Being a college student is a tough gig these days.
You have to deal with long hours at school, hefty tuition bills, the impending responsibilities of adulthood, and most importantly, networking.
Wait, what? Networking? Isn’t “networking” for guys who’ve already graduated? You shouldn’t have to worry about that sleazy old tactic of passing out business cards at boring cocktail parties while you’re also worrying about exams and homework, right?
Think again. If you believe you can cruise through college, focusing just on your classes and what party to go to this weekend, you’ll be in for a rude awakening come graduation.
Here’s the problem: most college students don’t give a minute of thought into building a network.
In this article, I want to challenge your perspective. Art of Manliness has previously provided plenty of advice to help you survive college — from style tips to classroom etiquette to note-taking strategies to study tips.
Today, I want to convince you that college isn’t just about what you do inside the classroom. You need to put almost as much effort into building relationships which will help your career as you put into your studies. To make it easier for you, I’m going to give you some practical ideas for how you can begin building relationships while you are still in college that will help you get a job after you graduate, help you launch or finance a business, and maybe even fuel your career for years to come.
Research shows that 70 to 80 percent of jobs are not advertised. That means if you want to hear about the vast majority of jobs, you will need to find out about them from people in your network. And your network can’t be bought, borrowed, or downloaded like an app; it must be created by you through consistent action over time. That’s why it’s critical that you start building those relationships now so you hear about these unadvertised jobs when it’s time to hit the market.
The good news is that it is relatively easy to build a strong network if you adopt the right mindset and take consistent action. Here are eight tips to start building relationships that matter while you are still in college.
1. Adopt the Right Mindset
The first step is to adopt the right frame of mind. It is important to understand that it doesn’t matter how much experience you have or how old you are.
Your goal is simply to provide value to the people you meet, even if it’s something simple like a restaurant recommendation or showing someone a computer shortcut. But you need to start by having the confidence in yourself that you have value to contribute.
“The hurdle most college students have is the feeling that they have nothing to offer,” says Michelle Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likeability. “But we’ve all been in that position, no matter how far we are in our careers. We’ve all had the feeling like we have nothing to offer.”
Lederman recalls meeting with a very successful CEO when she was a recent college graduate. Lederman says she “didn’t have a clue” about how business worked that early in her career, but she simply asked the CEO thought-provoking questions which gave him a new perspective on a problem he had been struggling with.
“Don’t underestimate what your curiosity and your interest can give to somebody else,” says Lederman. “Giving somebody feedback, giving somebody curiosity, asking for advice – those are actually all gifts that can make someone else feel value.”
2. Be Cognizant of Your Image and Reputation
You may think that college is an escape from the “real world,” but the reality is everything you do in college will follow you around when you hit the working world.
It’s kind of like that saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas,” only in reverse. What happens in college doesn’t stay in college.
In other words, if you act like Bluto Blutarsky during college, you may get laughs, but you’ll also probably be the last guy your friends will think of for job openings or business opportunities after you graduate.
Matt Stewart, the CEO of College Works Painting, uses a metaphor of the wake behind a boat to illustrate the impact your behavior and actions around others can have on your larger reputation. “You have to consider your wake,” says Stewart. “When a boat goes by, it leaves some ripples. You have to manage the ripples left behind and their image.”
Stewart says a bad reputation will never be forgotten. “There was a guy we called ‘No Pay Ray’ in college,” says Stewart. Why did they call him No Pay Ray? Because “whenever we went anywhere, he never pitched in on the tab.”
Today, Stewart says, No Pay Ray “calls me with [potential] deals all the time.” But Stewart doesn’t give these opportunities the time of day. “I remember his ethics were a little off in college, and they are off now. He asks me to do business deals together. I would never do it. Not because of who he is now, but because of who he was then.”
Stewart graduated in 1994. That means that more than 20 years after Stewart graduated from college, Ray’s actions in his late teenage years continue to hurt him. That may not seem fair, but the fact that people have a stubborn, long memory is a reality of life.
Remember this lesson the next time you are out to dinner with your buddies and the check arrives.
It’s also important to be cognizant of your reputation and image online. Your peers, and in some cases professors and bosses, are seeing what you post to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. If it’s not something you want to be remembered for in 5, 10, and even 20 years down the road, don’t post it. It’s that simple.
3. Start With Your Current Network and Look for Introductions
College has always been known as a time to build solid, life-long relationships. Be proactive about building those relationships and staying in touch with old friends. One way you can ease into this is to use your classes as points of commonality to meet fellow students.
Move around during the semester and sit in different parts of the classroom, introducing yourself to the person sitting next to you. If you’re having trouble growing your network, this will help you build confidence and meet new friends. Heck, you might even get a date out of it.
The people you already know can be a great conduit for expanding your network. But you need to start by making introductions if you want to receive them. When you introduce people in your network to one another who would benefit by knowing each other, you build up goodwill, and those people you introduce will want to reciprocate the favor.
4. Take Advantage of Internships That Are Exclusive to Students
There are a lot of great internships out there, and many of them are only open to you while you’re a student. Take advantage of these! Some examples of well known companies that offer student internships are Disney, Google, and Proctor & Gamble. An internship is a great place to forge solid relationships with potential mentors and even employers.
In fact, I can literally credit my entire career to a student internship. During the fall semester of my senior year in college, I interned in the White House speechwriting office. That led to a job as a writer at the White House after graduation. I got that full-time job because of the relationships I built through the internship. Both of those experiences opened the doors for every opportunity in my career that has come after it. Bottom line: if you have a shot at a good internship, take it!
5. Get Involved With a Student Organization
Many student organizations are chartered through national organizations. Getting involved with these groups could give you opportunities to meet people outside of your college. For example, if you were interested in politics, both the College Democrats and the College Republicans would be good ways to network within that field, as these groups often have local party politicians speaking at their meetings, and the groups are considered valuable volunteer resources for political campaigns. If you rise to a position of leadership within one of these groups, you may get on the radar screen of influential power players.
When thinking about what organization to join, don’t just focus on student groups. Many trade associations offer student membership rates for free or at a discounted price. Having a discounted membership can give you more affordable access to conferences or conventions that provide great opportunities to network with professionals in that field.
6. Offer to Work for Free
This is a different concept from internships; think about it more as working for individuals or businesses for a limited term and/or on a discrete project rather than on an ongoing basis like an intern. Author and business coach Charlie Hoehn built his career off of giving away his work to key influencers that he wanted to build a relationship with.
According to Hoehn:
“Free work is a different approach altogether. It allows you to work in whatever industry you want, on any projects you’re interested in. But unlike an internship, there are no dead ends…Businessmen are delighted when they outsource mindless tasks to virtual assistants overseas, at a few bucks an hour, and receive the completed work a few days later. Now imagine the impact you can have if you do really high quality work, for absolutely free, on valuable projects that require a creative flair.” – Recession Proof Graduate (available for free download on Charlie’s site)
This ties in closely with what was said earlier about having value to offer that you may not realize. Using this simple “free work” approach, Hoehn built close relationships with bestselling authors like Tim Ferriss and Ramit Sethi. Not a bad deal for a guy who once applied to over 100 companies without receiving a single job offer!
If you do offer to work for free, be sure you set reasonable expectations. It can be challenging to follow through when you are not getting paid, so don’t bite off more than you can chew. It would be better not to volunteer at all than to offer to work for free and then stop showing up midway through your commitment. Also be sure that your stint doing free work is on a limited basis. Remember, you have value to offer, and your time and effort are worth more than just experience.
7. Connect With Your Friends’ Parents and Follow Through
Your friends’ parents may have expertise in the field you are interested in. Have your friends introduce you if you don’t have a pre-existing relationship and then ask for their feedback on your career path. Most people are more than willing to share advice on their area of expertise to enthusiastic college students — especially if you show eagerness and aptitude.
But if your want your friends’ parents to help you in more concrete ways, you will need to give them a reason to stick their neck out. “Even if your best friend’s dad is the perfect contact with all the connections, he will do nothing for you if you haven’t done something for yourself,” says Stewart, the College Works Painting CEO. “You have to show you’re the person who they should do a favor for. If you don’t have something to stand on that shows that you are a mover and shaker and you have integrity and a strong moral base, then your friend’s dad isn’t going to stand up for you.”
8. Get To Know Your College Professors and Administrators
Your professors and campus administrators are another great resource for you — but only if you seek them out.
A few months ago, an engineering student named Ben emailed me and told me he wanted to build a relationship with the president of his college, and he asked for advice as to how he could connect with her during her “office hours.” I suggested he offer to give her insight from a student’s perspective about campus life, something that would undoubtedly be valuable to the president of the campus.
A few months later, he emailed me back with the results:
“The president turned out to be an exceptional person, and I learned a lot about having a powerful but personal charisma simply from talking to her. She gave me some wise advice on my career path and put me in contact with a friend of hers who has the opportunity to get me a fantastic internship.
In short it was an awesome meeting and gave me an opportunity to be inspired and learn as I prepare to head out for the workforce. I was nervous about setting up a meet, and unsure of what exactly I would say, but I knew that I had to take action and so I did.”
None of that would have happened if Ben hadn’t simply worked up the courage to reach out and meet with the president. So few students take advantage of this strategy that if you do it, you will probably win a friend and advocate for life.
Networking Is an Investment in Your Future
Ultimately, it’s important to realize that building relationships is an investment in yourself, just like your tuition is. If you put yourself out there and intentionally invest time in other people — from professionals already in the working world to your fellow students to your university president — you will see dividends on that investment over time.
Confidence starts with taking that first step; so get out there and start building relationships. “Your college buddies will be lawyers, vendors, and business partners. They will bring you deals,” says Stewart. “It’s important to have fun but also to give off the image that you have your stuff together, that you’re kind, and you have good moral values.”
And finally, whatever you do… if No Pay Ray calls, don’t pick up the phone.
Want to have better conversations when networking? Grab a copy of my free report 25 Easy Conversation Starters for Networking in College, exclusively for Art of Manliness readers.
John Corcoran is a former Clinton White House Writer and creator of Smart Business Revolution, where he shares advice on how to grow your income by building better relationships in business.
Last updated: November 29, 2017