8 tips to help college students start networking

Cheerful Multi Ethnic Group of Friends Having a Breakfast Together in a Cafe

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Networking is a great tool for students and young professionals to get their foot in the door and make meaningful career connections.

An estimated 85% of jobs are filled through networking, according to a survey by consultant Lou Adler and LinkedIn. What’s more, jobs obtained through networking tend to be higher-quality, higher-paying jobs that last longer, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. And that same survey concluded that people who are well networked tend to advance more quickly in their careers.

However, networking can be daunting, especially for those who are shy or have never done it before. But it doesn’t have to be.

First, don’t think of it as a way to get people to do something for you or an easy way to get a job, but rather an opportunity to build meaningful relationships.

″[N]etworking is building relationships before you need them,” said Diane Darling, a consultant, keynote speaker, instructor, leadership coach, and author of The Networking Survival Guide.

What’s more, you’re probably already doing it.

″[W]hen you think about all the relationships that you’ve had in high school, college, babysitting, dog sitting, picking up someone’s medicine because they’re sick, bringing someone a meal — I consider all of that relationship building, which is networking,” Darling said.

So, you already have a network, but as you go along, you want to curate your network — adding contacts in the industry you’d like to pursue a career in or related industries. But how do you connect with those people?

1. Join clubs, take classes

You’ll want to check out networking events that are specific to your industry or areas of interest because they’re still the best place to meet people in your field. They may be hosted by your school’s career center (keep an eye out for those emails!), or you can use sites like Eventbrite or Meetup. Some cities have specific networking/meetup platforms, so do a quick online search to see what pops up.

One big tip is to choose targeted events hosted by affinity groups — those are groups defined by a common interest or goal. They can be related to your race, gender, sexuality, culture, religion, sports you play or anything else. This way, you’ll have something in common with the other attendees that you can use to easily start a conversation.

Cheng-Hau Kee, a student at New York University Law School, says joining clubs helped them widen their network even past school.

“This year I was one of the co-chairs of NYU OUTLaw, an organization for LGBTQ+ law students, as well as the vice chair of NYU APALSA, an organization for Asian American law students,” Kee said. “All of these organizations have been great for networking: Having a shared professional/academic/identity interest has made it easier to make friends with other students and share opportunities with each other, and these organizations all have a robust alumni network with many individuals who are more than open to providing mentorship and helping us build our professional networks.”

2. Just ask for a cup of coffee

If you’re making individual connections, it’s a lot easier to ask someone to have a cup of coffee or a Zoom chat to discuss their job, their company and their industry than to ask them to give you a job.

“You have to be long-term focused, rather than transactional short-term focused,” said Scott Gerber, CEO of Community.co, an organization that builds and manages community-driven programs for media companies and global brands, and co-author of “Superconnector,” a book about networking. ”[T]hink more about community and learning about people, wanting to be around people, talking to people, building value for people.”

3. Practice networking

Not every event has to be a high-pressure career opportunity; some can just be great ways to practice talking about yourself and with others.

“If you’re in the journalism industry, go to networking events that might be about cooking,” Darling suggested. “You might find it interesting, but it’s not necessarily what you want to do for work. Then at that event, you’re going to start learning how to be more comfortable going up to people who are strangers and introducing yourself and making small talk.”

And you never know when a connection you make in that event could lead to a future professional opportunity.

You can start smaller by having a career conversation with just one or two people, such as a new roommate, a classmate you haven’t spoken to before, a professor who teaches a class you’re interested in or are taking, or even a cold email or LinkedIn message to a professional in your field. You never know where one random conversation will take you, and at the very least, it’s great practice and the potential for a new friend.

4. Have talking points

It’s important to go into any networking scenario with a goal in mind and a few talking points. This doesn’t mean you have to spend hours preparing — just a little bit goes a long way.

You want to prepare for a networking event, however big or small, by researching the industry, topic, people attending, etc. Again, it doesn’t have to be a lot of prep, but going in armed with some knowledge of topics and people can be a huge help for starting conversations and making connections with people.

If you are actively looking for a job, it’s important to talk about what your career plans are, even in casual conversations — you never know when someone in a class or at a job has a lead that can help you. So, have a few short talking points prepared on that.

And, beyond that, if you are struggling with one particular thing such as public speaking, how to make small talk or how to make eye contact, a quick online search can turn up helpful videos. You’d be surprised how many other people out there have trouble with networking and have turned to the internet to share their tips and tricks!

5. Just be yourself

Most of us have moments of doubt or imposter syndrome, where you feel like maybe you don’t belong there. Or we may feel like we have to be something else to fit in. The best approach is just to be yourself. Your authentic self. Don’t let those voices sabotage your confidence. You absolutely belong there and are worthy of forming meaningful connections.

“It took me the longest time to learn that networking is not just a series of tit-for-tat transactions, but rather about creating value together,” Kee said. “And while having the knowledge and ‘hard’ skills needed to do substantive work does help with networking, in my experience the best networkers are people who use their ‘soft’ skills (like interpersonal communication, ability to promote teamwork and internal initiative) to show others how developing a relationship with them (no matter if it’s a job offer, making industry contacts, or just becoming personal friends) would make everyone’s lives better.”

ElBachir Chohaib, a senior at New York City College of Technology, recognizes that just being yourself may be the most powerful tool you have.

“Most of the students who graduate college have the same skills, the only difference is that someone might give you a referral because you have good soft skills. So just introduce yourself and present the best version of the real you,” Chohaib said.

You want to be able to talk about yourself without overselling, said Nathan Perez, a career coach at Career Innovation and co-author of The 20-Minute Networking Meeting.

“Focus on how to articulate your professional experience to date in a way that allows others to imagine how you plug into what they may be looking for right now,” Perez said. “In other words, tailor what you know how to do according to how it matches what they are looking for. But do not try to convince anyone that you have more than you do. Hiring and recruitment people see this happen all the time. Just trust that your experience will do all the work for you; you’ll either be a good match, or not.”

6. Be engaged

While networking, it’s important to be engaged and make an effort to meet people.

Darling says a great tip is when you introduce yourself, don’t start with your name. Instead, start with your connection, like how you’re from a certain city, your role (student at X University, intern at X company), or anything else that defines you at that moment.

Also, keep in mind that many other people at the event are most likely as nervous as you are, so if someone is by themselves, just go up and talk to them. They’ll probably be relieved and even grateful to have someone to talk to.

And, if you are attending an online event, Kelly Graham, senior associate director at the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University, says make sure your camera is on and you are engaging with others — talking, asking questions, dropping comments in the chat, etc. Show that you are willing to connect and make an effort to form those connections.

7. Offer to help them

Another great way to build relationships is to figure out how you can help people in your network, said Dan Yu, a career coach and founder of consulting and talent agency Fastbook Advisors. That way, you’re not just connecting with them and then asking them for something.

“Networking with people you don’t know is the best way to learn and ensure your career is sustainable,” Yu said. It’s “all about EQ [emotional intelligence, as opposed to IQ] and playing the long game. Give, give, give, and never count points. Offer help first before looking for value in return.”

What’s more, you’ll be known as someone who is helpful and a team player, and you just might come to mind when a job that you’re perfect for comes up.

8. Follow-up

Always follow up after you meet someone.

“Whether it is to thank them for their time, connect on LinkedIn or follow-up on a conversation, this is the beginning of building the relationship,” Graham said. “Stay connected by periodically reaching out to provide updates, congratulate them on accomplishments or share relevant information.”

You never know where someone might end up. It could be at a company or in and industry you want to work for. Or they may post an opportunity you’re interested in. And that means you don’t have to cold call someone at the company — you already have a connection.

And finally, just do it!

Networking may seem tiring and stressful at times, but you should never let the fear of networking prevent you from doing it. Graham admits that it may feel uncomfortable at first, but it will get easier with practice.

“Remember that people generally like to talk about what they do, especially with others who are interested in their field,” Graham said.

And if someone doesn’t respond? “First, don’t take it personally. If you’ve messaged someone twice without response, reach out to someone else. People are busy, and if you are connecting through social media, they may not be active users of the platform.”

Remember: The next step in your career can start from anywhere. Darling started teaching networking after her previous business failed, but in the process she realized she had a knack for speaking with people and forming connections. Perez started out as a professional actor and, through various connections, he ended up being signed by an agency that was run by the daughter and son-in-law of Elizabeth Taylor. He translated all his personal networking experience into his book “The 20-Minute Networking Meeting,” and it’s how he teaches others to build relationships to this day.

Wherever you’re starting from, remember that you have a network right now. It will continue to grow. What you do with it is up to you.

If you stay connected and keep building connections, you never know when one of them will lead to your next job!