Is There a University Dress Code? What to Wear to Class in the US

advice for students
campus life
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By Kate Sitarz
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Many international students who are used to formal dress codes may be surprised that students dress very casually at US colleges and universities. What to wear while attending college in the US will depend on whether you are in the classroom or at an interview, as well as the regional climate of your school.

Three international students at a US university sit on brick steps with open books and notebooks and discuss their study plans.

When attending school in the US, many international students think they need to wear formal or professional attire in the classroom. However, the dress code is very informal at US colleges and universities, with many students wearing jeans, t-shirts, and athleisure to class. International students may be surprised at just how casually American students dress. 

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What you wear will depend on whether you are attending class or interviewing for a job, as well as what the weather is like in the region of the US where you are studying. Here is how you can feel comfortable and dress appropriately for your US university experience.

What to Wear in the Classroom

When Linh Tran first came to the United States for her undergraduate degree from Vietnam, she was shocked to see American students wearing athletic wear and even pajamas in the classroom. Back home, Tran was used to wearing dress uniforms and other formal attire to school. 

On her first day of class, “I wore a blazer and a nice shirt with a bow tie at the neck and nice jeans,” she recalls. “I was overdressed.”

After a couple of months, Tran dressed more casually, too.

Jeans and a hooded sweatshirt are common classroom uniforms in the US, but as Tran pointed out, US classrooms are very cold, particularly for students used to warmer climates. “Bring a cardigan, hoodie, or extra jacket to class that you can take off if it is warm, but easily put back on if it is cold,” she recommends. “My friend and I froze in classrooms at first.”

For class presentations, she recommends that graduate students wear a dress or nice pants, shirt, and blazer. “A lot of my classmates came to the classroom from work, so they dressed very professionally,” remembers Tran, who earned her MBA at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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What to Wear to an Interview or Internship 

Tran recommends that students visit their on-campus career services office not only for help with preparing for interviews and internships, but also to get a sense of what to wear to internships and career fairs. They can help you determine what to wear based on the company’s culture.

Typical outfits include either a pantsuit or skirt suit with a button-down shirt or blouse for women and a suit, dress shirt, and tie for men. Skirts and dresses should hit below the knee for women, even though you may see shorter styles in the classroom. All students should avoid heavy perfumes or colognes and keep their hair tidy.

Footwear is also an important consideration, particularly for women. “You can wear heels, but make sure you are comfortable wearing them,” Tran says, adding that flats are a fine option too. 

The biggest mistake Tran sees students make is borrowing clothes from a friend or parent that do not fit. Pantsuits that are too big or small, or a blazer with broken buttons, will not only look unprofessional, they will likely feel uncomfortable.

“Try it on before the event. Present your elevator pitch in front of the mirror,” she suggests. “You want to feel confident. If you feel confident, you will present well.”

This advice applies to Zoom interviews as well. “You never know,” jokes Tran. “You may have to stand up and you do not want your recruiter to see your Christmas pajamas.” 

You do not need a briefcase, Tran notes, because they can be cumbersome when trying to talk with recruiters. “A binder to hold your resume is fine,” says Tran, plus sticky notes or another type of notepad for writing notes during conversations. 

In general, Tran emphasizes the importance of not waiting until the last minute. “This is your chance to impress recruiters,” she stresses. “Give yourself plenty of time. And do not forget to iron your shirt.”

What to Wear for Social Events

Outside of the classroom, you have a lot of options for how to dress. For example, if you are attending a football or other athletic event for your school, you will fit in wearing a hooded sweatshirt or other top with the school logo. Many students wear team colors with jeans.

For a date, you want to dress up a bit more with nice jeans and a button-down shirt for men. Women can also wear nice jeans and a blouse, or opt for a dress, which, as Tran notes, does not have to be as long as one for a classroom setting.

“As long as it is not pajamas it is fine,” emphasizes Tran.

She has noticed that some people like to dress very casual, even on a date. “In my country, we tend to spend hours getting ready, choosing the best outfit,” she explains, noting that looking at the restaurant you’re going to is an easy way to tell whether your chosen outfit will blend in or stand out.  

Dress for the Climate

Knowing how warm (or cold) the weather gets is key to dressing appropriately. 

Consider a student at Florida International University compared to a student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. The average high temperature in Florida in February is nearly 24 degrees Celsius, whereas Boston’s average high temperature in the same month is not even 4 degrees Celsius. The FIU student would primarily pack t-shirts, shorts and jeans, bathing suits, and sandals. The UMass Boston student would be wise to pack layers, warm sweaters, boots, and several coats. 

Tran, who studied in Pennsylvania for her undergraduate degree and Massachusetts for her MBA, recommends students pack puffer coats if they are in areas that get colder weather. But, as she cautioned about classrooms often being cold from air conditioning, she also notes that students may find the heat is turned up too high in the winter. “Make sure the coat is easy to take off in the classroom.”

No matter where you are attending college in the US, speak with career services to get a sense of what is appropriate for the region. There are plenty of affordable clothing store options, both in person and online, if you want to update your wardrobe once you are on campus. As Tran stresses, feeling comfortable is what is most important. 

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