Making connections while you’re still a student can help when it’s time to enter the workforce.
By: Jackson Nimesheim
Undergraduate students may feel like college will last a lifetime, but the countdown to graduation starts the day they step on campus.
Students can set themselves up for professional success by building a network while they’re still in school, experts say.
“There are many benefits to networking,” Heather Krasna, associate dean of career and professional development at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York, wrote in an email. “It may not seem fair, but students who build relationships with individuals in the organizations they are interested to work for will have an advantage in the job search.”
While many college students are already busy juggling academics, extracurricular activities, jobs, social life and personal commitments, investing some spare time in making connections can pay dividends in the future.
“At the end of the day, connections are currency,” says Alex Hochman, senior director of the career services center at the University of San Francisco in California.
Here are eight networking tips for college students:
- Start early.
- Play the student card.
- Get relevant experience.
- Be active on LinkedIn.
- Use college career centers.
- Leverage personal connections.
- Bolster existing professional connections.
- Set goals.
It is never too early for networking, experts say.
Students who start networking at the beginning of their college careers will have more time to build connections than those who wait until graduation looms. Additionally, people may be more willing and able to help younger college students, experts say.
Read: 10 Job Search Tips for College Seniors.
“When you reach out to a networking contact for career advice but you are not yet actively job-seeking, the pressure on that contact is much lower, and you are more likely to get good advice,” Krasna says. “If you are actively job-seeking, there is an added pressure on your network; and many people who are happy to meet and provide advice may not be as open to referring someone for a job whom they’ve only just met.”
Play the Student Card
“Play up your student status for as long as you have it,” Krasna says.
Many people started their journeys toward the workforce in college, and are often particularly willing to help college students, experts say.
“You will find that many professionals are eager to provide career advice to students, because they remember being a student, and because most people have had others help them in their career growth,” she says.
Get Relevant Experience
While internships, research opportunities and teacher’s assistant positions – what Hochman calls “relevant experiences” – may be best known for helping students explore passions and prepare for jobs, they can also help students make meaningful connections.
“The idea is you’re using those relevant experiences as a way to meet people,” he says.
Internships provide students with unique opportunities to branch out, according to Colleen Monks, director of the Gorter Family Career Advancement Center at Lake Forest College in Illinois.
“Internship experiences introduce students to a whole new world of professional contacts,” she wrote in an email.
Be Active on LinkedIn
LinkedIn, a social media platform for interaction among professionals, is a networking essential, Hochman says.
“If you’re not on LinkedIn, that looks very strange to an employer,” he says.
Related: How to Improve Your Social Media Presence for College Admissions
The benefits of using it are plentiful for college students, he and others say.
“Through the platform, students can identify professionals who are currently working in their ‘dream career,’ some of whom they may not have even known were connections through a mutual contact or their college alumni network,” Monks wrote. “LinkedIn also helps students to strengthen their existing network, showcase their personal brand and academic/professional accomplishments, and learn about available internships/jobs and companies for which they may want to work in the future.”
Use College Career Centers
Many college career centers offer networking assistance. At Lake Forest College, for example, the Foresters CAREER mentoring program matches students with alumni based on “major, career, and identity preferences,” Monks says.
Monks adds that college career centers can serve as a bridge between students and helpful alumni.
Hochman recommends students connect on LinkedIn with career center personnel from their schools. People who work in career centers are likely to be connected with alumni from their respective schools, so current students connected with these workers will in turn become second-degree connections with many alums, he says.
Leverage Personal Connections
Students don’t need to limit their network to people they have met in academic or professional settings, experts say. Family members, friends and neighbors can make great connections.
“Since there is already a genuine relationship there, it is much easier to merely shift the conversation with a personal connection toward career-related topics than it is with someone that they’ve never met before,” Monks says.
Less-familiar faces also can help students willing to stay in touch.
“Even people you meet shopping at Target and Trader Joe’s can become great connections,” Hochman says. “These people can open up doors down the line.”
Bolster Existing Professional Connections
Meeting people is only half the battle. Working to develop lasting relationships can help increase students’ chances of receiving recommendation letters, referrals and other means of support in the future.
Related: How to Write a Recommendation on LinkedIn
Students who make connections through internship experiences should work hard to keep those connections in the loop as their college careers progress, experts say.
“Stay in touch, stay in touch, stay in touch, ” Hochman says. “Don’t be the intern that nobody ever hears from again.”
Students can keep themselves accountable by aiming to meet networking targets throughout their college careers.
Hochman encourages students to shoot for 100 LinkedIn connections by the end of freshman year and 400 connections by graduation.
He also urges students to develop 20 close connections by the end of their junior year – connections who can recite their internship experiences, identify companies they might want to work for in the future and share something interesting about them. These connections, he says, can come from professional and personal relationships and can be developed by consistent communication while in college.