Students Balance Professionalism and Individuality

By Olivia Libowitz
Elm Staff Writer

According to a 2016 Harris Poll, three in 10 Americans have tattoos. According to the facts of life, 10 in 10 Americans would like to be employed. There have been increasing reports that things like tattoos will greatly damage your chances of being seen as professional or reliable. Most of these reports come from older generations, but I’ll return to that.

I’d like to broaden this issue and look at it from a graduating college student’s perspective. This topic isn’t just about whether or not one should have visible tattoos at job interviews. Let’s ask this, instead: how much of yourself should you be willing to mask for an educational or professional endeavor? I know there’s a lot of encouragement to be the most professional you that you can be, and to an extent I fully support this, but I feel there are limits, or exceptions. I’d like to redefine that concept.

I had a graduate school interview last week. When asked for advice, somebody suggested I wear a pantsuit. Very good, save for the fact that I do not own, nor have I ever owned, a pantsuit. I thought about borrowing one—I know the Center for Career Development offers interview attire—but I stopped short and asked myself this: why haven’t I already gotten a pantsuit? The answer was, I am not a pantsuit kind of gal. For me to walk into my grad school interview dressed like that would be a misrepresentation of myself.

To give context, I’m applying for an MFA at an arts school. This is slightly different from if I were applying to work at a law firm, or a large company. I didn’t want to dress sloppily, but I didn’t want to advertise a future student who wasn’t authentically myself. I settled for a golden shirt and a red blazer.

What I’m saying is that I think somewhere in the attempt to educate younger people on how to appropriately present themselves, we’re starting to lose the individuality that we can bring to educational or professional settings. Of course we should all dress appropriately and respectfully when applying or interviewing for jobs, but covering up our actual identities to do so erases the unique skills and traits we will each bring to those jobs or those school programs.

Now let’s go back to tattoos. stated that 76 percent of people surveyed said tattoos damaged an applicant’s chance of being hired. The hosts admitted that the majority of the 2,000-some who were surveyed were in the Baby Boomer generation. There is a cultural shift, starting in places like Starbucks and small dining establishments, or computer-based industries, where tattoos, piercings, and other physical alterations are no longer being held against applicants. I’m all for that. I have six tattoos, all of which can be covered, but any of which I would be proud to show, even to a potential employer or head of a department.

I think it’s important to find the line between professionalism and harmful conformity. When we’re applying for a job or a graduate program, we’re effectively selling ourselves. It does nobody any good to falsely present yourself. If you’re a colorful, bright, eccentric person, that’s something to be proud of. That’s an energy, a quality, you will bring to the table. Maybe you’re tight-laced and amazingly professional—that’s you. Bring that to your interview. The companies or jobs or schools you want? You want them to want you.

As we go out into the world, we have to learn to be professional, presentable, real adults. We must never lose the things that make us individuals in the process.

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