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Look the Part - Appearance is everything in pilot interviews

by Debbie Clement, August 2006

Editor's note: Pilot recruiters consistenly tell us that one common mistake applicants make is failing to put due care into their appearance for the interview. We thought it might be time to pull this story from our archives to remind our readers of this critical concept. Don't fail the interview based on something as simple as this!

If one word can best describe "the look" for professional pilots, it would have to be "conservative." Pilot's conservative dress and hairstyle convey someone who is not a trouble-maker, not anti-establishment or anti-rules oriented, and not subjct to wild outbursts. Just like the Boy Scouts, pilots need to be prepared with a solid, conservative costume at hand...before that critical interview call comes.

For the Guys

If you're a male pilot seeking interviews, you need to have at least two good, modern, single-breasted suits available in order to cover those two-day interview sessions, or in case one is damaged or sioled in transit. Blazers or sports coats are not acceptable interview attire. Dark blue and dark gray solids are the colors proven to be the most authoritative, business-like, and successful. Black is too formal, while patterns, checks, or stripes beyond a tasteful pin stripe should be avoided.

A well-fitting, natural fiber suit is essential for making that all-important good first impression, so under no circumstances should you try to get away with buying a bargain suit, or borrowing one from your brother or friend. It may seem odd, but just as a bank want to lend money only to people who don't really need it, employers want to hire people who look as though they don't need the job.

The right look is an investment that will pay off in the end, and budgeting your money may be neccessary to achieve it. For military pilots accustomed to wearing uniforms, buying new clothes for the civilian job search may come as a culture and price shock; nonetheless, it remains a neccessity.

Buying a suit based solely on price is a big mistake. Realistically, a decent interview suit will cost $200 to $500 on sale from one of the better department sales. However, while it's important not to buy a cheap suit, don't go overboard either - even if you can afford it. Ultimately, the interveiwer wants to remember you for your flight knowledge and tidy appearance. Not your wardrobe.

When shopping for a suit, take time in making a selection, and spend the time and money to have the suit altered to fit correctly. Once you get the job, these preliminary investments will be worth many times more than what they cost initially.

It's best to weat a good quality, permanent-press, long-sleeved, white shirt. Never wear a short-sleeved shirt for business purposes. The shirt's neck should be close fitting, but not tight, and it's always smart to have an emergency shirt pressed and put aside. That way, when you rush just a little too much on the morning of your interview and spill a drop of coffee on your shirt, you won't have to panic.

Your tie should be as spotless and conservative as the rest of you. This is not the time for that Tazmanian Devil tie you received for Christmas last year. Wearing something silk with a small print to pick up the color of one of the threads in your suit will work best. And resist the urge to run a finger around your collar while wearing a tie in your interview. That's a sure sighn you're uncomfortable, not used to wearing a tie, and possibly nervous. You want to look as though you were born wearing that tie.

If you are in doubt about how to properly tie a tie, don't be embarassed to ask a sales person about the correct way to wear it. Learn to tie it so that the tip of the tie rests just to the top of your belt. If you're tall, you may even have to buy special long ties from a Big & Tall store in order to get the right look. Ties that are too short or knotted in a crooked manner speak for you, and what they say is, "unsophisticated".

Shoes are often overlooked, but represent a critical part of a person's total image. Scuffed, unpolished shoes with worn-down heels are just not the right finishing touch for a pilot's new business attire. It's well worth it to invest in some conservative black shoes. Lace-ups or slip-ons are fine, but tassels or buckles are not. Wear new shoes before an interview not only to make sure they are broken in a little, but so that the soles are no longer slick. You don't want to shout "new shoes" when you cross your legs and the interviewer sees the shiny soles. Each time you put shoes on, wipe them with a damp cloth to remove the dust. Polish them after a couple wearings, or make it a habit to get a shoe shine from a professional whenever you're at the airport. Those of you with a military background know how to shine shoes. Don't give up that habit.

While your belt and shoes should match, the color of your socks should match your suit. Wear over-the-calf socks and buy new ones if what you currently have shows any signs of wear. It's important to have socks that stay up and are long enough so that skin doesn't show if a pant leg sides up while sitting cross-legged in a chair.

You should wear your new outfit a time or two before an interview so you learn to be comfortable in it. If you come into the interview pulling and tugging at your suit or tie, your first impression will be that of a reluctant little boy dressed up for sunday school. Wearing you suit a time or two also prevents you from making the mistake others have made of wearing a price tag to the interview. (Yes, it really has happened, and it conveys a lack of awareness and sense of detail.) When you get to the interview, do not take off you suit jacket unless you also want to shed some of your authority.

What your hair says about it is just as important as what your clothes say. You don't want one to contradict the other. For airline interviews you want a short haircut, free from mousse, gel, or anything else that makes it look greasy or stiff. Don't wait until the day of your interview to get a haircut, and don't go to a new stylist or barber. Haircuts look best after a few days because you and your hair need time to adjust to the cut.

Facial hair, even five o'clock shadows or hair on the neck usually receives a negative reaction from interviewers. It may be hard to accept, but mustaches and beards should be shaved off. Preferably a week or two before interviewing in order to allow skin tones time to adjust. Take the time to get a close shave, but shave your cologne for Saturday night, not your interview morning. It's much better to simply smell clean, than to risk offending the interviewing by wearing a scent they don't like, or worse that may cause an allergic reaction. While on the subject of hair, double-check for unsightly nose and ear hairs or out-of-control eyebrows.

Regarding accessories, carry your logbooks and paperwork in a good-quality briefcase that looks like you use it, but that isn't beaten up. Remove all baggage claim tags or stickers from the case. A classy click-style pen also helps to convey the professional business image you need. They're fairly inexpensive, so there's no need to use one with the realtor's or the dentist's advertising on it.

Do not wear any jewelry beyond a wedding band or a class ring and a watch. Clean out your wallet. Pack it with only the essentials because you want a nice, unbroken line in your suit. If you do it right no one should be able to tell you have a wallet. Do not wear eyeglassed with transitional lenses that turn darker as light get brighter. It's important for the interviewer to see your eyes if he or she is going to trust you.

For the Ladies

For female pilots, many of the above rules apply, with minor modifications. A skirted suit and blouse is the best outfit to wear to establish a look of authority, although a pantsuit is acceptable if a simulator check ride is part of the interview process. Either way, the best suit is one with a man-tailored blazer to cover the contours of the bust. To reduce costs, a three-piece suit including both a skirt and pants may be considered.

Skirts should hang just below the knee, regardless of fashion. Wool or a combination of natural and synthetic fibers that combat wrinkling are the best fabrics. The most authoritative colors for women and navy, gray, camel and black. All pastel colors and most prints should be avoided for business attire. The best blouse for interviewing is man-tailored in white, beige or pale yellow. If you need to wear a coat, make it a simple beige or black rain coat.

Women who carry an attache case instead of a purse increase their business-like image. Simple, low-heeled pumps and natural-color panyhose are preferable, and it's always a good idea to have a spare pair of hose with you. Heels should be no higher than about 1.5 inches, but do not wear flat shoes either, regardless of how tall you are.

A medium-length, simple hairstyle tends to be the most effective and women with long hair should wear it neatly pulled back from their face and off the shoulder. Makeup is essential for women in business because it provides a more polished look, but, like clothing, it must be kept tasteful and up to date. Just a light lipstick and mascara is all that's usually needed. Just make sure to keep all colors soft and coordinated with your skin tone.

Confidence Builder

Your clothes are like a signpost to the world, stating what kind of person you are. If they send a poor message, it can be very difficult to overcome, no matter how knowledgeable and competent you are. But wearing the right clothes does even more than just send a message to people around you. When you're dressed right, you know it and feel it, and that helps give you confidence to state your case with authority and conviction, while commanding respect from people around you - which is exactly what the airlines want their captains to do.

Body Language

Your clothing and grooming provide many visual queues to interviewers about the type of person you are, but subtle body language also conveys your attitude, demeanor, and professionalism. Keep these tips in mind to always put your best foot forward.

  • Make eye contact. Eye contact, not staring, demonstrates interest, confidence and honesty.
  • Put on a happy face. Smiling conveys self-confidence and an accepting attitude towards others.
  • Practice good posture. Take the time before going into your interview to take a few deep breaths and slowly roll your shoulders back a few times. It will help you relax, stand up straight, and feel more confident.
  • Think about the way you hold your head. A level head projects confidence, while constantly tilting your head to one side may suggest that you are submissive or nervous. A bowed head suggests insecurity or shyness, while excessive nodding may indicate you are overanxious or not really listening.
  • Shake hands with authority but not intimidation. If you're concerned about clammy hands, keep a tissue in your pocket and gently squeeze it before you shake hands.
  • Always stand, make eye contact and smile when meeting and greeting someone, even if it's not part of the formal interview process.
  • Be relaxed, but not too casual while sitting. Lower yourself into a chair, don't collapse into it. Avoid sitting in a perfectly symetrical-control position. Control any tendancies for wild hand gestures during the interview and avoid nervous fidgiting.

This article originally appeared in Airline Pilot Careers, November 1998