will looking like a teenager harm my job search?

A reader writes:

Okay, I know looks matter, but how much does it really matter? I am a recent college graduate, but get mistaken for a high schooler all the time. Being petite and short makes it even worst. I’ve tried getting a more mature hair cut, dressing older, wearing make up, etc… but it doesn’t help much.

Have you ever interviewed someone who looked younger than their age (meaning they look like they are under 18 when they really are not)? What were your thoughts when you saw them? Do you judge a person by their looks? I want to know if hiring managers really care about how old you look (or your looks in general). I feel that sometimes people treat me like a kid and think I am incompetent. I know I am good at what I do, but just need the opportunity to show it.

What can I do to make up for this disadvantage? I know that most people will tell me that it’s a blessing in disguise, but it’s really a curse.

I think how old you look matters a lot less than how you present yourself. If you look polished and professional and carry yourself with poise, that’s going to go a long way toward countering the fact that you look young.

For instance:  Wear a really tailored suit; choose clothes and accessories that are classic rather than trendy; don’t wear your hair super long (or at least put it up); if you wear makeup, go for natural rather than edgy; and speak with confidence.

Think Anna Kendrick’s character in “Up in the Air.”

Come across as super professional and I won’t care how young you look. The reason someone might care about you looking young, after all, is that they might think you were a lightweight. Drive home the point that you’re not.

What do others think?

{ 44 comments… read them below }

  1. Anonymous*

    I know exactly how this OP feels. I’m in my mid-twenties, but my looks put me under 21 at least. Let’s put it this way – I have my ID ready for an R-rated film.

    Anyway, I had one interviewer point that out to me exactly about three years ago. I didn’t like how he mentioned it first of all; I actually thought it was illegal he’d even allude to age or how I looked young (although I was wearing a brand new suit). His tone also indicated to me how it must have been nagging him; I can’t put my finger on it to exactly describe it but it made me feel like it was going to be a deal breaker. Of course, I can’t prove it, but I wish he had kept a neutral tone as he had been doing with the other questions.

    I agree with your suggestions, AAM, although I do like to keep my hair long, but keeping it back like the character you mentioned is a good idea. I’ll cut my hair when I’m older and will look ridiculous with long hair.

    And OP, I get the same “you’ll love it when you’re 40 and look 25” comments. I’m learning to embrace that. It’s like being a kid and grown-ups saying “don’t wish your childhood away;” well here we are, and don’t we wish to be kids again.

  2. Kate*

    I totally agree with AAM’s advice. I have the same problem as the OP. All those “tricks” do help — a really good suit (and a good tailored shirt under it), tidy hair, conservative makeup, etc. all help, but ultimately your demeanor makes a big difference. I’ve interviewed people who were clearly in the 40s and who were totally unprofessional, so it can definitely work the other way.

    I’ve only had an interviewer comment on it once, and I think I contributed to her feelings because I had just been pretty awkward, fumbling with my portfolio and purse and umbrella. (Lessons learned: don’t carry a bag that your portfolio barely fits in, and ask your interviewer if they have a coat room or umbrella holder for your wet umbrella!)

  3. Anonymous*

    I also am in the same situation. Dressing sharp and professional can help. However I believe that the age you look is taken into account even if they are not consciously thinking about that factor, especially depending on the role you are applying for.

    If it is for a client facing or management role they do have to think at how your outlook will affect the client/team perception of yourself. I am not saying it will be a no no, but you would need to go that little further in demonstrating that you are knowledgeable and skilled.

  4. fposte*

    I also think people tend not to notice the times this *doesn’t* happen to them, and don’t realize that plenty of people perceive them as the age they are. That’s especially likely to be the case when context–like a resume (or, as AAM notes, dress and demeanor)–gives you clues. I’ve got a staff member who’s often mistaken for being underage when she’s roaming free, but it didn’t happen in her interview and it doesn’t happen at work. I’d especially suggest that if you have a high-pitched voice that could sound childish you train yourself (or get training) to speak crisply and professionally and avoid hesitation mannerisms such as “Um” or “like.” Control your own context, basically.

  5. Clinton*

    I have run into this situation before, although as a guy it is a little easier to deal with. I just grew a beard and make sure to keep it very neatly trimmed.

    Along with the usual tips of dressing professionally, acting professionally, and dancing around topics that would make me seem younger ( Depending on who I am talking to discussions of my weekend should lean more on the side of “not much” vs “I swung by the tattoo shop and am training for a kickboxing match”)

    1. Mike C.*

      It really is easier as a guy, I’ve never had to think about this problem at all. I find it disgusting that the women commenting here have to go through so many changes just to simply be taken seriously. I mean really, unless you’re working in an industrial setting, it shouldn’t matter how long your hair is.

      But as we all know, there’s a wide gap between “what is” and “what should be”.

      1. Liza*

        Sadly, there is a double-standard for how women need to dress to be considered professional. Even in the best company I ever worked for where men and women were treated equally, the men in senior leadership positions all work golf shirts with khakis or jeans (yeah, I’m in tech) while the women in equal positions wore dress pants and shirts. And then there is the whole hair and makeup thing…

      2. Nagai*

        It isn’t easy if you have hormonal problems and look like a 12 year old and can’t grow a beard

  6. The Plaid Cow*

    Beyond all of the advice, you have to be comfortable in your own skin. If you are not comfortable with the look you are putting on then it will definitely show through.

    When I was first searching for a job, I took all of the standard advice and went in clean shaven–and was supremely uncomfortable. I missed having a goatee and I think it showed through. When I finally realized that it was making me nervous, I didn’t shave it off and nailed the next interview with facial hair and all.

  7. Joey*

    For me as long as you don’t dress, communicate or have a really distracting pre pubescent like voice you won’t be at a disadvantage. And I don’t care if you have a perfectly tailored Gucci suit, but flip flops or stripper heels are not appropriate.

  8. Jamie*

    I also am in agreement with those saying it’s more the way you present yourself.

    I work with a woman who was in her early 20s when I started here and looked much younger. I started in the summer and as she was in a different department for the first couple of weeks I thought she was a high school student here for the summer. (She was actually in engineering – so shame on me for my assumptions.)

    Less than five minutes into the first time I worked with her I was blown away by her expertise and professionalism – I’ve seen her instantly wipe away stereotypes time and again. If you’re good at what you do and can hold your own in a meeting, the issue will be transitory.

  9. CK*

    I agree with a lot of these points. #1 key is definitely how you present yourself. I have a similar problem – I’m in my late 20’s, but get mistaken for being underage or in my early 20’s. But most of the people I have worked with, once they get to know me, comment that although I may look young, I am very mature and professional (and they try to guess my age again and get closer to my real age than before). My co-worker has it even worse as she is in her early 30’s, but looks younger than me. However, she has 15 years of work experience under her belt and carries herself as such.

    If you think people see you as very young, you will end up coming across that way. Just be confident in yourself and people will see that come through.

    1. maddy*

      This is true.. but sometimes i feel as if it’s the people around me who “blocks” me from growing up. When I see myself, I don’t see a child… but when someone comments on it (and they will go on and on and on) it really kill my self- esteem and make me feel like I am a kid. So what I am saying is… the more people comment on it, the more child like i become.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        No, no! Part of being an adult is not letting other people control the way you feel about yourself! (Or at least it should be.) Don’t worry about those people. There are lots of silly people in the world, and you can’t give them that kind of power over your self-image!

  10. Valerie*

    I like @fposte’s suggestion to control your own context.
    When I was being mistaken for a student by fellow high school teachers (“do you have a hall pass?”) (in a suit, no less!) I found that getting my hair cut made a dramatic difference.

  11. Spreadsheet bringer when she quit*

    In a word, yes, it will hurt you. But (and I am assuming you are female here), be sure not to talk in a little girl voice. Take voice lessons if you have to. Also, don’t end every sentence as a question. As your interviewer, it makes me think you are asking me if you are right. Just own it, and they won’t care if you look like a baby.

    You will, for a while. I was you, in 1976. I’m 52 now, and I got asked for my ID last night. Once, when I got ID’d at the grocery store by a child, he exclaimed “You’re as old as my mom!”. I replied “Oh yeah, well go to your room.” :)

  12. Mary Sue*

    I’m in my early 30s and still getting mistaken for a high school student worker. Haircut, clothing, glasses, master’s degree prominently displayed in my cubicle– nothing works until I start talking about my profession, and only then my clear expertise on the subject will convince people.

    One thing I’ve noticed hurting other young-looking coworkers is that their unconscious speech habits. I took a boatload of speaking and debating courses through high school and college, so I notice explicitly when my coworkers constantly pepper their speech with “um” and “uh”, and use rising inflections that make every sentence sound like a question. These speech mannerisms make them seem less confident and less experienced.

    I suggest in interviews, pausing for a moment before you begin answering a question, to collect your thoughts so you have fewer pauses. And speak slowly! You’re going to be nervous, so you’ll want to speak faster, but that will increase the likelyhood of your mouth running off before the words come, and when that happens, there’s a lot of “um” and “uh”s.

  13. Rachel*

    I agree with a lot of the points mentioned. Work on sounding confident, if you don’t already. I found a lot of the advice in “Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Career” to be helpful. I think that a lot of “small mistakes” that young women make (saying um, wearing clothes that aren’t the most professional, etc) are magnified if you look young or have a young-sounding voice.

    I’ve been mistaken for a high school or college intern for most of my professional career (I’m in my late 20s now). I really noticed a change in how my coworkers viewed me when I updated my wardrobe (namely, bought clothes that actually fit) and started speaking more directly in meetings.

  14. Lexy*

    Everything here is spot on, but I wanted to stress the importance of wearing a well fitting suit.

    Especially if you’re petite, wear a suit that looks too big immediately makes you look inexperienced and amateruish. This is surmountable if you come off as mature and professional, but if you already look young it will only add to an overall “inexperienced” vibe.

    It can be really subtle too, for example, if you’re short waisted and wear a regular sized jacket it won’t look like it doesn’t fit in the waist, it will look like there’s a bunch of extra fabric in the back/shoulders. Similarly, sleeves that are even a touch too long make the whole look come off as sloppy.

    Whenever I buy a suit I have to have the waist taken up, the collar pinned, the pants taken up and sometimes the sleeves let out. This costs about $90 but it can also make a $50 Macy’s sale suit look polished and professional.

    1. Mike C.*

      Guys, listen to this advice as well. I needed a new suit for interviews so I picked up a few pieces at Nordstroms, and after tailoring I can’t tell you how amazed I was at the difference.

      Yeah, it was an investment, but knowing that you look good and are comfortable really go a long way towards confidence and a successful interview.

    2. Anonymous*

      Do you think that a suit, even a well-fitted one, make us look younger? There is just something about suits that I just do not like..

      However, I do agree that a well fitted suit goes a long way. At one interview, the interviewer commented on how matured and sophisticated I look… but then someone outside the office asked if I was over 16. Bummer!

  15. Rebecca*

    Also realize that, like everything else people are judgmental about, sometimes you can do everything “right” and they’ll still be jerks about you being or looking young. Fix whatever needs fixing that you can control and don’t worry about the rest :)

  16. Rachel*

    Be careful not to wear trendy suits. You won’t catch me dead in shoulder pads on a regular day but on an interview day they’re a must. Look for suits in the women’s department of stores. Stay away from the junior’s department. The more it looks like something your mother would wear, the better.

    1. Anonymous*

      I’m not sure…while in general it is optimal to dress one level better than the people you are interviewing with, I probably wouldn’t notice your clothes unless you are wearing stripper chic. I do notice it if you use a squeaky voice or end everything with a questioning lilt up or say um a lot. That the female equivalent of of the male “chair sprawl”. I most certainly will notice if you are completely unqualified for the position, but I usually take a harder look if an otherwise qualified applicant does either of these things. It just makes me question you — don’t make me do that.

    2. Anonymous*

      Really the only wardrobe sins I ever notice are:
      – dirty, rumpled, or poorly-cared-for clothes
      – unhemmed suit pants
      – underdressing (I don’t mean “ew that sweater was a poly blend,” I mean “sneakers? really?”)
      – too much body revealing (low cut shirts or tiny skirts on women, chest-flashing shirts on men, or too-tight clothes on either)

      1. Ellen*

        What? Why do I have to wear what looks good on my mother? Are you kidding….
        How pathetic is that!

        I agree that some young people are way to lenient with their clothing .But that doesnt mean that just because you “look” young you should be brushed off as inexperienced.

  17. Richard*

    I’m 25 and still get regularly ID’d for alcohol and the like (the legal age in the UK is 18!), and used to find that people wouldn’t take me seriously at work. This also became apparent when I started my year long internship at a company as part of my university course, despite being 24 at the time with previous experience.

    So in response, I upped my game: I made sure that I did the best damned job I could, I participated in the corporate discussion lists with sensible questions and answers, made sure that I put valid feedback into meetings, asked sensible questions in corporate webinars, and made sure that other employees could rely upon me for quick, professional responses and solutions.

    And I got a lot of praise for it, people knew that they could ask me for sound advice and help with their problems.

    Aside from that, I still usually turned up to work wearing my usual t-shirts, jeans and trainers, and still managed to get a good reputation. Looking back, however, I wish that I’d made the effort to dress a little more professionally, and maybe I could have improved my reputation further.

    Plus I’d now also have a well-fitting suit for any upcoming interviews.

    So I’d say that you can in fact put yourself across professionally and get taken seriously through your actions despite your young appearance, and ideally, this is what should be happening, but definitely take a weekend to put together a decent professional wardrobe. I’ve heard that a good way to go about it on a budget is to get clothes that are the right size, then pay a little more to have them tailored properly to fit.

  18. Sammie*

    Love all the advices here! I guess I need go suit shopping! I just hope it doesn’t look like a little kid who got into her mommy’s closet. Haha

    (“Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women Make That Sabotage Their Career”)
    ^This book sounds interesting, I may just have to go get it! =)

    It’s a real relief to hear that there are a lot of people who care more about you being able to do the job than how old you look.

  19. AL*

    Completely agree with everyone comments! You look as old as you act. I am in my mid twenties and have been told I don’t look a day older than 17. The worst part of looking young is the first initial shock at how young you look but after that it doesn’t matter.
    I used to have a boss that couldn’t get over the fact that I looked so YOUNG! He reminded me almost every day, when I worked there, how young I look as he would always make some sort of comment or joke. It didn’t stop me from getting hired or from doing my job well. He appreciated my sense of humor and now is my #1 reference for my job hunt.

  20. Anonymous*

    I’m also a recent grad who looks young.

    I went to one interview, where I was all dressed up in a custom made (read: very well fitting) suit, with tasteful make-up, and my hair in a bun. The interviewer didn’t even ask me any questions, just laughed at me and told me that I look like a little kid playing dress up and that if I want to be taken seriously as a “grown-up” (her words)I should have my freckles bleached.

    So yeah… sometimes it really does matter.

    1. Dan Ruiz*

      Wow, sounds like you might have dodged a bullet on that one. I wouldn’t want to work for someone who would so callously ridicule me :-/

    2. Anonymous*

      Wow! I agree with Dan, you dodged a bullet there! >_< It's such a shame that there are people like that in this world.

    3. Anonymous*

      A bun? If you’re 20 and dressing like you’re 60, that kind of does look funny.
      But again, you wouldn’t want to work for an interviewer like that.

  21. Anonymous*

    Completely agree that the way you act and present yourself determines how old you look. I am in my early twenties but people who I have never encountered think I am a teen; however people who have been around me for a while like my co-workers, I have had some of them think that I was actually a few years older than my actual age. The people who thought that said I look young but act mature.

    Of course there’s some ups and downs to this scenrio, but I think one gets an advantage if you look young, but act mature because then people think you are smart.

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  23. Janet*

    Once when I was interviewing a young woman with a sweet, soft voice and an angelic face for a public service position that included saying ‘no’ to some customer requests, she made it a point to tell me about a previous job experience where she had to follow procedures and handle similar situations. She actually said “I know I might look like a pushover but I’m not. I handle such complaints/requests by doing x, y, z.”
    This was a part-time student position, not a professional job so it might not be appropriate to use at all job interviews. But it worked when she said it to me. I hired her.

  24. violet*

    This comment is irrelevant. But:

    It’s like being a kid and grown-ups saying “don’t wish your childhood away;” well here we are, and don’t we wish to be kids again.

    Yeah, I remember when I was a kid, I felt like everyone was always telling me what to do. I couldn’t control where we lived or what we had for dinner, or even when they put me to sleep. It’s your bed time, my parents would explain, So you have to go to bed, as if stating the tautology makes it any more grounded. I would chafe and mutter that when I was a grown up…, and then they’d rub it in, telling me I didn’t know how good I had it, how once I was grown up, I’d long for all the freedom I had as a kid.

    And now I’m grown up. And you know what? I can live where I want to. I can eat waffles for dinner if I like. I can go to clubs, I can drink, I can stay up all night if I’m feeling it. There’s some stress, but it’s nothing compared to having no control over essentially any facet of my life. Being a grown up rocks.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I actually had the same thought. I love being a grown-up; wouldn’t go back to childhood for the world. Sometimes I lecture my nieces on how awesome it is to be grown up.

  25. Anonymous*

    I really doubt that either 1) you really look 15… you’re 22, and probably look 22 and 2) that looking young will be a job search problem.

    Your problem is that you’re inexperienced on the job. Your resume shows that, regardless of your age. Only some work experience will get you taken seriously.

    If you want to seem older, wear a suit to the interview. Wear minimal accessories, and nix the bright colors. Talk professionally, not overly peppy or shyly. I can dress one way and look 18, and dress another way and look 40.

    Either way, you’ll seem inexperienced to an interview… because you ARE inexperienced. Some co-workers give younger co-workers a break when they goof up, or try to help them learn the ropes, so it’s a good thing… regardless of looks, your resume means you’ll have some grunt work to do as you gain work experience.

  26. Miryna*

    Beleive me it does, I am 30 but look like 24 -25 and to some even 20!!!! I have expereince 17-18 yr olds hitting on me to whom I very politely reveal my age and all they do is Gape!!!While this is flattering, This is a huge setback as far as my career is concerned. Poeple think I will not be able to handle somethings or a senior level. If I talk on phone everything is good and great!! but when somone sees me, its like , ‘Oh she is really young and innocent and wont be able to handle people or responsibilities’. Its devastating what it is doing to my career. Too add on this, I have an innocent look (not that I am but yes, I am nice!!!) people misconstrue it to be dumbness.

    So to answer your questions, yes People do judge on looks and they are important.

  27. Dancingkat*

    When I was 36 (now 50) I went on a few interviews to become an entry level travel agent, after having just completed a travel school intensive program over the Summer. I happen to have looked 10-15 years younger than I was, just due to young genes. That being said, at least two people who I was interviewed by asked me questions which were clearly based on their assumption that I was a HIGH SCHOOL student, who must have been lying about being a college graduate.

    One man had asked me where I’ve traveled, so I told him I had been to Club Med 6 times, and 2 cruises to Bermuda. He then asked me if I went “After School” “with your parents?”. I was a bit shocked, and then just said “No, I went alone.”. He was clearly discriminating against me, and the more I thought about it, I was very upset. Another lady who interviewed me asked me “Shouldn’t you be in SCHOOL?” I was also taken aback by her question, and we happened to be down the block from that town’s high school, but I didn’t go there at any rate. The point is, they both were RUDE to me to ask those questions, and didn’t want to take me seriously to give me a foot in the door to begin my new career choice, which I had trained for. I did finally get my chance elsewhere.

    I don’t remember what I wore back then, but I may have done a suit jacket and nice black dress pants or a pencil skirt and flats. I probably had a “grown up” handbag to look the part, and I was never into wearing much makeup, so that probably made me look even younger without any. I also usually wore my long hair down, so I agree that putting it up into a bun or “mature” barrette in back, is a good idea for young women, and go easy on day time makeup, but do practice applying tastefully to look like an adult, but not someone who is 25 years older than you are.

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