College, with its wealth of people and information, is a great time to begin building a network of contacts. These contacts can help you later on when you need references for graduate school or a job, are looking for an internship in your field, are traveling to a new city, or are seeking new job opportunities. Although these things may not be on your radar right now, they definitely will be in a few years. By planning now, you’ll set yourself up for success later.
So, why is a network important to have?
Well, let’s say you decide to apply to graduate school. As part of your application, you’ll need two or three letters of recommendation (preferably from professors in your major). If you never get to know any of your professors outside of seeing them in class, they will have very little to write about you and you will not get a very strong recommendation letter—if they agree to write one at all. Alternatively, if you have taken two or more of their classes, spoken with them regularly at office hours, and worked on research projects with them, they will be able to write a much stronger letter.
In another scenario, if you decide to pursue an internship, or you’re searching for jobs after graduation, your chances of landing a great opportunity go up exponentially if you have a personal connection with someone at the company. Your contact can put in a good word for you and speak to your strengths as a candidate.
Building a network isn’t difficult, either. It’s mostly about talking to people you know and making new acquaintances. With a little effort, your network will boom.
- Go to events. Whether it’s a talk hosted by your department, a campus-sponsored luncheon, or an off-campus seminar, attend any event you can that’s related to your field. Bring a friend with you—if one of you already knows some of the people at the event, you can introduce each other. Stay for any receptions after the event ends; this is your best chance to network with other audience members and the people running (or starring in) the event. Be sure to be on your best behavior; if alcohol is served, limit yourself to one or two drinks so that you don’t accidentally go overboard.
- Go to office hours. Your professors are a valuable resource and already have massive networks that you may be able to capitalize on—if you get to know them. Attend office hours, volunteer for projects outside of class, and work hard in class. You want to set yourself apart so that when opportunities arise, you’re one of the first people they think of.
- Act professional. This advice applies to special events, but also to how you present yourself on campus. Don’t mistakenly think that once you graduate, you’ll never need to interact with your professors, classmates, or advisors ever again. Try to build positive, professional relationships with a variety of people. You don’t want to be remembered as the student who showed up late to every class or who didn’t show up to class at all. Make a point to behave around potential recommenders as you would a potential employer.
- Get contact information and follow up later. If you have spent significant time talking with someone at an event, don’t be afraid to ask to exchange email addresses in order to keep in touch. More than likely, they will be happy to do so; after all, they’re building their network as well. You may want to consider getting some business cards with your name and contact information on them to easily share your information (and that way you don’t have to carry around a notebook). If you do exchange contact information, reach out a few days later thanking your new connection for their time. This will establish a written relationship and show that you value them.
- Keep in touch. Reach out occasionally to remind members of your network that you exist. Asking for advice about internship opportunities, your résumé, and/or your post-graduation job search are all options. If you’re going to be visiting their location anytime in the future, consider asking to meet up for a meal. Not only will they be a good source of advice, but they may offer you an opportunity with someone they know or give you a good recommendation for a job.
- Join LinkedIn. This site is made for building and keeping in touch with a network of people. You can connect with people you’ve met, and see who else is in their network once you’re connected. Think of LinkedIn as a family tree that deals with work connections and jobs instead of grandparents and cousins. You can also announce whether you’re looking for positions and list past jobs and education; it’s a virtual résumé and a great way for you to advertise yourself.
- Check out your school’s alumni association. The association is often made up of groups of alumni in cities across the country. If there is one near you, you may want to check how often they meet up and what sorts of activities they do. Sometimes there will be happy hours, but other times there will be meet and greets with prospective students or current professors. You can also check the alumni directory online for contact information of alums in your major, your city, or from your graduating class. The common ground of having attended the same college is a great conversation starter.
- Join a group you’re interested in. Don’t just try to contact CEOs and influential people; some people will be successful later on, and building a relationship now could benefit you both later. If you have a specific hobby or topic you’re passionate about, join a group related to it. You’re sure to meet others like you who are interested in the same things. It may end up that someone who works for the hiring department at Apple is in your book club, or someone who knows a lot of lawyers across the country goes to your gym.
What’s your favorite way to make connections?