First impressions, first impressions, first impressions. Resume? First impression. Interview? First impression. How many first impressions can there be? I think we make “first” impressions throughout our careers. If you were a cleared professional in the military, every time you arrived to a new station you were making first impressions on your leadership, on your peers, and on those you’d lead. In the private sector, I don’t think there’s much difference. Cleared professionals have to make good first impressions again and again. Like it or not, your future employer is consciously or unconsciously, though probably more consciously, evaluating your fit for the organization when she or he first sees you. How do you look?


I personally agree completely with the notion that the individual, the human being, is far, far more important than the faded jeans, or the dreads, or the tattoos. Indeed, the individual, the human being, is far, far more important than the sweet suit, the high-end shoes, the silk tie. Clothes are revealing, to be sure, but there’s so much more that’s so much more important that it seems a little petty and materialistic to put so much emphasis on clothes. In all seriousness, in my view, those are some admirable principles. And you’re not compromising those principles if you dress for success yourself, to the extent that you’re able. And if you really want, really need that cleared spot, the clothes you wear on those first encounters with company people are important, an investment. And if you don’t happen to get that first, or second, or third job, the right clothes will work for interview four, five, six, and seven, so it’s no waste of funds.

THE ladies

Michigan State University recommends for women a conservative, pretty-well understated approach. The MSU Career Services Network Dressing for Interviews descriptions sound like this: “Generally, you should wear a suit with a skirt or pants.  When in doubt, be more conservative. . . . suits should be simple and dark . . . . Wear a conservative blouse . . . . Make-up and nail polish should be understated and flattering [my emphasis] . . . . Shoes should be conservative . . .” and so on. And there’s more beyond the physical. MSU advises a shower the morning of, deodorant but no perfume (“you don’t want to smell overpowering or cause and allergic reaction” . . . I’m imagining what that would look like), and be aware of your breath: “Brush your teeth before you leave for the interview, and don’t eat or smoke before the interview.” You get the picture. When it comes to clothes and hygiene, you want to be memorable for not being memorable.


For the guys, the advice is about the same: conservative. Wear a suit. No, not a seersucker suit (I own several, and they always, always get comments—some positive, some sarcastic, but that’s not what you’re looking for in an interview). And a suit proper is much more than khakis, light blue oxford, blue blazer, and saddle oxfords. MSU is clear: “Suit means the works: a matching jacket and pants, dress shirt, tie, coordinating socks and dress shoes. A dark-colored suit with light colored shirt is your best option.” Lately, there’s a fad called “power socks,” which means loud-colored socks that clash with whatever else you’re wearing. Uhhhhhh, no. And, then, beyond the clothes, the advice is about the same as it is for the ladies: shower, brush your teeth, deodorant but no cologne, no smoking or eating right before your interview.


When I left the military, I did not own a suit, except the seersucker, and that was for trips with my wife back down to Greenville, Mississippi, where seersucker’s properly admired in 100 degree heat and 100 percent humidity. When it was time to “go pro,” I spent a long time at Jos A Bank. (There are many other similar franchises where sales people are informed, courteous, and the threads not too expensive.) The folks there were well-versed on conservative, pushed the right suits, and understood the difference between enduring style (pleats and cuffs) and more transient style. Enduring style seems to always work best, at least until you’re in. Then you can break out the white bucks and seersucker when spring’s in the air.

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Ed Ledford enjoys the most challenging, complex, and high stakes communications requirements. His portfolio includes everything from policy and strategy to poetry. A native of Asheville, N.C., and retired Army Aviator, Ed’s currently writing speeches in D.C. and working other writing projects from his office in Rockville, MD. He loves baseball and enjoys hiking, camping, and exploring anything. Follow Ed on Twitter @ECLedford.