After years of clocking in hours at the library and strategically forming study groups, many students are met with a hard realization: the linear path to success that worked so well in school doesn’t necessarily apply once they’re out in the “real world” looking for a job. While they may know how to formulate a strong thesis and will never forget those pesky algebraic equations, students may struggle when it comes to jump-starting their career. They’re taking all the right steps — researching companies, writing cover letters and applying to jobs online — so, why aren’t they having any luck?
The answer may be “networking.” We hear about it all the time, but it can be one of the most intimidating — and confusing — parts of the job process. After all, what really is networking? And how can students do it both effectively and in a way they feel comfortable?
What is networking?
Jane Horowitz, founder of More Than a Resume, a career-launching service to help young professionals land their first job, defines networking as “sharing information and building a relationship.” Whether we realize it or not, this is something we do every single day. So, why is the idea of “networking” so daunting for students? “Networking has a negative connotation because people associate it with asking for a job,” Horowitz says. “However, if done correctly, you’re never really outright asking the person for anything.” Instead of getting caught up in the fear of being too pushy, your student should focus on fostering genuine relationships so people want to help them.
Students often hesitate to reach out to people they don’t know personally, but “having connections” is not a prerequisite to networking. In fact, the fewer connections your student has prior to networking, the more they can benefit from reaching out to professionals within their field. After all, learning how to build relationships is a lifelong skill your student will use at every stage of their career.
Why is networking important?
We’ve all heard it before: “It’s not about what you know, it’s about who you know.” Or moreover, “who knows you.” While this advice is well-meaning, it can also feel discouraging for students who have spent the last few years primarily focused on their studies. However, it’s said so often for a reason: there’s a lot of truth to it. Does that mean working hard in school was for nothing? Of course not. But now, students need to learn how to apply that same intentionality to networking.
LinkedIn, a social networking site designed specifically for the business community, found people are more likely to be referred for jobs by their second and third- degree connections than their initial contacts. However, this concept isn’t exactly novel. In fact, in 1973, sociologist Mark Granovetter wrote the revolutionary paper, The Strength of Weak Ties, after conducting a study which found that “more than three-quarters of new jobs had come from leads from contacts who were seen only ‘occasionally’ or ‘rarely.’” Furthermore, in the book "The Defining Decade," Dr. Meg Jay dives into how this concept plays out today. These untapped resources are like “bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead,” Jay says.
So, even if the first few people your student reaches out to can’t hire them, someone they know might be able to. But before your graduate picks up the phone, sends an email, or steps foot into an interview, they should take time to look inward and have a better grasp of who they are, what they’ve done, and how they can apply these skills moving forward.
How can students prepare to network?
As your student builds their network, they should have a few thoughts in mind: Who am I? What have I done? And how can I transform these life experiences into a tangible career? Having a grasp on their story — and why it’s valuable — will not only lay the groundwork for who your student should reach out to during this process, but also, why that person should help them.
Map out experience. Experience is like a good night’s sleep. We all want it, we all know it’s important, but we never feel like we have enough of it. The fact is, there’s no “right” amount of experience. So, instead of dwelling on what they did, students should look at what they learned. Can they find a time when they overcame an obstacle, and identify what qualities enabled them to do it? Going over their accomplishments will help your student understand their strengths, which will guide them as they map out what career paths they wish to explore, and who they hope to speak to about it.
Narrow down interests. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” While this question used to excite our children when they were younger and the possibilities seemed endless (think: “astronaut princess!”), it now sends them into a tailspin. (Think: “Maybe a lawyer, or a writer, or… stop asking me so many questions!”) The truth is, many students will graduate without an exact career trajectory in mind, and that’s okay. But when networking, it’s important for students to have some clear ideas of what type of people and organizations they’re interested in.
Does your student want to work at a record label or a television network? In a big city or by the countryside? At a large corporation or a smaller company? Horowitz recommends that students are clear on what they are — and aren’t — looking for. “You can’t just contact someone saying, ‘Hey, I need a job,’” Horowitz says. “Instead, start off by saying, ‘I’m graduating *this* year with a major in *this.* I’m looking for jobs in *this* field at *these* companies. If there’s anyone you might know I could speak with, please let me know.’” The more specific your student can be, the better the other person will understand how to help. That being said, there’s always some flexibility needed when finding a first job, so make sure your student doesn’t get hyper-focused on secondary qualities, like a certain salary or being in one specific city.
Perfect the “elevator pitch.” Ah, the “elevator pitch.” Not familiar? It’s a quick, 30-second speech about yourself prepared in the event you waltz into an elevator with the one person who can make — or break — your career. Chances are, your student will not encounter this exact scenario. However, there will be a time when someone will mutter those five impossible words, “So, tell me about yourself.” And newsflash — it’s surprisingly difficult to answer. (Don’t believe us? Try it for yourself.)
So what can students do to prepare? “It’s super important you have a script,” Horowitz says. It’s not just about writing it out, however. The most crucial step in perfecting the elevator pitch is practicing it. Whether it’s at home, in the mirror, or with a friend – figuring out exactly what they want to say ahead of time will help your student nail it in the future. (Psst – remind your student to use a stopwatch, so they can make sure they’re sticking to 30 seconds!)
Not every individual your student speaks to will be the CEO of their dream company, but they should still work to perfect their elevator pitch. Why? Because it’ll get them into the habit of quickly hitting on all the points they want a person to know about them. Remember: the better information your student can provide, the more likely that person will know how they can help.
How can students build relationships?
Find like-minded individuals. The prospect of building your network can feel intimidating at any age, but as a young professional, your student may be at a loss of where to even begin. A recent study by Wellesley College and the University of Kansas found that human beings are actually hardwired to be attracted to “like-minded” individuals. In other words, the more you have in common with someone, the more likely you are to connect with them. Was your student involved in clubs on campus? Did they volunteer at a local organization? Does their school have a strong alumni network? Your student should brainstorm people who may already be peripherally a part of their network. Of course, this is not to suggest students should only reach out to individuals exactly like themselves, but finding similarities can lay the foundation for a genuine connection to be built on.
Use networking sites. Here’s the kicker to finding contacts: their email address and phone number probably won’t be public information, so how are students expected to get in touch with them? “LinkedIn is a great resource,” Horowitz says. LinkedIn not only enables users to find — and apply to — specific positions within certain companies, but also gives you access to the people who work there. Another great spot to check? The Muse. This site is not only filled with job openings and career advice, but also includes testimonials from the employees that work at the companies listed.
Give people a reason to respond. Looking for contacts is only half the battle, however. In the “Age of Information,” when everyone’s inbox is constantly overflowing, how can students ensure their email is not only read, but also worthy of a response? “It starts with the subject line,” Horowitz says. This is the most prime real estate for relevant information (think: alma mater, mutual connections, etc.), so students can capture the attention of the person they’re reaching out to, even when the receiver doesn’t recognize their email address. “Students are trying to contact busy people, so they need to give them a reason to invest their time,” Horowitz says. “If someone said, ‘Hey, you should talk to…’ put the name of the person who referred you in the subject line.” This won’t only help your student gain recognition, but also, credibility.
So once the subject line is good to go, where do students begin in the body paragraph? Be specific and start with a simple, straightforward introduction. Have your student introduce who they are, what they studied, what jobs they are looking for, and at what companies, so the reader understands right away how they can be helpful. If someone referred your student to speak with them, they should reiterate that, as well. Finally, what do they actually want from this person? “Ten to fifteen minutes to talk on the phone is all you’re asking for,” Horowitz says.
Keep it short and to the point. When a person does respond, your student should recognize that this person doesn’t have to help them and doesn’t actually owe them any of their time. Keeping it short allows even the busiest people to find the time, without it being a major inconvenience. It also encourages students to make the most of the minutes allotted. “Make sure they aren’t interviewing you. Instead, ask them about themselves and their career trajectory,” Horowitz says. (Hint: “How did you get started? What made you successful?”) Your student should do a little digging and brainstorm some questions, so they know what they want to talk about ahead of time.
How can young professionals stay connected?
Follow up. Once your student has made initial contact, how can they maintain it? It starts with the follow-up. It’s common courtesy to thank a person after they’ve invested their time, but following up goes beyond being polite. Your student should also give indication of any next steps they might take, whether it’s applying to a job, or reaching out to another contact. Then, once your student has status updates, such as an interview, they should let that person know. And once your student finally lands that dream job they’ve been looking for? They should loop back with every person they spoke to along the way — even if they weren’t directly responsible for the final offer. After all, as the old (and outdated) proverb goes, “Success has many fathers (and mothers).”
Stay in touch. When people support young professionals early in their career, they like to know whether they helped them succeed. “Find a champion,” Horowitz says. “And once you’ve found one, send a million thank you's.” But those thank you's shouldn’t end once you get the job. Checking in over the years and maintaining contact is key to building solid long-term relationships.
How can students continue networking once they have a job?
Play the long game. Here’s the secret to networking: you never really stop doing it — not once you’re employed, and not as you climb up the ranks. In fact, it’s just as important when you have a job as it is when you’re looking for one. If your student can identify individuals whose career paths they admire, they can ask them for informational interviews, or connect with them on LinkedIn, to learn more about it. Even if they aren’t actively looking for another job, that connection might help them down the line.
Once comforted by a familiar path of “work hard, get the grade,” students heading into the workforce are now faced with a new reality, where putting in the effort doesn’t always equate to an immediate result. But, encourage your student to stay positive. When it comes to landing a job, it almost never happens as soon as you’d hope — especially when it’s your first “real” one. However, if your student maintains momentum and continues forming relationships with new people, an opportunity will surely arise.