Networking for students: a step-by-step guide

How actively reaching out lands you the job you want

With all the social networking happening on college campuses, I’m surprised at the reaction I sometimes get when talking to students about adding networking to their job search efforts. Some clients react with a deer-in-the-headlights look, or a confused scratch of the head, or a statement that because they’ve posted their résumé on Monster, they’re already “doing networking.”

Moving beyond the passive job search

Perhaps the “N word,” as some students call it, causes anxiety because it requires occasional steps outside the comfort zone and away from the computer monitor. While it might be comfortable to wait (and wait) for job offers to pour into your online inbox, applying networking skills is truly the way to an active, productive job search.

You’ve probably heard, and perhaps not believed, that as a rule of thumb, nearly 7 out of 10 jobs are landed through networking, not through other conventional means such as responding to want ads. People who network are more likely to learn about hidden opportunities and have a leg up on any job opening. People who don’t network don’t.

The phrase “six degrees of separation” refers to the intriguing concept that all human beings are only six people away from knowing everyone else. Networking job hunters tap into and share information through these connections. They gain the benefit of meeting people in circles that are much larger than their usual circle of acquaintances. Of course, those in your usual circle are good to know, but to obtain the kind of information, advice, and feedback that an active job-searcher needs, you need to expand that circle.

Yeah, but. . .how?

Step 1 – Define yourself and what you’re looking for

A good way to begin is planning what career counselors often call an “elevator speech” – a short introduction of who you are and what you’re looking for. For example:

Hi, Professor Jones! I wanted to introduce myself – I’m in your Fluids Dynamics course and am really enjoying the class. In fact, I’m thinking about getting an engineering internship or co-op dealing with fluids this summer. I’m especially interested in the aerospace and auto design fields. Would you have any ideas about companies offering fluids opportunities for students? Or do you know anyone who might have ideas for me?

The objective is to relay information about your interests and goals, and begin a conversation that may reveal some useful advice or insight relating to your search.

Step 2 – Define your initial network

Everyone has a network. Everyone. Your immediate network includes family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, friends of your family, fellow students, and all the other people you interact with regularly.

If you have landed an internship or co-op, or have another job, your supervisors and co-workers at the job site are also part of your network.

You may find it helpful to actually write down category titles like “Family,” “Teachers,” “Friends of Family,” etc., and list names of people you know in each category. List everyone. Your level of “connectedness” will probably surprise you!

Step 3 - Start in your comfort zone

Like any new process, taking small steps builds skills and confidence. So, it makes sense to start networking in your comfort zone by talking with people you know on or around campus - professors, academic advisors, career counselors, fellow students, college staff members, internship contacts, and so on.

When talking with someone in your network, use your elevator speech, ask lots of open-ended questions and show interest in the person’s responses. Make sure people in your initial network know your educational and career goals and ask them for their own career stories and advice. And always request names of other people who may have more information and whether you can use the contact’s name when you call on this new person. Then, make the new contact. This is how you grow your network.

Step 4 - Expand your network beyond campus

Don’t overlook acquaintances outside your college and work environments. Many career connections are made through social contacts including sports clubs or leagues, religious organizations, hobby groups, and even in your own neighborhood. (Remember those six degrees of separation? I once talked to a student who obtained a great finance internship through his little sister’s soccer coach!) So, keep talking to people about your career ideas, progress, and goals and keep asking them for their ideas and advice. You never know.

Other persons with whom you should network include persons in professional associations. Associations often offer students reduced membership fees and provide professional development resources such as job banks, mentoring programs, and networking gatherings that offer excellent opportunities to meet people in your field of interest. To know which associations make sense for you, speak with your professors, your campus career center, and other students in your field.

Want to meet more professionals in your field? Consider informational interviewing. Target professionals in organizations of interest and ask them if they’d be willing to meet with you for 20-30 minutes so you could ask questions about their career and get some advice. Informational interviews are a terrific way to expand your professional network. Your campus career services office can provide the needed “how to” advice, including tapping into your college’s alumni network. These are people who’ve volunteered in advance to talk with you about their professional field and career path.

Step 5 - Keep track and keep in touch

As you talk to people, keep good track of your networking contacts. Names, titles, e-mails, phone numbers, organizations, meeting dates, and key points of information and advice are all bits of data that you can refer to later as your networking continues.

Your relationship shouldn’t end after one conversation. Follow up with a thoughtfully written thank-you note or e-mail. Then, keep in touch. For example, perhaps you could ask Professor Jones to critique your résumé from an engineer’s perspective. Maybe you could pass along word of other engineering internship opportunities that Professor Jones could share with her students. Perhaps someone Professor Jones recommended to you has been helpful – let her know! The point is, keep that relationship alive, so that if and when Professor Jones learns about a good opportunity, you’re the first person she calls.

A final note: it’s not FaceBook

In some respects, college students are already pros at networking – at least casual, social networking. It’s critical, however, to shift into a professional networking mode when your career is the issue at hand.

As a career counselor, I sometimes need to assume the unhappy role of telling clients that their career-related e-mail messages to me are too casual or familiar for professional networking, or they’re grammatically incorrect or the spelling is sloppy. Every professional networking contact, electronic or face-to-face, needs to be carefully crafted, planned, or practiced. One misspelled word, one uncapitalized pronoun “I”, one lapse of over-familiarity or unprofessionalism, and your best chance of making a positive impression may have been wasted.

By following the above steps, you’ll likely find that a professional approach to active networking is a superior way to further your career goals to just hanging out in your inbox waiting for your great opportunity to arrive. So make contact, make connections, and make progress.

Networking in a nutshell
  • Move beyond passive job searching
  • Prepare and practice your introductory “elevator speech”
  • Have a clear goal in mind – what are you looking for?
  • Prepare open-ended questions in advance
  • Define your network – family, friends, students, professors, etc.
  • Start by making contacts in your comfort zone
  • Listen and respond with honest interest and ask further questions
  • Ask for ideas of additional people to talk to so you can expand your network
  • Follow up immediately by phone or e-mail
  • Find and take opportunities to build ongoing professional relationships
  • Keep track of your network and keep in touch

  • Priscilla March is a career counselor in the Office of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. This article is adapted from material that previously appeared on the UMass, Lowell website and is used here by permission.