Joseph Kaczmarek  /  AP file
Gail Madison, right, instructs recent graduates from Arcadia University in the subject of table manners during "job search boot camp" for new graduates that includes, among other things, soup-to-nuts lessons in table manners for a generation raised on grab-and-go meals.
updated 5/31/2005 6:12:27 PM ET 2005-05-31T22:12:27

You've just graduated from college. You've got a new interview suit, a typo-free resume, and ready answers to just about any question that might come your way.

But if you talk to prospective employers while slurping your soup and slouching over your salad, that preparation might not mean much. So a college in this Philadelphia suburb has started a "job search boot camp" that includes soup-to-nuts lessons in table manners for a generation raised on grab-and-go meals.

Newly minted Arcadia University graduates test their interview skills in simulated office and restaurant settings, as in last week's "Lunch for Success" session _ held in an ornate dining room of the school's castle-like main building, once the mansion of sugar baron William Welsh Harrison.

The job market for recent college grads is brighter than it has been in several years _ a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that companies expect to hire 13 percent more college grads in 2004-05 than in 2003-04. But that doesn't mean plum positions will go to those lacking in polish.

"By the time you're having your second or third interview, when these lunches or dinners frequently happen, you're being looked at as a whole person and not just for your technical or interviewing skills," said Sheila Spisak, associate director of the career center at Ball State University in Indiana. The university has offered a career prep course for eight years.

"We drive home to our students that even after a candidate has left the corporate office and is in a restaurant, they're not home free," Spisak said. "The evaluation process is continuing."

At Arcadia, a private liberal arts college serving 3,500 students, the career boot camp is held the week after commencement. The program is in its second year.

As students worked their way through a four-course meal last week, etiquette instructor Gail Madison circulated through the room _ checking posture (back against the chair) and position (hold your soup spoon like a pencil).

"I can't stop leaning forward," Nicole Heisner said as she practiced the proper form for eating soup _ spoon it away from you to avoid dribbles and drips.

Madison sought to reassure the students as they practiced the right way to fold their napkins and butter their bread. "It feels strange because you're not used to eating this way," she told them. "Keep practicing at home and you'll get more comfortable."

"Having good manners can set you apart from the crowd," said Madison, director of a school of etiquette outside Philadelphia.

Arcadia grads also heard from employers about what they look for in potential hires and how to network at business functions. They got advice from a financial planner about how to start saving money from the first job, and from benefits experts on how to negotiate benefit packages.

But the "Lunch for Success" was among the major draws.

"I was surprised about how much table manners can have an impact on the interview," said Candace Lark, who majored in music education.

Stephanie Wobensmith, a social work grad, suggested that Americans may have lost their eating etiquette because of a perception that it's "hoity-toity" or pretentious _ though all the students said they know bad manners when they see them.

"Once I saw someone blow their nose into a napkin," said Christina Eakins, who grew up in Europe and learned the art of table etiquette from early childhood. "I just think people have no concept; you can see people in nice places eating like animals."

Ball State decided to offer a session on dining protocol after hearing from students that they felt inadequate taking part in lunch or dinner interviews no matter what the setting, said Spisak.

"There was a real need to do this because the formal dining skills just aren't practiced in the home now," she said.

Greg Pepe, a recruiter for VerticalNet, a Philadelphia area-based software company, said he agrees with the premise of the programs.

"You're always making an impression, from the first handshake to the final thank you note you send," he said. "These people are going to be working with clients, so if you're too sloppy in your demeanor, too casual in your table manners, or you start cursing or using inappropriate words, you're not going to serve yourself well in an interview."

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