So, you’re on board with the concept of building your professional network while still in college or upon graduation. You realize that creating a circle of seasoned pros who recognize your awesomeness will play a big part in landing that incredible first job offer you’ve been dreaming about in the back of lecture halls for the past several years.
If you have no idea where or how to start networking as a college student, take heart — you are far from alone. Most professionals were in your shoes at some point. Yes, networking involves getting in touch with folks who don’t know you, but there’s no reason it has to be difficult or intimidating. Here are a few professional networking tips that will help you get on the radar of plenty of veterans in your industry in no time:
#1 Get in the right mindset
One of the biggest obstacles to networking success for anyone is having the right mindset. That means being confident that you have something — anything — to offer the people with whom you are trying to connect. As a college student, you may think you have nothing of value to bring to the table. After all, you’re trying to talk to professionals, and your biggest job experience to date has involved French fries. You’re stuck, right?
Wrong. Chances are, the person you want to network with is older than you and has been doing his or her job for a while. That means you have a fresh perspective they don’t. So think about your take on their industry and any nuggets you can offer that will add value to their day. Perhaps you learned something about using the latest customer service app from that part-time job. Maybe your marketing prof had you do a project on a controversial new trend. Whatever it is, recognize that you do have value to offer, regardless of how much job experience you have.
#2 Get business cards, even if you don’t have a job
File this one under “going above and beyond,” because your new circle of professional networking contacts will be impressed that you went to the trouble of getting business cards — even if it only took you five minutes online.
And while you’re at it, don’t just put Business Student as your title. Why not Student Marketer or Aspiring Brand Leader? Consider what you would like to be known as and put that. Since you aren’t confined to having to put an actual job title yet, the sky is pretty much the limit.
The point of business cards is to give your contacts something that will remind them of meeting you, as well as a quick way to have your contact info on hand. So make sure that yours contain, at a minimum, your name, email, phone number, and title. Visually, your card should be easy to read and have a professional appearance — no funky fonts or distracting colors. And leaving some white space on the back gives your new contacts a spot to jot down a note about you or a reminder to email you. Your card is part of your first impression on people you will meet at networking events. Which brings us to our next point…
#3 Join industry associations as a student while you still can
Many, many professional and industry associations offer discounted or even free student memberships. Take advantage of them by joining several and going to their events.
Not sure where to start? Pick a field you’re interested in and ask a professor to name a few of its associations. Then, check out some of their lunches, membership meetings or professional development events. Bonus points if you can go to some of these with professors and have them introduce you to people in their networks.
You don’t have to stay a member for life, although if you find you like an organization, great! The key is to get exposure to people who can become valuable resources in your job hunt and can teach you about a particular field. And when you do go in for that first job interview, just think how much it’ll stand out that you’re already a member of that company’s industry association.
#4 Tell everyone that you’re looking to network
The more people who know that you’re trying to build your professional network while still in college, the better the odds that you’ll connect with people who can help you. So don’t be shy. Tell your family, your friends, your roommate, your professors. You can even reach out to professors with whom you don’t currently have classes and tell them.
And if the people with whom you’re put in contact can’t immediately help you, don’t sweat it. Sometimes the best connections are ones that result from a second- or third-degree referral. It’s entirely possible that somebody’s uncle who works in your field doesn’t have a way to help you right now, but he can put you in touch with a colleague who turns out to be a goldmine of information. Of course, you’ll never know this if you don’t speak up and ask people to put you in touch with potential contacts.
#5 Follow up with new contacts and ask for an informational interview
We get it, you’re busy. Everyone’s busy. But one of the fastest ways for your professional networking efforts to flop is not following up with new contacts. Because think about it —what’s the point of having a great conversation with a contact if your relationship is going to end with that person adding your card to a file?
Simply meeting people, talking with them, and handing out your card isn’t enough to develop a network that will really work for you. That means building relationships with professionals who will think of you when an opportunity comes up. And chances are, your new contacts are just as busy as you are.
So remind them you exist! After you meet a contact, call, text, email or reach out via social media to thank that person for taking the time to talk to you when you met. Ideally, this should be within a day or two. Make it personal by mentioning something specific they said that interested you or taught you something. Then, take it one step further and ask for an informational interview. Most professionals are flattered at being asked to share their expertise, and you can bet that now that you’ve had an in-depth conversation, they’ll remember you when they hear about a job opening.
Now that you’re armed with actionable ways to start networking, get out there and do it! Set goals for your professional networking efforts and stick with them. Write them down somewhere you’ll see them regularly so that you’re reminded of them and can track your progress (sticky notes and whiteboards are great for this.) Get someone, or ideally multiple people, to hold you accountable for meeting your goals. Your roommate, classmates or friends can make great partners in your networking endeavors because you can compare notes and you can also hold them accountable.
Start with a realistic, but ambitious goal — say, reaching out to 10 new potential contacts per month. Then, once you’ve outgrown that, up the ante and go for more. You never know where your efforts will lead.