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The college student’s guide to networking with alumni (and just about anyone)!

Many college students are intimidated by the word “networking.” Before I learned what networking was, I imagined a formal exchange of business cards and professional lingo.

In reality, networking is not always a formal or structured interaction. It can be as simple as talking to a stranger.

One time, as I was walking through Syracuse Hancock International Airport, a woman working at the airport stopped me, pointing to my t-shirt. “You go to Hamilton College? My daughter goes to Colgate University!” We talked for a couple of minutes, and our conversation ended with her asking me if I needed anything while I waited for my gate to open.

Chances are, you have a bigger network than you imagine. And expanding your network can be as simple as talking about your future goals and interests with someone you already know. One of my colleagues at Hamilton’s career center didn’t hesitate to give me her mom’s contact information when I told her I was interested in the education industry.

Networking can be the key to getting your first job or breaking into an industry. But remember—while the people in your network are often willing to give, the goal of networking is not to take.

Networking is not about using people to secure a job; rather, networking is about forming connections and developing relationships. These relationships, however brief, are often built on open communication and a willingness to help.

While networking can be quite casual, most of my networking experience in college was through informational interviews. A more structured form of networking, an informational interview is a brief conversation (approximately 30 minutes) with someone about career-related knowledge and advice.

Networking: a step-by-step guide

Informational interviews can look very different. I have spoken to many alums from Hamilton College; some recent graduates, some parents, and even a CEO. I once connected to an HR manager over the phone, asking about her career pathway and the culture of her company; the conversation fell flat and I scrambled to think of more questions to fill the time.

In another instance, I spoke to a CEO of a publishing company. While the conversation felt pretty awkward, at the end of the interview, he asked if I was interested in interning at the company.

The more alumni you speak with, the more effortless networking becomes. The key is to be intentional throughout the networking process.

Step 1. Find someone to network with

While you can network with anyone, the best people to start with are people you already know or alumni from your current college.

Identify who is in your core network. Your core network consists of family, friends, colleagues (from any past work experience), your high school community (teachers, coaches, etc.), and your college community (peers, professors, advisors). While your parents might not work in your field of interest, they each have their own network of friends and colleagues that they could connect you with.

Get a LinkedIn to find alumni to connect with. Your school might also have an alumni database, where you can search for people by their major, career field, position, geographic location, and more.

Step 2. Develop your goals and questions

Develop goals for your conversation. Once you have found someone you want to connect with, figure out what your goals are. If you have no clue what career field you are interested in yet, your goal might be to learn more about a career field, including the culture of a company, work responsibilities, daily work, lifestyle, etc. If you are pretty certain of your career field, your goal might be to gain advice about securing a position in that field.

Prepare a list of questions. Once you have determined your goals, write down a list of 5-8 questions. You can always ask more questions in the interview, but these questions will be a helpful guide for your conversation.

Step 3. Request the interview

In most cases, you will request an interview via email. Unless you know the person already, address them by their appropriate title, e.g. “Ms. Maddox,” to avoid sounding overly familiar.

Introduce yourself. What year are you, and where do you go to school? How might this person know you (e.g. college connection, family friend)? What are your academic interests? Most importantly, you want to establish a connection between you and this person: perhaps you both live in Seattle, or they were in your college a cappella group, or they double-majored in the same subjects you are studying. You might use this connection in the email subject line: “Hamilton History Major interested in Education Industry”

Establish your goals for the conversation. Why are you choosing to talk to this person specifically? You don’t want to list out your questions, but write a few sentences stating some relevant points about them and what you hope to learn about.

Request the interview. Politely ask them if they would be willing to set up a time to talk. Be specific about how you want to connect with them, whether it is in person, on Zoom, or over the phone. Also, be specific about when you are free to connect with them, e.g. “I am available to call Mondays-Fridays any time after 4 pm EST.” Also, check whether they might be in a different time zone before requesting times.

Important Reminders

• Never (ever!) ask an alum for a job in an email or informational interview. You want to avoid language that even implies that this person will help you secure a job, e.g. “I appreciate you taking the time to help me find an entry-level position at [company].” The same generally applies to people in your core network. You are allowed to be honest about your goals, but you never want to ‘use’ someone for their resources.

• Be professional and considerate. Wear something professional, and keep the conversation within a 30-minute window (unless they want to keep discussing).

• Send a thank-you note shortly after your call and try to stay connected with this person (if the call went successfully). Remember, you are trying to form a relationship with them.

• Sometimes, the alum will not respond to your request. This is perfectly okay and doesn’t indicate that you did anything wrong. People are busy, and you can always find someone else to connect with.

• Remember to share your own wealth of knowledge and advice with others. Offer to be a resource for peers, former colleagues, cousins, friends, and anyone looking for advice or insight.

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