Ask CF: How Can I Bridge the Fashion Gap Between College & Grad School?

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Professional style

Welcome to the latest edition of Ask CF! Every two weeks, we select a reader fashion question and answer it here on the site. Do you have a specific fashion question for us? Scroll to the bottom of this post to learn how to send it our way!

I recently started grad school, and I feel like I’m in between fashion eras of my life. I don’t feel young enough to be wearing sweats and yoga pants every day or shopping at Forever 21, but I’m still a student and not making enough money to wear suits and shop at high end stores yet.

Do you have any suggestions on how to style outfits to feel older and more professional, while maintaining my budget and my remaining youth?

Our Response

This transition might feel a little awkward, but personally, I think it’s great: It’s a time in your life where you’re discovering and defining your personal style. The key to working towards a more mature, professional look is to pick out a few pieces that embody the style you want to project, and then use those as a base for the rest of your outfits.

Lucky for us struggling college students, many inexpensive stores have built up their professional wardrobe stock. Stores like Target, Zara, and H&M have cute blazers, blouses, and skirts that are sophisticated and can even be work-appropriate. And even though Forever 21 has a bit of a reputation, they actually have a good selection of both basic items and dressier items that when paired well with other pieces, can look quite polished.

When it comes to retaining your youth, it’s easy to do so long as you consider your personal style. For example, if you’re a blazer girl, find one in a fun color or pattern that’ll keep you modern and fun. Or, if you like to accessorize, pick pieces that really speak to you and make them the focus of your outfit. Another way to keep yourself looking young, yet professional, is to opt for streamlined silhouettes with long, modern lines.

It’s crucial, however, to remember the idea that less is more. The easiest way to look polished and mature is to not try and achieve too many things at once. Choose your trends wisely and only wear one or two at a time.

Hopefully, this advice will you help you with some of your outfit selections! Below, I’ve created three college-to-grad-school outfits as inspiration.

Outfit #1: Polished but Youthful

Grad school outfit: Colored denim, polished tank, cream-colored blazer, flats, handbag

Product Information: Blazer, Blouse, Pants, Bag, Shoes, Necklace

As illustrated in the outfit above, the right blazer can do wonders to an outfit. Here at CF, we’re obsessed with blazers: The right one makes you look immediately polished and can be worn to both casual and professional events. The crisp white blazer above, when paired with colored denim and a polished tank, creates a chic outfit that would be great for a variety of events.

Outfit #2: Polished for the Workplace

Grad school outfit for the workplace: Grey trousers, pink blouse, taupe cardigan, teal flats, cream handbag, statement necklace

Product Information: Trousers, Blouse, Necklace, Shoes, Purse, Cardigan

This example is aimed more towards the workplace. Pants that hit at your ankle are cute and contemporary – the perfect bridge between young/modern and professional. When dressing for work, it’s most important to stick to your dress code, but to keep your look stylish, be sure to have fun with accessories as much as is allowed.

An easy way to make more outfits out of your clothes is to have a neutral base and then add inexpensive but stylish extras – like a statement necklace and pretty flats, above – to make totally new looks each time!

Outfit #3: Weekend Casual

Grad school outfit: Weekend casual with boyfriend jeans, slouchy tee, sunglasses, polished tote, peep-toe flats

Product Information: Pants, Striped Top, Sunglasses, Tote, Shoes, Headscarf

One of the easiest ways to look more polished and sophisticated is to keep it simple. Classics like striped t-shirts and light wash jeans are summer staples and keep you looking fresh and put-together all day long. Against the background of the simple tote, headband, and sunglasses, these sandals (even though they’re a neutral color) still pop because of their embellishments.

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What do you think?

How do you keep yourself professional, yet youthful? Where do you like to shop for more mature outfits on a college budget? Do you like the outfits I picked out? Which one is your favorite? Please let me know by leaving a comment below! 

11 thoughts on “Ask CF: How Can I Bridge the Fashion Gap Between College & Grad School?”

  1. love it! i wosh though the outfits would look more flexsible for theore hands on jobs. like me my job its as a school teacher and i would never take such nice clothing around pre schooler, but still bery helpful and i love the nice pastel colors.

  2. I go to church every Sunday and i notice the other girls and how they dress. The majority of them are pretty fashionable but I seem too conservative compare to them. I was wondering how can I maintain my comfortable style while looking a bit more polished?

  3. I love that you’re addressing us mid 20 year olds. I like to look at classy style icons like Audrey Hepburn. I also love shopping at express and browing the lookbook. Their clothes are ageless and very versatile.

  4. AnnaMarie, these outfits are beautiful! Loved them, especially the first two!!! In the second outfit, the pop of color with the shoes and the necklace matching was exciting, but would still allow someone to look professional.

  5. I also love the first two outfits!

    And Alana– as for the backpack thing, I just finished my first year of grad school, and practically everyone still has backpacks (both the LL Bean type and the more fashionable type from Target and such), so don’t worry. Granted, I go to a large state school and I don’t know the vibe of where you’re going, but you should be fine. For days I’m just working and don’t have to go to class, I will use a large more professional tote, but that’s just me.

  6. IN LOVE with the third outfit, it’s so fresh and cute, and I think is appropriate for people who are younger and for those in their early-mid twenties.

  7. As a semi-professional working grad student, these outfits are seriously adorable and ones that I would wear to class or work. My other recommendations (pulled from my own wardrobe favorites) would be fit and flare dresses (with short or three quarter sleeves and a skirt that falls near the knee) since somehow a dress always looks professional in the graduate classroom setting and swapping jeans for skinny or slim cut pants. I have a pair of black cigarette pants that I’ve worn to class with blazers or with sweaters and oxford and they make any outfit look instantly dressier than jeans.

  8. This article came at a very apt time for me as I make this transition! As a grad student, you’re still gonna be going to the campus, so there is less pressure to look polished (vs going to work), but at the same time, I do not want to graduate at 28 still stuck with little workplace fashion sense. I do want to dress smartly, comfortably and functionally during this period of my life.

    I love all 3 outfits. Hopefully I will be able to dress smartly too, but well…when it gets busy and it is sooo easy to slip who knows. But still, fingers crossed!

    (In fact, now I’m at a dilemma whether to bring a backpack to school. It is definitely less fashionable and looks less sophisticated, but hey it feels so much better for my back you know…..)


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