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U. Networking

by Rebecca VanderMeulen

When Eric Loepp chatted with his professors during office hours, he wasn't wrangling for his first job after college. He was, however, building relationships, one of which led to the job he started after graduating from the University of Richmond in 2008.

Basically, Eric was networking. You've probably heard you have to network to get jobs or internships, but how exactly do you do that? "Think about it as just connecting," says job-search expert Margaret Riley Dikel. "You don't have to 'network.' You just have to get out there and be friendly."

As a sophomore, Eric took a class with Dr. Tom Shields, who runs the Center for Leadership in Education on the campus in Richmond, Virginia. The following summer, Dr. Shields wanted a student to teach in a weeklong leadership program for high school seniors, and Eric volunteered. He taught in the same program the following summer, and kept in touch with Dr. Shields throughout college. That's how Eric found out the Center for Leadership in Education was hiring a program coordinator. He got the job and credits his relationship with his professor. "I don't know how many other people applied for the job I have," Eric says. "I know there are a number of people who had more education and experience than I had."

Cara Bendler, a recent graduate of Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, says she landed almost every job she's had because she was connected to someone with a job opening. That includes the position she accepted in January with NCO Financial Systems, where she drafts debt-collection letters.

Cara says she got her job after connecting on Facebook with a high school classmate who worked for a staffing agency. He offered to give Cara's resume to his boss, who in turn set up an interview with Cara. "The biggest thing is to keep yourself open to anything," she says. "Networking is not always going to happen at a professional event. Sometimes it's just socializing and being out and talking to people."

Campus connections

Start your networking as a freshman because being in college connects you to students, professors and alumni. Margaret, author of "The Riley Guide" (www.rileyguide.com), says alumni are great connections because they're full of information, know others who work in their fields, and want to help students at the schools they graduated from. She suggests going to alums for help with research projects or asking if you can tour their workplaces or shadow them for a day on the job. Your professors or campus career center can point you to graduates who might help. Eric says talking with professors during their office hours is another good idea. After all, office hours aren't just for help with papers. Chat about what you find interesting in class or check out your professor's biography and ask about a job she had before teaching. Talk to fellow students, too, says Dr. Kerstin Soderlund, associate dean at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies. Ask upperclassmen which campus activities helped them land internships and good grades.

Ask for advice, not a job

Networking doesn't mean begging for a job. When you're talking to a professional, Dr. Soderlund suggests asking how he got the job he has now, what he thinks you can do with your major, and what insights he has on the field you're interested in. Margaret says networking means helping others, too.

"The next question to ask is, 'What can I possibly offer back? Maybe this person needs an intern for the summer,' " she says. " 'Maybe I could introduce them to other students in my department.' "

Online and in person

You can connect with people on social networks like Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. If you don't know someone personally, introduce yourself when you ask to connect. And be sure to clear those drunken party photos off your profile. "Referrals from people in your network are likely to carry more weight with companies since there is a connection," says Denise Cooper, marketing director at gCommerce Solutions, an Internet marketing company in Park City, Utah. "LinkedIn is often preferable to companies as it tends to be more of a business network. Twitter can act in the same fashion by revealing people in networks who may be able to assist." But there's no substitute for networking in person. Attend presentations and networking events and go to the receptions afterward. Make up a business card so you have something to hand out. Jepson hosts speed-networking events where students and alumni have four minutes to talk before moving on to the next person. "Oftentimes, before the students even leave that night, an alum says, 'Hey, can you send me your resume?' " says Dr. Soderlund.

Networking isn't everything

Knowing someone at a company might land an interview, but that doesn't equal a job. Molly Webb, human resources specialist at USKH, a design and engineering company in Anchorage, Alaska, goes to career fairs and recruits at colleges. When a job opens up, she contacts people who stand out. Recommendations from current employees help, but not as much as being qualified and fitting into the firm, Molly says.