- to a half-inch off the ground when you’re wearing heels. Theory makes excellent options. Pair ’em with a colorful blouse that flatters your skin tone (if you have fair skin, try sky blue; if you have dark skin, try a bright yellow)—anything but white, otherwise you’ll look like you’re going to cater a cocktail event.
STEP TWO: Add your accessories.
A statement necklace is always a smart idea, but keep the jewels small—no bigger than the tip of your thumb, otherwise it’ll just become distracting. I also recommend avoiding bracelets—a classic watch is fine (or even a modern wrap watch like this), but bangles will usually make noise as they move up and down your wrist—especially if you’re Italian like me and talk with your hands a lot!
In terms of shoes, a nude or black heel is no-fail. If you’re wearing open-toed shoes, definitely invest in a pedicure. Avoid anything that’s overly sexy—four-inch pumps or a gladiator type shoe with lots of cutouts are better for evening.
STEP THREE: Pack your bag.
Don’t bring a small handbag to an interview. You’re going to want to be able fit your portfolio—or at least a notebook and pen—so a leather tote bag like this is ideal. It’s also smart to pack a little “freshening up kit,” with lip gloss, a tampon, safety pins, mints, and other things that’ll prevent last-minute disasters from messing with your confidence. Pinch Provision’s “minimergency” kits are excellent for this.
STEP FOUR: Try it all on.
Instead of just laying out your outfit the night before, try it on to make sure you can walk in your heels, your dress doesn’t bunch up with you sit down, and overall, nothing is making any weird noises (like I said before, jewelry—and new shoes—can surprise you). Make sure you feel totally confident, so that when you get into the interview room, the last thing you’re thinking about is what you’re wearing!
Photo: Sophie Delauw / Getty Images