Dressing the part

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“You can have anything you want if you dress for it.” These words of a Hollywood costume designer are just as true on stage as they are in the business world. Although it might seem a little superficial, how you present yourself is actually very important. When it comes to making a first impression, how you are dressed expresses not only who you are but also the type of job you are seeking. This is probably why the vast majority of the International Health Management cohort showed up in formal attire on the first day of class (but then proceeded to dress more informally with time).

Science backs up the claim behind the significance of first impressions. According to Vivian Zayas, a Cornell University psychologist, “Despite the well-known idiom to ‘not judge a book by its cover,’ the present research shows that such judgments about the cover are good proxies for judgments about the book — even after reading it.” In one study, Zayas had participants look at a photograph of a stranger and make a snap judgment (a judgment formed with little, if any, deliberation) about how they would feel if they interacted in real life. About a month later, participants and strangers interacted and predictions were highly accurate. Interestingly, even after more information was obtained about the stranger, initial “liking” assessments remained unchanged. Thankfully, Imperial College Business School offers free LinkedIn photography sessions so you can be sure to make a good “first impression.”

Psychological biases, such as confirmation bias, support Zayas’ findings. For example, if we decide a stranger thinks and behaves in a certain way, then we unknowingly seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs. In other words, we pay more attention to information that tells us we are right, and we ignore or assign little weight to anything that could conflict with our beliefs. Unfortunately, interviewers are not immune to this…

Okay so first impressions matter, but does how you dress affect your own thought processes or performance? You might be surprised to realise that there is an effect. “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” states Abraham Rutchick, a psychology professor at California State University. This is probably why Career Services encouraged me to dress professionally for phone interviews (and stand up for even more of a confidence boost) as opposed to staying in my pyjamas, even though the interviewer was unable to see me.

However, even when dressing formally, it is important to be comfortable. If you are dressed uncomfortably, then this will show in your interactions. I know this from personal experience—I used to wear a nice suit top and skirt to job interviews but never really felt like myself in it…I think the 80s-like shoulder pads could be part of the blame. For my last job interview, I decided to wear a professional dress instead (since this is more my style) and as a result, felt very comfortable throughout all of the interviews. I think the fact that I was relaxed and not second guessing my outfit conveyed confidence and helped me be successful throughout the process.

Of course, in an ideal world, some would hope that judgment is based on ideas and intelligence and not on physical appearances. However, humans are filled with psychological biases and as these aforementioned studies suggest, these biases play a role in decision-making. In a roundabout way, however, dressing well helps the interviewer remember your personality and performance instead of that awful tie or orange dress that you wore…in other words, dress so that the interviewer focuses on YOU and not your ensemble. 

Trust me, I know how hard it is to refrain from wearing your favourite brightly coloured dress or take out that beloved nose stud. At the end of the day, however, having a job offer is more important than giving into my rebellious teenage self who wanted to get her nose pierced. For more business style tips, you can read more here.

Carissa is studying our MSc International Health Management programme.

Nicole Ong

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Carissa Gilbert

About Carissa Gilbert

MSc International Health Management student
MSc International Health Management student