Does it Matter to Your Teen How Kids Dress on Campus?

It seems silly, but you can probably tell a lot about the campus culture by what the students are wearing. I found myself noticing how students were dressed when my own daughters went on campus tours. Though they never mentioned making these types of observations, I wondered if, on some level, it influenced their decision as it had my own back in my day. Even though I am a college admissions consultant now, my alter-ego was Joan Rivers on Fashion Police.

When I applied to college I have a vivid recollection of walking to the Admissions Office where I noticed that all the female students we passed on campus were wearing clothes straight out of The Preppy Handbook. I felt I did not fit in and, truthfully, this was probably the main reason I chose to attend the other school to which I had been admitted, a small liberal arts school with a beautiful suburban campus within an hour of a major urban center; and lots of young women who wore jeans and t-shirts.

How do your teens feel about the way kids dress on campus?

My first college tour with my daughter took us to The College of William and Mary in historic Williamsburg, Virginia. My parents lived there so it was a good opportunity to introduce my daughter to a college campus (well, there it’s called “Grounds”) and start to get a sense of what kind of campus environment she would feel comfortable considering. The day we went, it was easily one hundred degrees and it wasn’t even noon.

We sat in air-conditioned splendor for an information session, swimming in a cool sea of pink and green clad parents and their polished proteges wearing bright cotton sweaters. As we stepped out into the oppressive heat for our tour, the sweaters stayed on and not a single bead of sweat was evident amongst these prospective applicants. Still, why judge a bunch of eager high school students trying to make a good impression?  It was summer, so not too many actual “Tribe” students were around to observe but our tour guide was wearing a crisp, white, long-sleeved Oxford shirt and khaki pants. He didn’t seem to sweat either.

These Virginians must be on to something and it didn’t seem to faze my daughter, so a year later we toured the University of Virginia. Lo and behold, a girl on our tour had purple hair and piercings!  But, as the tour ended, I overheard her admonish her father, quietly seething, “Just because YOU went to school here, doesn’t mean I want to be here! I still want to go to VCU (an arts college)!”

In the spring of my daughter’s senior year, my husband and I lay in bed one night, talking about our daughter’s choices and wondering where she would ultimately land. I had a hard time explaining to my husband how the Wahoo (UVA) tradition of “Girls in Pearls” at football games might influence our daughter’s decision to not accept admission to such a prestigious institution. “But she likes getting dressed up!” he responded. Southern fashion styles were lost on him as a man and as a New Yorker.

As a New Yorker myself, I started to recognize my own regional proclivities. While doing some undercover research on local SUNY schools, I read a thread on College Confidential  where a mid-western mother shared her concerns for her daughter fitting in with all the “rich girls with their North Face jackets, UGGS and big sunglasses.” Meanwhile, this seemed like pretty “basic” attire to me; at our local high school you would only be considered rich if you were sporting a Canada Goose jacket, different colored Hunter boots for every day of the week and Michael Korrs sunglasses (from the flagship store in the city, not the outlet).

Put a SUNY school on the list, I advised our daughter. You’ll feel at ease and save money with in-state tuition.

What about the rest of the mid-Atlantic region? At the time, Northeastern University was a really “hot” school so we visited one long weekend with friends to check it out. Everyone seemed to be in pajama pants. Maybe they were tired of dressing in business attire for their coop stints? Don’t we all like to be comfortable and change out of work clothes at the end of the day?

In any case, my daughter had never even worn sweatpants a single day to high school, so I wasn’t too surprised that she didn’t want to apply there. She ended up in the midwest and she fits right in and doesn’t mind the cold of Wisconsin. In fact, she came home after her first year with all her hats, gloves, and snow-pants. “I really only need one pair of gloves, Mom, and my coat has a hood.”

When it came time to take my second daughter on college tours, I was a more seasoned parent. I realized that she was never going to listen to her mother for tips on anything. She and her sister were confident, independent individuals.

Our first tour of a college out-of-state was cancelled due to inclement weather so I quickly arranged for us to visit a local school, so as not to waste the day we had free together. It was still snowy, but the plows had cleared the main roads and it wasn’t far to travel. Still, when she hopped in the car with canvas Converse sneakers on, I tried, unsuccessfully, to suggest she might want to change her footwear. As it turned out, every kid at SUNY Purchase was wearing Converse that day, she never let me live it down, and she ended up at a great college in California where she never has to wear snow boots a day in her life.

So, now when I work with high school students, I talk to them about finding the right college “fit.” There will be many factors that go into choosing colleges that will make the cut to be on their final list. Make sure that cutting edge fashion is one of them; and by that, I mean, they should apply to schools where they feel the overall fit is custom-tailored to them.

In the age of social media, when teens try to make themselves appear perfect for a post, they need to remain true to themselves. After all, it’s exhausting to keep up appearances and doesn’t everyone want to be accepted for who they really are?

Photo credit: DaytripperUniversity


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Carolyn Kilgus is an independent college admissions consultant in Carmel, New York. You can learn more about her services and read her blog at Cast-A-Net College Admissions Consulting or find her on Facebook @carolynkilguscollege/ Cast-A-Net College Admissions Consulting.

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