Dressing up for exams can improve academic performance

Veronica Fang, Columnist

Today you’re taking the final exam for your hardest course. You’ve studied in advance, gotten a good night’s sleep and had a nutrient-rich breakfast. Now, you throw on your trusty old hoodie and sweatpants for maximum comfort, and you’re ready to take the exam.

But is dressing down really going to help you perform better?

What you wear actually has the potential to impact your mood and performance. When you wear a suit, you feel more professional and competent. When you wear jeans and a t-shirt, you feel more laidback and perhaps friendlier. 

This phenomenon is known as enclothed cognition. It is the reason why there are dress codes at workplaces, fancy restaurants and sometimes schools  —  to create a certain image and environment that promotes people to work, eat or study better. 

The same reasoning can be applied to taking exams: dressing more formally can improve students’ academic performance on exam day.

Just as the way you dress can influence others’ perception of you, the same holds true for our own self-perception. People associate certain clothes with symbolic meanings and wearing these clothes will simulate corresponding psychological processes.

To put this phenomenon into perspective, something that everyone has likely experienced are the effects of COVID-19 on their school experience. The pandemic forced students all over the world to participate in online school, which led to people wearing their pajamas all day.

Although several factors, such as staff shortages and mental health challenges, contributed to the drop in students’ academic achievement all over the world, the phenomenon of enclothed cognition also played a role. When students tried to learn in their pajamas, it was easy to be unproductive.

A 2015 research article found that “wearing formal clothing (is) associated with enhanced abstract processing.” In other words, dressing up on exam day can improve students’ higher-level thinking and help them apply their knowledge to hypothetical situations.

Sustainability freshman Soleil Parkinson explained her reasoning for dressing up when she has exams.

“I guess if I dress down for an exam in comfortable clothing, I feel like I’m not as attentive,” Parkinson said. “And if I try and treat myself cozier than the day-to-day basis, then I’m just not gonna be paying that much attention or feel confident in my exam.”

On the other hand, neuroscience freshman Sreya Yadavalli discussed why she tends to dress down for exams.

“For exams, I usually really like to be comfortable, especially on the top. I have either a really baggy hoodie … or a baggy sweatshirt, one of my UT sweatshirts, just because when I’m writing or doing anything in the exam, I want to be fully immersed in the exam, not like tugging on my shirt.”

Although Yadavalli dresses down for exams, she still chooses purposeful clothing that has symbolic meaning to her, which puts her into the right mindset for test-taking.

“Even when I am going for exams in a baggy top, the rest of my outfit kind of makes it feel like street wear, or sometimes I’ll put on Doc Martens, so it’s like really a combat outfit,” Yadavalli said. “Because I do this thing when I’m taking exams — I kind of pretend the exam and where I am is my own version of a battlefield. That’s the metaphor I use in my head, like it’s sort of a war. And you just have to keep going. And each question you knock down is like an opponent. It just keeps me going.”

So, the next time you have an exam, consider wearing a nice button-down or sweater to help you perform at tip-top shape.

Fang is a business and Plan II freshman from Plano, Texas.