Sure, college is for taking high-level classes, building valuable skills, establishing lifelong friends, and expanding your horizons. But as you prepare for your post-grad life, aka “the real world,” you’ll want a leg up when competing for jobs against people with (gulp) experience. You’re better equipped if you have connections in the workforce. To achieve that, you’ll need to engage in a little practice called… “networking.”
We know what you’re thinking. Networking sounds corporate. Fake. Scary. (Or, for introverts, downright terrifying.) But really, networking is just making grown-up friends. Think of it like shaking hands and getting to know your community. Not quite so scary, right? These tips will help, too.
College resources are tailor-made for students. Alumni often pop by school career services offices for speaking events. These are terrific opportunities to connect with accomplished folks (often volunteering their time) who are there specifically to guide and inspire you.
Don’t see events or alumni in your fields of interest? Chat with school faculty and staff; they’re super plugged into the alumni network and will be game to direct their programming or outreach in a way that can be beneficial. They can also help you with cover letters, resumes, finding your first job when you graduate, and interview prep. (They’re awesome like that.)
University alumni are everywhere—by which we mean geographically scattered—so they can’t always show up in person. That’s why digging into your school’s online alumni directory can be a boon. Everyone who’s in there has opted-in—so you can rest easy knowing you’re not bothering them if you reach out—and their work spans industries and locations.
College networking doesn’t end with a directory, though. Does your school have lots of majors or multiple grad schools as part of its structure? Attend mixers or networking events geared towards different specialties, even if it’s not exactly what you’re pursuing. You’ll interact with classmates you otherwise might not have met, plus you’ll learn about fields that could wind up syncing with your interests—potentially providing whole new paths to explore.
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While every metropolitan area has some form of traditional networking events, it can be more fun (and advantageous) to seek out those that play to your interests or flip the script.
From young professional groups to software development meetups to social work powwows, networking events get niche these days. Not only will you meet people with more specific skills and contacts to help you (or vice-versa), you’ll start on common ground, which can reduce jitters.
What if you’re shy no matter what? Or just don’t know how to get started? Speed networking is a relaxing, non-romantic twist on speed dating that removes the pressure from a usual meet-and-greet. You’ll meet loads of people in short spurts for maximum efficiency (and minimum anxiety). Since the event’s organizers coordinate small groups or one-on-ones, it’s easy to connect without the pressure of having to initiate conversations yourself among a crowd.
At networking events, it’s a given that you’re there to meet people. Once you’re comfortably settled, muster up the courage to introduce yourself, or ask to join a group conversation that’s already in progress. Everyone is in the same boat and, generally, understanding. And if they’re not, that’s a reflection on them—not you.
But what if you’re totally overwhelmed as soon as you walk into a crowded room? Networking events often have guest lists you can peruse beforehand, so you can put your energy toward meeting particular people. Don’t feel awkward about walking around scanning name tags (which often feature an occupation and a company name, in addition to a person’s name) to get the lay of the land before you jump in. It’s not a race—and not every networking experience is going to be a winner. And if there are complimentary snacks to munch on while you ponder your first (or second, or third) intro, all the better.
Once you’re in a networking conversation, make sure to ask questions (about things you genuinely are interested in, whether about a person or industry) and don’t make the conversation all about you. And please—for the love of all that is holy—don’t brag or act arrogant. You’re here to make friends. Stay humble and open, and save the boasting for your resume.
If you’re going to recount any negative experiences—like a bad roommate or a horrible internship experience—be sure you do it in a constructive way.
What to do when it’s the other person who’s a bother? Getting stuck in a conversation longer than you’d like—but you feel awkward backing out—can definitely be stressful. Direct statements like “I need to run to the bathroom,” “I’m going to grab some food,” or even “I think I’m gonna circulate a bit more” are totally acceptable. Just be gracious and you can run along your merry networking way.
Unless you’re at a career fair where a representative or recruiter requests it, you don’t need to give out your resume by default. Only provide it when asked—don’t automatically shove it into someone’s hands upon meeting. This is a common blunder with students and recent grads and shows inexperience.
It’s much better to share a business card and not weigh someone down with extraneous paperwork, or just connect directly on LinkedIn if they’re not “card people.” Not only can they view your resume’s contents at their leisure, but you’ll be lassoed into their network for the longer term, which is far more valuable and enduring.
That said, go into any networking event with some idea of how your talents and passions can be conveyed through your experience (classwork, “work-work,” or otherwise), so you can discuss your credentials anecdotally and organically, rather than faltering without your resume in front of you. This way people will get the gist of what you’re about in a way they personally relate to.
When it comes to business cards, consider toting two business card cases in different colors or styles, so you can easily differentiate. One is for cards you’re giving out, and the other, for cards you’re receiving. By keeping them clearly separate, you won’t fumble when giving out your card, and you won’t dogear your own cards (not a great first impression). This method also makes it easier to see when you need to restock since you won’t mistake others’ cards for your own supply.
What should go on your business card? Keep things straightforward and professional, with a touch of personality to differentiate yourself. If you’re in a creative field especially, throw in a little razzle-dazzle. Despite their pocket-size stature, business cards are a time-tested way to showcase visual talents that can’t always be articulated in conversation.
No matter who you’re connecting with, remember that you’re just meeting for the first time. Always say thank you to suggestions, and don’t reject ideas that a new contact is recommending, even if they may be a little off-base (you can gently correct them later). People are trying to help you and may not get things exactly right. Pointing out they’re incorrect is insulting and can burn bridges.
A similar networking mistake and just as important, don’t dismiss new contacts just because they’re in a field that’s not of immediate interest. You never know how someone can help you down the road. After all, everyone knows other people, and presumably not all in the same area. Just think about your friends over the years; most likely, they have a range of interests and future pathways.
No matter the genre, genuine relationships will inevitably open you up to new possibilities you didn’t even realize were out there. Plus, when it comes to job applications, you and your friends in different fields won’t be competing for the same positions, so you can share opportunities and compare experiences without rivalry.
Sure, you want to behave professionally at a networking event. At the same time, don’t consider your student status a detractor. Often more experienced folks will admire your gumption and could be even more inclined to give you a boost towards your career goals—and offer insight to help you stay focused at your first “adult” job.
Plus, if you’re candid about how you know you still have lots to learn, people will feel that much more comfortable opening up to you about their own path and offer subsequent advice on everything from interview tips to post-college internships, rather than focusing solely on their current success. This can grant you far greater insight and perspective.
By the way, even if you’re of legal age, do not overdo it with the free drinks. You won’t be well-received—and your slip up will likely be remembered.
So you’ve made some promising connections at a networking event. What next? In addition to connecting on LinkedIn (with a short, polite, yet personal invitation), you may want to email a contact with a specific follow-up inquiry.
When doing this, keep it short and to the point, but still personable and personalized. People are busy. They want to help, but they will get annoyed if they have to work at figuring out what you want. Make your communication easy to understand, so your new connection can conserve their time and effort for sharing the special knowledge or contacts only they possess.
Remember how we mentioned that networking is just making friends? Sometimes you really will make actual friends at networking events! (What’s up, Jack, Lindsey, and Maureen?) When this happens, it’s even easier to keep the lines of communication open.
One great method is to email your new contacts about upcoming events that might be of interest. You’ll help them in their networking journey and learn about new opportunities through them, since they’re likely to return the favor with events on their radar.
Bonus: If you bump into each other at a future event, you already have a built-in buddy and can be each other’s networking wing-person, which is especially handy if you’re shy.
Here’s a twist ending that’s bound to reassure you further: if you’re in school, you’re already networking.
Your current classmates are your future alumni network. They (and you) will go on to achieve amazing and varied feats, so value and cultivate friendships all around campus and your community, not just in your niche. Not only will you have a more diverse friend group, but you’ll be setting yourself up for a more well-rounded, curious, and enriching life—personally and professionally.
Questions or feedback? Email firstname.lastname@example.org