What was your goal in deciding to go to college? If you’re like most people, you set out to pursue higher education in order to prepare yourself for a better (or different) career. While building your skillset and gaining industry knowledge about your desired career is vital—you may not have considered how impactful networking can also be.
So...what is networking, exactly? As we touched on in a previous article , in the context of career-building, a professional network is a group of people you can turn to for business contacts, questions, or referrals. You might contact a former professor or classmate to help you troubleshoot a quandary at work, or to find out what they know about a prospective employer. These contacts are invaluable in widening your reach in a particular field, or advancing in your career. They can mean the difference between being just another name on a resume, or a vouched-for referral from a trusted employee.
That being said, how can you go about building your own network of professional contacts? It’s actually not as hard as you’d think. In fact, you’ve already started. Former employers, professors, clients, co-workers, classmates and vendors can all sit at a seat in your network. But there’s more you can do! Here’s a few tips to help you grow and manage a professional network while still in college.
- Take advantage of social networking platforms. Meeting a wide variety of people is easier than ever, thanks to the reach of the internet. Capitalize on these free networking opportunities by keeping updated, professional profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and other popular social media platforms. Make an effort to connect with influential people, have meaningful conversations, and discuss plans for the future.
- Put yourself out there. Connections aren’t made by staying home watching TV, or staring at your phone screen. Step outside your comfort zone and attend school, community and industry social events. Most schools hold regular networking events and job fairs, which provide ample opportunities to socialize and discover common interests. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from starting conversations, or swapping contact information. Most relationships start with a “hello”, and you’ll never know where they might lead unless you’re willing to take the initiative.
- Get involved. The more avenues you travel, the more opportunities for connection you’ll find. Try volunteering in your community or on campus. Get involved in student leadership, service opportunities, clubs or experiential learning. Pursue an internship with a professor or in a field of interest. Seek out the chance to make friends from all walks of life. As you become more immersed in the activities around you, you’ll not only build your skills and discover new interests, but you'll develop meaningful relationships that will benefit you for years to come.
- Be sincere. The key to building a lasting relationship is genuine, sincere connection. While some relationships may be more self-serving than others, the best contacts are those who know you personally; who respect your work ethic, admire your performance, or can vouch for your integrity. So, while you may find yourself doing a little bit of “fake it ‘til you make it” in the beginning, do your best to bring vulnerability and personality into your interactions with the people around you. Those connections are the ones that will bring you to mind when a job comes up, or a referral is needed down the line.
- Learn all you can. Networking isn’t just about creating a list of contacts who might lead to a job down the road. These people can provide you a wealth of advice and tips on everything from the best ways to study to what to wear to an interview. Take advantage of your time as a student to seek advice from alumni, peers, professors, or industry professionals. Asking for an informational interview with a professional in your field will be much easier while you’re still in school than when you’re actively seeking a job. Don’t be afraid to capitalize on your student status while you can—most people are happy to help a college student seeking direction for their future.
There are hundreds of tips out there on the best ways to network… but what it really boils down to is awareness and connection. You don’t have to be constantly focused on finding contacts to build a solid professional network. Just keep your eyes and ears open, seek constant improvement, step out of your comfort zone every once and awhile, and don’t be afraid to show people who you really are. You’ll be surprised how those small steps, and the friendships that result, can lead to big things.