5 Tips for Empowering Your Students Through Teaching Networking Skills
Employer networking events are the perfect opportunity for students to learn about a field of interest and communicate how their skills could be a good match for the company…if done correctly. Attend a college career fair, and you may notice a number of students hanging around, not really engaging with anyone else, or stopping by an employer’s table but hesitating to ask questions. Networking is the fancy, professional way of saying: make friends on the playground. It’s relationship-building, usually with a specific purpose.
Without a clear understanding of the expectations around professional networking, however, students will continue to stumble through informational interviews and other critical touchpoints with prospective employers. Teaching networking skills will help students avoid making empty connections – or worse, making a bad first impression.
Use these 5 tips that empower underclassmen students to master critical networking skills and progress forward in their professional development:
1. Align Your Goals
What’s your primary motive in attempting to foster a relationship with X person? If you start a conversation with someone but have no clear direction, they won’t know how they can help you, and they may be annoyed at the seemingly unproductive use of time. Without a clear goal in mind, the usual result is basic chit-chat about the weather — not a topic over which both parties share a profound mutual interest. If you’re trying to find an internship or a future job, lead the conversation in that direction. Talk not just to people who work at your dream company, but people whose goals overlap with yours and can be helpful to you.
Networking can seem disingenuous when forcing a relationship between people with differing goals. Ensuring that your goals align with the person you’re trying to build a relationship with will help you to start off in the right direction. Making it clear what you’re looking for helps yourself and whoever you talk to. Almost anyone will be able to help so long as they know how.
Being clear in what you hope to find portrays yourself as a deliberate and articulate person who knows what they want. People will know how they can provide assistance. Help people help you.
2. Help People Find You
Chances are, people at networking events are already going to be surrounded by students wanting to talk to them. Even outside of these events, finding new people to meet can be a task, but it’s possible if you present yourself in a way that others don’t. Remember to act appropriately.
Observe what you can do that the other students aren’t doing. Are they all hanging back and listening to the person instead of interacting with them? You can stand out if you formally introduce yourself to the person afterward and strike up a conversation with them.
Conversations between a student and someone else should be mutual. They’ll want to stick close to you if you’re not just mooching off of them hoping for a job. Consider how you can give back to them, both in the conversation and in real life. Asking for advice or even talking about yourself can let people know that you want to establish some sort of relationship. Make the person aware that you’re a hard-working student.
If a potential employer wants to introduce herself first, go ahead and listen, even if the company doesn’t land within your interests. You never know what sorts of opportunities could be in store.
3. Find Common Ground
Your academic interests can be a good indicator of what you want to do, but they don’t fully capture who you are as a person. Making an effective networking experience depends on finding people who share common ground, such as hobbies, values, and personal background. Having a major and professional goal in common is great, but networking should not depend entirely on that.
For example, did they also like to play a particular sport? Are you on the Model UN team? How do you generally spend time on campus when you’re not in class?
Make a mental note if you don’t find anything in common with the person you’re trying to network with. Don’t jump to conclusions; you may just need to spend more time getting to know them.
4. Explore All Around
Some might perceive networking as talking to an employer and magically landing a job if they like you enough. However, it’s not just talking to potential employers. The best option is to talk to all types of people. Current students, advisors, professors, and alumni are all great choices to pick from. Plus, practicing professional relationship-building with faculty and alumni is a safe space to fail. It’s much better to make a networking faux-pas with your professor, who will likely kindly teach you the correct course of action, instead of with your dream employer.
It’s no good if you’re closed to any opportunity that isn’t exactly like the one you wanted. Maybe you’re offered your dream job, but it’s in an entirely different location. Better yet, maybe an employer has a job opening that’s in your preferred location and is something you’d like to do but never thought about. You’ll never know what you like until you explore the different possibilities that are available.
Whether you’re more articulate in what you desire or are open to exploring, making an effort to consider and learn about various career possibilities will help you slowly build your professional network. Over time, you’ll start to connect the dots in your network.
5. Be Patient
The most important thing to remember is that networking is an ongoing, never-ending process. Nothing happens overnight, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not contacted back right away. Even when finding someone who’s eager to help you, they may have busy work schedules and will only get back to you once they’re available.
After the initial contact, keep working. Learn what’s appropriate once a connection is established. It wouldn’t be polite to outright ask for a job the day after you met someone. Introduce yourself, but also keep up-to-date with people.
Once you’ve established a relationship with someone, you can safely assume that they know you, your interests, and your skills fairly well. The appeal of networking events to employers is that they have the benefit of getting to know you in a more natural setting than a job interview (or worse, a resume). Teaching networking skills to students will help them prepare to nail these interactions.