Dress for success: Life and style lessons from a star admissions counselor
by Eli Epsteinn
Photos by Nathan Perkel
October 29, 2015
You could say the first style lesson that Nat Smitobol learned was to stand out.
Smitobol, master college admissions counselor at educational consultant IvyWise, credits his mom with imparting this knowledge. She was concerned that her Thai son would be bullied because he was one of the only non-white students in his school in Westport, Conn., a New England enclave that’s 93% white, according to the 2010 census. So, to avoid harassment, Smitobol’s mother taught him to make a good first impression and command respect by creating his own unique sense of style.
“My mom didn’t want people to judge me because I wasn’t white,” Smitibol says. “She equipped me with the things I needed to make cool outfits. The mostly white kids learned that little Asian kids could dress to the nines.”
Now in his late 30s, Smitobol uses his post at IvyWise, which advises and tutors students applying to colleges, to pass on his mother’s lesson about the power of appearance and the importance of uniqueness to the teens he mentors, many of whom are non-white and the first members of their families to attend college.
Tell your story with your outfit
“Being Asian in college, I learned that difference was celebrated and that you should understand people who come from different starting points,” Smitobol says. “When it comes to presentation, we want kids at IvyWise to be aware of their narrative and learn how to share it.”
It’s easy to imagine Smitobol having these candid discussions with students. Baby-faced, clean-cut and eminently affable, Smitobol frequently leans in and smirks as we talk, as if he’s revealing a funny trick he’s learned during his time in college admissions, which has taken him from his alma mater, Skidmore College to New York University, Abu Dhabi and then IvyWise.
Along the way, Smitobol says he picked up a few vital life and style lessons that he often hearkens back to today, and, in some cases, shares with students. The most important (and most teachable) one, he says, was to use your outfit to tell your story. Friendly and excitable, Smitobol says he wanted his style to mirror his personality, so he would often choose loud socks, a flashy belt or unusual shoes.
“Dressing up for me became a conversation piece,” he says. “I wanted my fashion to represent how much fun I have in life and how much I enjoy what I do.”
Invest in the classics
On a personal level, working in college admissions also helped Smitobol learn the outsize role versatility plays in fashion.
“When you work in entry-level college admissions, you’re paid in travel, memories and experiences — you don’t make a ton of money,” Smitobol says. “It was important for me to buy simple, classic pieces that I could dress up or down and wear during different occasions and seasons.”
Play to your audience
Once you have the basics down, Smitobol is a firm believer to tailoring your look to who you’re trying to reach.
For example, if he was leading a nighttime information program with parents, Smitobol would dress in chinos, a button-down shirt and a blazer. When students came in the room, he’d ditch the blazer and roll up his sleeves up to give off a more casual vibe to students.
Hitting the road on recruiting trips for three weeks at a time would reinforce everything Smitobol had been learning about thrift and fashion utility. In Japan one day and Hawaii the next, Smitobol had to pack lightly but also be mindful of cultural norms. Japan was hot and humid, so he wore summer-weight wool that was cool and wouldn’t wrinkle when rolled into a suitcase. In Hawaii, however, Smitobol learned that wearing formal attire wouldn’t endear him to students.
“If you walk into Hawaiian school and you’re overdressed,” he says, “it’ll turn the kids off. “A lot of times there I wore a button down linen shirt with pants that I was wearing the day before with something more formal.”
Take the time to cultivate relationships
Nowadays, anchored at IvyWise, Smitobol doesn’t embark on as many globetrotting trips as he did when he was a college recruiter, though he does still frequently travel throughout the country with students, both paying and pro bono IvyWise clients, to visit colleges.
Aside from the importance of appearance and narrative, Smitobol teaches all of his pupils the benefits of gaining a mentor. He would know. Smitobol has kept in touch with his advisor from Skidmore.. He’s also been able to coach the advisor’s sons through the college application process.
“The best part of being in higher ed is developing relationships,” he says. “It sounds like rhetoric, but this process has so many teachable moments. We want to empower students.”