by Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA
Author of The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success
“I base most of my fashion sense on what doesn’t itch.” Gilda Radner
Let’s face it, we live in a much less formal era than those preceding. The anomaly of casual Friday has become the norm in American culture. Many people work from home, conquering the world through a computer while wearing a comfy pair of sweatpants. This new trend can lead one astray when it comes to the medical school interview. The increase in informality is compounded by the fact that many of those being interviewed may never have had the opportunity to wear a suit for a formal event.
Often times, an applicant is left with an awful feeling shortly before an interview when they realize they may not be in compliance with the “dress code.” It can be distressing when you discover there are rules to the game but no one gave you a copy. Not to worry.
This article is designed to lay out the basics of what to wear to the interview so you can devote your time to more significant issues. I hope to present a safe, minimum standard that you can feel comfortable basing your wardrobe choice on. The information should alleviate any stress associated with a small yet important part of the medical school interview, which leads us to a key concept:
When it comes to attire and the medical school interview, there is a certain minimum threshold that you need to achieve and once you reach that threshold any more focus in this area becomes a detriment.
Meaning, obtain the basic items for an appropriate outfit and then forget about it. Turn your focus towards the other, more important, components of the interview.
Here are a few more things to keep in mind as we address this topic:
- The centerpiece of any well-dressed applicant is, in fact, the applicant, not the other way around.
- The perfect outfit will never compensate for under preparation or a poor interview.
- What you wear and your overall personal presentation is necessary but not sufficient for gaining acceptance into medical school.
What You Are and What You’re Not
A clear understanding of what you are versus what you’re not is imperative to success. You are not a corporate executive or a Wall Street stock broker. You also are not a rock star. You are a graduate school applicant vying for acceptance into a profession that is highly respected and equally demanding. Appropriately dressing the part goes a long way in communicating to the admissions committee your understanding of this concept. Therefore, you do not need to dress like you make a seven figure income and know the recent share price of the hottest IPO. Further, you don’t need to distinguish yourself with pink, spiked hair and leather studded accessories. However, you do need to dress professionally and appropriately conservative.
What does all this mean? It means that you don’t have to spend a fortune on an outfit in an attempt to look like a million bucks. It does mean that you will have to spend some money and time preparing a thoughtful outfit suitable for the encounter.
Like any new area of study, vocabulary is the first step towards understanding. The area of fashion is expansive. From flannel to foulard and pin stripes to paisley, one can be left overwhelmed. The good news is that we don’t need to know all of that. We’re only interested in achieving the minimum necessary standard so we can forget about all of this stuff and focus on the important business at hand: a successful interview. Accordingly, the following is a concentrated list of key terms necessary for our discussion:
- Cuffs: the band of material at the end of the sleeve of a shirt
- Barrel cuffs: shirt cuffs that are held together by buttons sewn to the shirt
- French cuffs: shirt cuffs that are held together by detachable cuff links
- Lapel: the part of a suit coat that folds back on itself, is contiguous with the collar and overlies the chest (the material that makes the “V” of a suit coat).
- Single breasted suit (coat): a style of suit coat that has narrower lapels and a single row of buttons for bringing the two sides of the coat together. When fully buttoned, the lapels do not overlap.
- Double breasted suit (coat): a style of suit coat that has broader lapels that project wider on the coat, especially closer to the collar. This style of coat has two rows of buttons and upon being fully buttoned the coat’s lapels will overlap.
- Pumps: a style of women’s shoes that have closed backs (heel cups), sides and low-cut fronts that are closer to the toes than the top of the foot. They can have open or closed toes and varying heights of heels.
This is a long article so the remaining information will be divided into men’s and women’s clothing. Each section will cover the basic requirements from head to toe. The minimum standards will be presented, as well as additional points for those who want to take it up a notch. Feel free to skip to the appropriate section. There is a summation for both genders at the end of the piece.
I would like to especially acknowledge the female physicians and administrators, (admission committee members, residency program staff, support staff, etc.) who contributed to this section. Their input and guidance was invaluable.
Women certainly have a more challenging time when it comes to appropriate attire in formal settings. This is due in no small part to the wider degree of variability in what can appropriately be worn by women. Not to worry. Here is the essential information you need to dress the part of a successful medical school applicant.
Quite simply, the safest thing for a female applicant to wear is a suit. This can either be a pant suit or a skirt suit of an appropriate length. For women, pant suits are regarded as slightly more casual when compared to skirt suits. Nevertheless, it is completely appropriate to wear a pant suit, and many applicants choose to do so as they can be more practical.
If opting for the skirt suit, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. The conservative, appropriate length should be to the knees. A short skirt can be distracting to both you and the interviewer. Also, remember that skirts hike up a bit when you sit down so what may look borderline when standing can become inappropriate when seated.
For skirt suits, the cut of the skirt should be narrow and not flared. This provides clean, professional lines. However, the cut should not inhibit your ability to walk. Many schools finish the interview day with walking tours of the campus.
There are four completely safe colors for women’s suits. They are: navy blue, black, grey and beige. All these colors are worn and there really aren’t any prescribed norms or taboo’s when it comes to choosing between them. This is not always the case with men’s suits. You can feel confident in choosing any of these colors for your suit.
This is the other central feature of a woman’s suit. There is some variability here, which you can use to cater to your style. For starters, the blouse should be a solid color, be long sleeved and have a collar. A button up blouse is more traditional but is not a requisite. Blouses should be sufficiently opaque.
Some blouses are designed to be tucked into the pants or skirt, while others are not. If you choose a blouse that is not to be tucked in, then keep in mind that it must not be too long to peek out below your suit coat, nor should it be so short as to reveal any skin.
As a general rule, the color of your blouse should always be lighter than the color of the suit. You could choose white, cream, or light blue as appropriate options with any of the afore mentioned suits colors.
If wearing a skirt suit, it is best to avoid bare legs. This is not only more formal but can also be nice in the cold months of the interview season. The simplest choice is a pair of flesh colored hose. This will obviously differ depending on your skin tone. Fish-net style hosiery are not appropriate for the interview.
Although not mandatory, closed toed shoes are preferred over open toed shoes, as they are more professional. My recommendation is a pair of closed toe pumps that match the color of your suit or are darker. If you choose pumps with heels, don’t go any taller than 1.5 inches. As you consider what shoes to wear don’t forget to factor in comfort. Interview days can be long and some applicants are forced to travel in their suits. There’s nothing worse than trying to look and feel comfortable during an interview when your feet hurt from a day of wearing uncomfortable shoes.
Basically, less is more. It is acceptable to wear ear rings or a necklace. However, avoid flashy or chunky jewelry. Stud ear rings tend to be most appropriate. Some women feel comfortable wearing a thin chain necklace or a simple pearl (fake or real) necklace. This is fine. It is okay to wear finger nail polish if you would like. It’s preferred that the color not draw undo attention to your nails.
Wearing makeup is absolutely appropriate for an interview. It is difficult to offer specific advice in this area but keep in mind that excess is to be avoided. Makeup should accentuate the real you, not define it. It is best to choose colors and applications that compliment your skin tones and convey a professional appearance.
Bottom Line for Women
Here is an example of a basic, safe bet for your interview attire:
- Navy blue skirt or pants suit (knee length)
- White or cream colored button down blouse (solid colored)
- Flesh toned stockings
- Black, closed toe pumps with heels less than 1.5 inches
- Make up and accessories that are simple and display professionalism
- Carry an extra pair of hose in your bag. It is easy to develop a run and the peace of mind provided by the back up pair is worth any hassle carrying them.
- All undergarments (straps included) should never be visible even when moving. Interview activities many seem basic but clothing shifts during the day and this can leave you exposed.
- When in doubt, play it safe. If you’re unsure whether something is appropriate or not err on the side of conservative. You never know who will be interviewing you and it is best not to offend.
In the end, the point is not to look like a clone or an FBI agent. There is room for personal expression. However, following the above guidelines will provide you with a sufficient base to prepare your interview ensemble and avoid the risk of inappropriate attire.
The Men’s Floor
For guys the rules of engagement are much simpler and well-established. Men’s professional fashion is an area with a long standing history and prescribed norms. Sadly, despite these advantages, many male applicants still drop the ball and dress inappropriately for their interviews.
Male applicants struggle when it comes to the decision of wearing a single or double breasted suit. This need not be the case. Traditionally, a double breasted suit is regarded as being more formal and often perceived as more intimidating. Single breasted suits are simple, elegant and considered to be the staple of any business motif. Both are equally sharp and either can be worn to the interview. I prefer a single breasted suit because of its greater versatility and its lack of being thought of as more intimidating. As an applicant, my goal was never to intimidate anyone; I simply wanted to impress them. Having said that, you would not be wrong to wear a double breasted suit, especially if it’s all you have and finances are tight.
This tends an area that applicants veer into trouble. During residency interviews, I recall one of my co-applicants wearing an off-white suit with a maroon shirt and black tie. Simply put, it was inappropriate and caused this applicant to stand out for all of the wrong reasons.
For the purposes of a medical school interview and residency interviews as well, the appropriate suit colors are black, navy blue and grey. It’s that simple. As will be shown later, these basic colors in conjunction with shirt and tie combinations provide limitless options for individual expression. You don’t have to be a replica of the guy next to you even though there are only three suit colors to choose from.
Of the three, navy blue is the safest way to go. It is always appropriate and this choice can never be questioned, even by the most formal and stodgy. Also, navy blue has the greatest utility. This color of suit can be worn to most formal/professional occasions and should serve you well once the medical school interview is complete.
In times past, black suits were reserved for more formal settings, like evening events and funerals. It was not seen in the day to day corporate environment. However, black has experienced an expansion of its former limited role and is now seen in offices, and in applicant waiting rooms, across the nation. Black holds a degree of urban hipness that can be of benefit in certain settings.
The flannel grey suit was the uniform of choice for post World War II corporate America. It has been epitomized in print and on film as the drab, sadly safe bet. Thus, as time passed, it was shunned by many and made few board room appearances. This is why a grey suit, with its formal heritage yet relative rareness, is an excellent option to stand out during an interview without the slightest hint of rebellion.
Your dress shirt should be long sleeved and, preferably, a solid color. The collar should be the same color as the shirt. Some may choose a stripped pattern but be aware of the possible interactions with a patterned or stripped tie. It is acceptable to wear barrel or French cuffs depending on your style. French cuffs are perceived as a bit more formal but are totally appropriate. Of note, French cuffs tend to get dirtier quicker than barrel cuffs.
The safest choices for color are similar to those mentioned for women: white, cream or light blue. These should go with any of the suit colors mentioned earlier. It is not advisable to have a flashy or bold shirt color. Many believe that the shirt should complement the suit color and be a nice backdrop for your tie.
Some guys have gotten away from wearing a tie with their suits. I recommend against this practice and feel you should always wear a tie to the interview. There are many, many variables when it comes to ties but it’s worth commenting on a few.
Color and Pattern
It’s important to choose a color that is complimentary to your suit and shirt. Conservative colors like lighter blue, yellow or grey are a safe bets with any of the suit colors. Some choose to go bold with their tie colors, which isn’t inappropriate but should be approached with caution. If you’re worried about a bold color mishap, then consider expressing some style via different patterns. Stripes or simple patterns can be a nice way to combine different shirt and suit colors or just add a little splash to your outfit.
This may seem like a small thing but a tie at the correct length shows a level of refinement and style. There is variability here and length often depends on age and even culture. However, it’s a safe bet to have the tip of the tie at the belt line. Avoid going below the belt line or much above it.
There are many ways to tie a tie. This can also be an area to express some personal style. The most common knots are the four-in-hand, Half-Windsor and the Windsor. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the ways the above knots are tied or the many others that are available. Please reference the internet or any gentleman’s book to experiment with and practice your preferred knot. I would recommend not waiting until the night before your interview to figure out how to tie a tie. Spend a little time during a study break practicing the way you’d like to tie your tie so that when the pressure of the interview morning is upon you, you’ll be comfortable and ready to go.
This might seem like an area that doesn’t need mentioning but it is often where guys go astray. Socks should either match the color of your suit or the color of your shoes. It is inappropriate to wear white gym socks with your suit (yes, I’ve seen this done by more than one applicant). They should also be of an appropriate length, e.g. at least to the mid calf. There’s nothing quite like a male applicant that crosses his leg during the interview only to reveal glowing white gym socks or a hairy leg sticking out below his pant hem. These problems are easy to avoid by following the above suggestions.
You do not have to go the expensive route with shoes. However, the adage “you get what you pay for” tends to be clearly demonstrated when it comes to this area of your outfit. The best bet is to have a good quality pair of shoes that are darker in color than your suit. Black would be appropriate for any of the suit colors previously mentioned. When it comes to the style of your shoes, there is not an appreciable difference between slip on loafers and lace up shoes. Loafers are technically more formal, however, it’s easy for snow and slush to spill over the edge of loafers and leave you with the unpleasant feeling of wet socks. Keep this in mind if you are interviewing in regions where snow may be an issue.
Bottom Line for Men
Here is an example of a sharp, safe choice for your interview attire:
- navy blue single breasted suit
- white shirt with barrel cuffs
- blue silk tie that is a lighter shade than the suit
- black leather belt
- black, mid-calf dress socks
- black, lace up shoes
- Your belt should match the color of the shoes.
- Leave the bottom button of the suit coat unbuttoned.
- If you wear a pocket square it should compliment and be similar to the tie but never match it exactly.
- Cologne should be kept to a minimum if worn at all. An interviewer should never meet your fragrance before they meet you.
- Wear a tee-shirt under your dress shirt. This is especially true if you’re wearing a white dress shirt and you have dark body hair.
A clean rendition of the above is appropriate for any medical school interview and will serve you well. You can rest assured that you will look suitable for this important event, yet not trip the wire of anyone looking for an inappropriate stand-out.
In the End
I hope this information helps. Please keep in mind that unless the medical school stipulates a specific dress code for the interview, then there are no “rules” necessarily. There are, however, accepted norms. This topic like so much of the interview advice you receive is opinion laden. This is not absolute truth. Therefore, I recommend you take this information into consideration, critically evaluate it and make the best choice for your situation. You may be able to veer from the norms I’ve presented and still be appropriate. However, these basics will keep you on the right side of a fashion misstep and on the road to a successful interview.
If you have any questions about this or other medical school interview topics please feel free to email Dr. Fleenor at [email protected].
This information comes from extensive reading, countless conversations with program directors, admission committee members, and medical professionals, as well as personal experience (with plenty of mistakes). Below is a list of books I’ve read over the years and have used to draw a general sense of what I’ve presented in this piece:
1. Fink, Thomas, and Mao, Yong. The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: The Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.
2. Gross, Kim J., and Jeff Stone. Men’s Wardrobe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1998.
3. Gross, Kim J., and Jeff Stone. Woman’s Wardrobe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996.
4. Gross, Kim J., and Jeff Stone. What Should I Wear?: Dressing for Occasions. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999.
5. Roetzel, Bernhard. Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion. Cologne: Konemann, 1999.
Jeremiah Fleenor, MD, MBA is author of The Medical School Interview: Secrets and a System for Success.