5 Easy Ways for the College Student to Upgrade His Style

by Antonio on September 22, 2011 · 116 comments

in Dress & Grooming, Hair, Shaving, Shoes, Style

The image above is of Don Wardlaw, a real college student who was featured in a 1954 issue of True Magazine for Men for an article entitled, “Look What Happens When You Dress as Smart as You Are” (The Art of Manliness had some fun re-posting the pictures from the article awhile back). On the left is how Don dressed before True Magazine gave him a style intervention, and on the right is Don back on “campus outfitted like a BMOC instead of a yardbird.”

What stands out about the images is that in the “before” shot, “sloppy” Don is far more dressed up than the majority of modern college students on a good day. A lot has changed in the last 57 years.

Today, students literally attend class dressed in the pajamas they slept in, show up to presentations in athletic gear, and have to be taught how to tie a necktie.

I know–I used to be an offender myself!

Back in my undergrad days, I once wore a t-shirt so offensive that four years later at a wedding I had a female classmate I barely knew remark about it.  She was so happy I wasn’t the kind of guy she had thought I once was.  This floored me–as I had worn that shirt many times thinking it was funny–never imagining that it could pigeonhole me as a type of person or offend.

I paid $20 to sully my reputation–what sane person would does this?  

The purpose of this article is to help the college student make small changes in his wardrobe that will lead to a big return on improving his personal presentation.  Individually–they will have little effect.  Act on them collectively, and you’ll elevate your personal style.

Why a College Student Should Care About His Appearance

Before we get into the practical ways you can upgrade your style, let’s take a minute to discuss why you would even care about implementing these changes in the first place. After all, most of your peers are probably letting it all hang out (and to be fair, girls are just as bad offenders as guys are). Why not follow the crowd?

Well, at the outset it should be said that no one is recommending you dress like Don, and wear a sweater vest, tie, and fedora to class. Times and standards have changed. But there are several reasons to consider simply taking your style and wardrobe up a notch or two:

Dressing Well Contributes to Your Frame of Mind

When you dress sharp, you think sharp. If you don’t believe me, try it out yourself. When you feel put together, you feel more alert, more confident, and more ready to tackle the day’s tasks. College used to be considered a serious business, the halls where learning took place, hallowed. If you think education is important, then dress to match that belief, and you’ll find you have an easier time getting into the learning frame of mind.

Dressing Well Shows Respect for the Professor and Will Create That Respect in Return

No matter how bright he is, a professor is going to have a tough time taking seriously the student in pajama pants and slippers. Dressing a notch up from your peers will show the prof that you take his class seriously and that you respect him. This will help you stand out and make a good impression, which may help your grade (likability counts for more with teachers than most people know), and can help you down the line when you need a recommendation. When your old professor is sitting down to write that letter, what will he remember about you and how you presented yourself in class?

You Never Know Who You’re Going to Meet

College is the best and easiest time to meet the woman who will become your wife–dating and meeting people gets a lot harder after you graduate. And you never know when you’re going to run into the future Mrs. Smith on campus. When you catch a cute girl’s eye in the student union, will you feel confident walking over to chat with her?

When you dress like a man, you feel like a man.

College is a time when young men are transitioning into grown men. While the path from boy to man involves the transformation of your inner values, how you dress on the outside symbolizes and reinforces how you feel on the inside. Changing your wardrobe helps you feel like you’re really beginning a new phase of your life.

Five Easy Ways for Male Students to Upgrade Their Style

Upgrade #1: T-Shirt to Polo

Anytime you reach for a t-shirt, ask yourself if a polo would work better.  And it doesn’t have to be a name brand designer garment from Ralph Lauren–Old Navy makes fine day-to-day polo shirts that because of their closer fit and collared necks, are always dressier than a T-shirt.  In addition, the knitted fabric, when made from a natural material, is cooler than the more tightly woven t-shirt. When you wear a polo, wear the collar down as opposed to popping it up or (wearing multiple polo shirts with popped collars).

Upgrade #2: Sweatshirt to Sweater

Although you may love your university sweatshirt, wearing it beyond Saturday football games and trips to the gym is asking too much of it.  Yes, most of your classmates dress for class as if they are headed to a track meet.  But are you a lemming or a leader?

Replace the sweatshirts with sweaters.  A few styles you’ll want to pick-up are:

The Polo Style Sweater – Very similar in style to the polo shirt, this knitted sweater is usually lightweight and a piece that can be worn with only an undershirt as it comes with its own collar.

Cardigan Sweater – A button or zipped front, cardigans come in a wide variety of styles and colors.  You’ll find them made from cotton, wool, and synthetic fabrics. You’ll want to have a collared button shirt underneath.

Turtleneck Sweater – A dark colored, close-fitting turtleneck sweater is a classic that is as masculine as it is versatile.  You can wear it with a sport jacket, layer a flannel shirt on top, or wear it by itself.  Try to select a lightweight material, preferably in wool or cashmere if you can find it.

Crew Neck Sweaters, Half Zips, Aran Sweaters, Vest Sweaters.  We could go on–but we’ve already written a comprehensive man’s guide to sweaters.

Upgrade #3 – Jeans

Faded & Distressed Jeans to Dark & Clean Denim – Light colored jeans with holes are fine for the young man looking to signal his personal style– for decades this look has been carried by rock stars and the punk movement.  A man moving into the professional world, however, wants to ensure his denim is less conspicuous and dressier.  In fact, with the common acceptance of dark colored denim in many workplaces, you may find jeans to be the de-facto uniform at your place of employment.  As such, make the transition to dark jeans within a year of graduation, so that you can transition out of any pairs that will not be wearable once you begin down your career path.

Low-Rise Jeans to Mid-Rise Jeans – Men in excellent physical shape are often drawn to jeans cut low.  Whether it be the way it changes their torso proportions, or the fact that they’re in fashion according to the cute sales clerk at the counter, many men will purchase jeans cut this way.  Long-term, especially in the next 5 years, you’ll want to migrate towards the classic and universally flattering mid-rise fit.  Not only does this better proportion the torso for the man approaching or over thirty, it helps insulate you from the effects of a slowing metabolism (aka increased midsection).  Low rise jeans and even a slight gut are a bad combination.

Skinny Jeans to Straight or Relaxed Fit – Similar to the reasoning above–skinny jeans compliment a lanky build.  However, once you start adding weight and filling out, those same jeans make you look like an over-the-hill 1980’s rocker and should be switched out with a classic straight fit or if you’re heavier, a relaxed cut.

Skinny and low-rise jeans are trendy and hip, but a young man transitioning into manhood should start investing in style pieces that are masculine and classic.

For more information on jeans:

Downloadable podcast overview of jeans for men over 30
An Overview of Blue Jeans

Upgrade #4 – Footwear

Running Shoes to Casual Leather Shoes – Repeat after me: Unless you’re going to be running, refrain from wearing running shoes.  Yes, they are comfortable, but so is the right pair of casual leather shoes.  Leather shoes come in a range of prices and builds.  I advise staying away from anything that is bright, overly contrasted, or of a style that draws too much attention to itself.  Instead, opt for a classic rounded toe in a dark medium to dark brown color.  Black is an option as well.  As far as styles, lean towards classic and conservative for your first pair, and if you have the funds for a 2nd then look to buy a pair that incorporates a fashion accent (if that’s your style).  I personally prefer simple slip-ons.  They work well when traveling through airport security, can take a shine, and look great with a wide range of casual trousers.

Flip Flops to Moccasins – Flip flops belong on the beach, at the pool, or in the shower.  They are not appropriate wear for attending class or meeting your study group, especially when you could just as easily slip on a pair of mocs.  Not only are moccasins more stylish and cover your toes, they are more stable and comfortable.  Worried about sweating in the heat and wearing shoes without socks?  Learn to use foot powder.

Sneakers to Bucks/Chukkas – This is where we separate the men from the boys.  A nice pair of canvas sneakers is a good piece of footwear; they’re easy to pull off and something most men have in their closet.  But if you’re looking for a pair of shoes that are classic, yet will help you stand out from the pack, look no further than a pair of Bucks or Chukkas.  Just as comfortable as sneakers, Bucks and Chukkas straddle the line between casual and formal.  They have the design of a dress shoe, a better quality build than sneakers, yet are casual because of the material they are made from.  They can be worn with dark denim, chinos, or even worsted wool trousers (a combination that can come in handy if you have to attend an event that’s a little more formal from time to time).

For more information on shoes:

A Man’s Guide to Footwear

White athletic socks to dark colored dress socks — I grew up with white tube athletic socks, probably in part to them being inexpensive, working well for sports, and being readily available at Wal-Mart.  My migration to dark socks was prompted by a stay in Europe when I discovered white socks were hard to come by; part of this was because they were not as practical from a cleaning perspective, and most of the pairs sold were higher quality and made from a more comfortable wool fiber.  I recommend college men start migrating to dark socks as soon as possible.  It’s easier on the laundry, they are easier to match, and if you select performance wool blends, much more comfortable.  Keep your old white ones for the gym.

For more information on socks:

 The Man’s Guide to Socks

Upgrade #5 – Your Facial Appearance

Baseball Cap to Brushing Your Hair – Wearing a baseball cap when you’re playing baseball or attending a sporting event is perfectly acceptable.  Wearing a baseball cap because you’re too lazy to get your haircut is a sign of sloth.

Your hair is a key part of your facial presentation–it frames the top of the face and sends signals about your personality.  When you think of a military man, a hippie, and a mobster–certain hairstyles come to mind.  Although it would be foolish to judge a man based off this one factor–opinions are formed.  Learning what styles work for him and his professional needs is something a young man should discover over time.  What you don’t want is to try to figure all this out during interview season or right before you start working at your first job.

For more information on haircuts:

How to Talk with your Barber 
Mad Men Guide To A Manly Haircut
Tips and Hairstyles for Balding Men

Cartridge razor to safety razor – In college you could get away with not shaving for a week; once you start working full-time though, many jobs will expect you to show up every morning freshly groomed, especially if you’re going to be in a position where you meet with customers or clients.  What you may discover is that shaving daily with an inferior razor is causing a lot of irritation, redness, and razor burn.  Unless you had a father who showed you how to shave properly, most likely you are using what is available at discount stores and have never considered the superior alternatives.

Every young man should be aware that he has options when it comes to shaving–options that provide a superior shave to cartridge blades and are often more cost effective.

For more on shaving:

Save $300 – Learn to Shave Like a Man
Shave Like Your Great Grandpa – Straight Razor Guide
Buy and Restore Vintage Shaving Gear

Hand Soap to Facial Soap - You should be using facial soap for your face and general cleaning body soap for your hands and body.  Yes, I am aware that up to this point you have done just fine with using Irish Spring on everything, including your hair when you have no shampoo.  Long-term though, you’re going to want a cleanser that is gentler on your face and made specifically for it.  The fact is your hard, calloused hands and feet get dirtier than your face and can withstand the harsher ingredients–your face, on the other hand, isn’t as tough.

For more on male skin care:

Downloadable podcast on how a man should take care of his skin.

A Final Note – Budgeting

Most students do not have a lot of money.  If you need guidance as to how to shop on a tight budget, please visit these other resources and articles:

When to Spend vs. When to Save – Great piece by the Effortless Gent
Blogger Unyime Akpanudosen has built most of his wardrobe on a very limited student’s budget
5 Thrifting Tips from Art of Manliness
An Affordable Wardrobe
Dress Like A Million For Under $200

You’re spending thousands – if not hundreds of thousands–on your education.  Do yourself a favor by dressing sharp and looking like a good investment!

Video Summary


Written by Antonio Centeno
Founder – A Tailored Suit Custom Wardrobes
Grab his Free 47 Page Mens Style Ebook   

{ 116 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Moses January 4, 2013 at 1:54 am

This is a great article, but there is one thing I have to disagree with, the view that skinny jeans are for lanky people. This is not true due to the fact that if someone who is lanky were to put on skinny jeans they would appear even more lanky since the jeans would show how skinny their legs are. But if you take someone like me for example who has the “big boned” type build (no seriously i’m big boned, I have to wear big pants just because of my hip bones) skinny jeans actually make me look fitter and make my shoulders look broader therefore giving me a more buff look. But ill agree that ripped jeans shouldn’t be worn by professionalism.

102 Otto January 10, 2013 at 11:32 pm

I would just like to put it out there that some men are very hard pressed to find jeans that fit at all. I just recently, at 19, found the first pair of jeans that fit alright. The reason is I have rather large thighs from mountain biking, backpacking, skiing and climbing. So I have a 29″ waist, 34″ inseam and thighs that measure 23″ around. So the only two jeans I found that fit were at the surplus store, Carhart relaxed fit and Levi 550s. Even in those, I have limited flexibility and can barely use the pockets. I have found that BDU pants from the surplus store work much better for day to day use. However, they are basically cargo-pants and I ride my bike to school (2.5 mi) in the Colorado winter, so jeans are no good as they will get wet and cold, whereas the poly-blend BDU pants will keep me warm. This, then, leaves me with a quandary; how do I increase my class while operating within the constraints of biking in the winter and having thighs that are only 6″ smaller in circumference than my waist?

103 Matt January 25, 2013 at 7:09 pm

While I do appreciate that they put AG Protege jeans as their example photo, I will have to say, the footwear advice is subpar. Now, obviously this is purely subjective, but chukkas are ugly as sin, as well as leather slip ons. They lack style and are actually becoming the hallmark of this still early century’s frat “douche-bag.” Personally, when I see chukkas or leather slips ons, I think of someone who is honestly afraid to have real style and stick with what is safe. Also, the polo shirt idea is the most disgusting thing I have read. I was shocked when I read that. Polo shirts should stay in the private security/grocery store bagger category. Again, obviously my opinion, for reference purposes, I am a 25 year old undergrad. My style choices usually consist of AG jeans, various shirts, both button down and v-neck, and usually outerwear by John Varvatos, Diesel, or my trusty tailored peacoat that was issued to me. Footwear…usually designer leather “sneakers” or the always sturdy Frye boots. Of course, this is my college or going out attire, suiting is a completely different issue…

104 Wade February 18, 2013 at 2:03 am

This is so exceedingly bias, it truly just sickens me that we are so influenced by society that we must dress in a certain manner as means to appeal to certain groups of individuals. Free your mind, do what you want in life and don’t be influenced by such meager things, do what makes you happy regardless of having to do such absurd things as means to impress others.

105 Sam February 20, 2013 at 5:47 am

I agree that a college student should care about his appearance coz the first sight is very important no matter if you are in a formal, informal, or business occasion. How you are dressed will reflect not only your taste, but also personalities carried on yourself. It is a good post and thanks for the elaberation and I really learned a lot on how to upgrade the style.

106 Mitko July 12, 2013 at 2:32 am

What about backpacks? Invest in leather bag or fine looking messenger bag? What’s your opinion about this?

107 Jamal July 27, 2013 at 9:50 pm

What are the shoes in the jeans picture? I really like them. Casual but more refined than a sneaker

108 Michael August 4, 2013 at 10:50 pm

I’ve never cared for polo shirts, but how about a nice dress shirt.

109 Tyler September 9, 2013 at 1:37 pm

It’s been almost a year since I first read this article, and since then, I really stepped up my wardrobe. I might have went a little overboard (reading the other style articles here helped with that), but so far, I have received nothing but compliments on my dress. Dress shirts and dark jeans are standard for me now, and I don a jacket and/or hat once or twice a week.

For the record, I think polos are alright when you want to step it up just a little, and I love the simple slip-ons shown in the footwear section. They fit my style well; I could see myself wearing something like that every day.

110 Nicholas October 7, 2013 at 5:39 am

As a 35 year old adult student and having worked for some of the BIG companies in my past years, I can’t agree enough with this article. The key is to remember that the article is not for those who are already mindful of how they dress, but for those who do not pay attention or care. the truth is, how you dress does effect how you act. When you are dressed well, your mind tends to reflect that. I am all about having an open mind, but you need to set the stage as well as train the actors with a foundation that allows them to open their mind. Great Article, Great Website!

111 Patrick October 7, 2013 at 11:14 am

Great article! Especially as I’m a month in to my college years. While some of these are easy and practical for me others aren’t. I’m attending an art school and often choose to wear t-shirts and grubby pants. This is because the reality of painting and sculpting is that you’re gonna get some of whatever medium is being used on you! But for the days where I’m not in the studio I will definitely take some of this advice to heart.

112 Melissa G. October 15, 2013 at 1:44 pm

THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU!!! Thank you for your website and trying to reach this generation! We have become a nation of slobs and it seems like no one cares anymore or has respect for anything or anyone. It DOES matter what we wear. Just go to the store and you’ll find the majority of people in their sweatpants, athletic shorts/yoga pants, tee shirts, and flip flops! I always feel overdressed when I go out with my kids to the store because I usually have a dress or skirt on, and my kids have collared shirts on the majority of the time. Since when is this considered dressy attire?! :) Athletic shorts belong at the gym or at home ONLY. :) Keep up the good work trying to influence this generation. And please keep talking about suits and ties as well – Those need to be brought back in style for occasions like weddings, celebrating anniversaries, etc! :)

113 Melissa G. October 15, 2013 at 1:51 pm

Oh, and we need an “Art of Womanliness”. Women seem to have forgotten what it means to be classy, feminine, and modest. :)

114 Josh October 16, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I’m surprised there are people who are offended by this information – even in the comment section!

Dressing well has nothing to do with making people like you or to appeal to people who otherwise wouldn’t value your existence. It is a courtesy to others. Dressing well gives them something good to look at, and demonstrates that you are willing to put in the time to do it.

This is the simple reality of things. Dressing well causes people to take you more seriously and grooming yourself causes people to see that you are disciplined. It is one of those things that you avoid at your own peril, or benefit from greatly if you try.

115 Jordan Hostetler February 10, 2014 at 9:26 pm

I am with Jamal. I would really like to know what the shoes in the jeans picture are.

116 Max March 1, 2014 at 5:12 pm

This was quite helpful!
Though I was wondering if you can address the issue of what kind of outerwear goes well with a shirt as well as a backpack.

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