A Mentor: How to Find One, Who to Ask, and What to Expect


Some of the most successful people in the world have had a mentor. Miley Cyrus was taught to persevere by her godmother, Dolly Parton. Rob Kalin sent an email to the cofounders of Flickr for advice, which led to rapid growth for his website, Etsy. Luke Skywalker trekked all the way to Dagobah to seek guidance from Yoda, and Frodo Baggins turned to Gandalf the Grey. But if these successful people hadn’t reached out for help, they would not have made such significant impacts on the world (or on the galaxy far, far away).

Before beginning your climb to career success, seek advice from a mentor in your field. These professionals are already standing near the top, so they can guide your path based on their experiences.

Frodo Baggins and his mentor Gandalf

Lord of the Rings / Giphy

Nontraditional Mentors

Counselors are traditional sources of guidance for students, but they are often overwhelmed by the sheer number of names on a class roster. If the entire class of 2016 is going to one person for advice, that person is struggling to dish out thoughtful feedback for everyone.

Students tend to develop closer relationships with their professors, but their abilities have limits. Most teachers know a lot about a broad subject or academic pursuit, such as literature, but their advice about the publishing industry might come up short. Remember, you want a mentor who can guide you academically and professionally.

Counselors and professors are a great place to begin your search for advice, but professional mentors usually have career experiences that match your goals. Their guidance helps you break into your field and join a network of professionals. They offer anecdotes and tips that simply aren’t shared in the classroom, and they stand at the gates as you enter “the real world.” They teach you, better you, and criticize you—constructively, of course.

How to Spot a Good Mentor

Your mentor does not have to be college-educated, nor famous, nor wealthy. But your mentor should be someone you admire. Do you look up to this person? Do you have similar values? Does this person have a career that you wish to emulate? Bingo! It’s best to choose a strong, confident mentor who has worked hard to achieve success.

Maybe you’ve known your mentor since the day you were born. Maybe you’ve held an internship at her company or heard him speak at a literary reading. Maybe the two of you write emails and letters but have never met in person. Your mentor could be a family member, boss, client, celebrity, author, religious leader, or coach.

When that guru comes into your life, reach out kindly.

Don’t:

  • Say, “Hey, teach me everything I need to know!” Walking up to a busy higher-up at your job and asking for all of the keys to success is lazy, and it leads nowhere. Build a relationship first. Show interest in the work that your potential mentor produces, and ask if you can sit in on meetings, review notes, be cc’d on emails, observe, or take on an extra task. You want to show ambition, but you don’t want to seem entitled. Prove to your mentor that you really do value the experience.
    • Excellent mentors are hard-working. They carry themselves professionally and take pride in the quality of their work. These aren’t skills that you can absorb overnight. If you really admire someone’s accomplishments, take time to see how that person gets things done. When you finally do step forward to ask for assistance, it will be well worth the wait.
  • Expect all of their time.
    Know that this person may not want to sit down for dinner and outline a five-year plan for you. In fact, expecting an appointment or formal meeting can hurt you. Some people have children. Others volunteer in their spare time. Chances are, no one has all day to sit down with you.

    • When you are ready to reach out, send an email. Ask specific questions or if your mentor will meet you for coffee. If he or she does agree to give you some time, be flexible and come prepared with talking points. You might also want to bring your résumé. Take notes if your mentor gives you any leads about networking events or additional contacts. Always follow up with a thank-you note.
  • Forget your peers. Work with your peers, not against them, and brush up on your teamwork skills. Your weakness could be your coworker’s strength and vice versa. It’s not ridiculous to think that one day, when you’re all grown, your peers could be successful professionals, too. If you reach out now, they’ll be in your network for a long time.
  • Look for someone just like you. Find mentors who have a knack for your areas of weakness. How do they approach a challenge more efficiently than you do? Take note! Two people who do the same thing differently can learn a lot from the other.
  • Get upset when someone criticizes your work. Grades and performance evaluations demonstrate what you’re doing well and what you can improve. If a coworker or higher-up has something to say about your work, it’s a sign that he or she wants to help you. Perhaps consider this moment a chance to add a new mentor, someone who will push you, to your network.
  • Be disappointed when you’re let down. When someone has a job with big responsibilities and/or a family at home, you are not his or her biggest priority. Sorry.
    • Mentors don’t usually benefit from taking time to help you. They assist you out of kindness and a desire to see you succeed, but that doesn’t mean they can fulfill all of your expectations. If someone refuses to mentor you or meet with you, be respectful. Perhaps it will work out in the future when he or she has less going on. Otherwise, it’s not meant to be.

Do:

  • Work hard. Whether you are organizing a school project or collecting data for research, bring your best efforts to the table. They will be noticed.
  • Be creative. Approach your projects with innovative ideas and critical problem-solving skills, which are sure to impress potential mentors. Taking risks at work also allows you to learn from trial and error. Use your creativity to open doors, build confidence, form professional relationships, and, most importantly, have fun with your work!
  • Look for the right person, not position. It’s great if you admire a person because of his or her job title, but it’s better to admire a person because of his or her character. Ideally, you can find the best of both worlds.
  • Know your worth and take the lead. When the time is right, don’t shy away from responsibilities or opportunities offered to you. One of the best ways to attract a great mentor is to focus on the characteristics that you find to be most valuable in employees and leaders. What do all leaders have? Self-confidence and a good work ethic. Highlight yours when you can.
  • Ask strategically. When you have proven yourself in the classroom or office and you’re ready to ask for guidance and career advice, cut to the chase. If you know the person well—a boss or a professor, for example—it may be appropriate to ask for mentorship in person. If you haven’t had the chance to speak often, email is appropriate. When you are approaching someone to ask for mentorship, be kind and mature.
    • Appreciate the opportunities you’ve already had. If you’re grateful for the internship or the recommendation letter, say so. Otherwise, if you haven’t worked closely with this person before, simply say “thank you” for taking the time to read your email or for giving you a business card.
    • Mention that you want to take advantage of available resources. You are a go-getter looking to make the most of every opportunity that you have. Let that come across.
    • Be clear about your goals. It’s easy to ramble when you find yourself in the presence of a superior. Enter the conversation prepared. Remember, your goal is to find a mentor willing to share his or her story with you. It’s not a bad idea to outright tell your prospective mentor what you’re looking for: “The longer I work here, the more interested I am in your career path. I was hoping we could sit down for an hour to talk about your position and how you arrived where you are.”
    • Stray from the generics. Give well-developed reasons as to why you admire this person’s work. Is it organized or creative? Being specific about someone’s work style shows that you’ve been paying attention. Be careful not to drag in other names to the conversation. Maybe you have two bosses, but you don’t care for one of them. Under no circumstances should you compare a prospective mentor with someone else.
    • Say this: “I wanted to ask you because we work together so well.”
    • Not this: “I didn’t want to ask Steve because we don’t work together well.”
    • Take the lead. Don’t be afraid to send your contact an email or pull your boss aside to ask for help. You have nothing to lose. Ask if he or she would be willing to answer your questions via email or over coffee. Even if a prospective mentor doesn’t have time to meet with you, he or she will likely be flattered that you reached out.
  • Build a diverse network. Your circle can never be too big. Everyone has something to offer, so mentors come in many forms. They can be family members, friends, clients, students, teachers, and strangers. Keep an open mind. Remember, one day, with experience and hard work, you too can become a mentor.

About Katelyn Brush

Katelyn likes learning, good health, traveling, and pizza on Fridays. Her mixed education, composed of SUNY the College at Brockport, a semester at a community college, and one abroad at the University of Oxford, helped her earn a bachelor’s degree in English. College also gave her a few lessons in Taekwondo and sleeping in a hostel dorm with total strangers. She’s a yoga teacher, author and illustrator of the children’s book, “Signing Together: A Guide to American Sign Language for Everyone.” As a Student Caffé writer, she hopes to help you through the highs and lows of college with a laugh ... or 20.

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