As your college years roll by, you’ll likely be thinking about your future—namely where you’ll land your first job. And how will you do that? Chances are, the advice will be “networking.”
That word makes many of us break out in a cold sweat, tying our stomach in knots. Career fairs are awkward. Industry events where you dress up to swap business cards and make small talk feel forced, fake, and pushy. And, at the end of the day, what does it get you? A stack of business cards to stash in your desk drawer.
But take heart—there’s a better way!
The truth is, a majority of positions in the working world are filled by connections and referrals. “At least 70%, if not 80%, of jobs are not published,” Matt Youngquist, president of Career Horizons, told NPR. “The vast majority of hiring is friends and acquaintances hiring other trusted friends and acquaintances.”
And who exactly are these friends and acquaintances? Other college students, of course! Some of them you already know, and others you’ll meet along the way—at orientation, in your dorm, at concerts or sports events, at the library, in the dining hall, or just walking across campus to class. All offer opportunities to connect in a meaningful, authentic way … if you’re open to it and make the effort.
That could mean striking up a conversation while you’re folding clothes (we hope!) in the laundry room. Or introducing yourself to a familiar face on the campus bus. Or inviting a classmate to grab some lunch. It’s about reaching out to students beyond your inner circle.
College years are a friendship lollapalooza! At no other time in your life will you be surrounded by, literally, hundreds of potential friends and acquaintances—and future colleagues—in the same peer group. And if you take the time to form genuine connections—not the phony, what-can-you-do-for-me kind—they can help you win the day when it comes to finding a job that you’ll love.
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Think of it as “peer networking”—having meaningful interactions with a broad range of students you meet at school. Relationships, both deep friendships and “warm acquaintances,” are built through shared experiences—and what greater connection than your alma mater!
So take advantage of this unique time. After age 30, “plenty of people enter your life, through work,” maybe the gym, “and of course Facebook,” wrote Alex Williams in The New York Times. But friends like the ones you make in college “are in shorter supply.”
Set your mind to think about networking in a new way. Here are 4 ways to smooth your road to success without the typical networking play.
1. Be genuine
We need to redefine networking not just as “meeting new people” but as “better understanding the network that’s around us,” says David Burkus, author of Friend of a Friend: Understanding the Hidden Networks That Can Transform Your Life and Your Career. “If [you’re] solely focused on meeting new people and wondering how that relationship can help [you] get ahead, then [you] aren’t being genuine or sincere. Worry about how you can help them, or vice versa, later.”
In the meantime, just be a nice person. Pick up the tab once in a while. Send a “How’s it going?” text. “You can develop and maintain meaningful connections by just reaching out from time to time with a sincere message,” says Amy Carst, author of Expand Your Bubble.
Take time to listen if someone needs to unload; pitch in to help if someone’s moving. All of these gestures bolster connections and provide the foundation that will support someone lending you a hand down the road.
2. Play the long game
Creating meaningful connections doesn’t happen overnight. “[Being at] college can kind of encourage us to think about relationships in semester-long blocks of time,” says Burkus: “Who am I in class with now?” and “Who can I meet this semester?” rather than sustaining relationships over months or years.
Everyone’s very open to making friendships at the beginning of freshman year. But once you find your tribe/squad and are settled into your group, that initial eagerness tends to wear off. Don’t close yourself off to other social opportunities or activities.
On the other hand, “if you’re beginning your senior year,” says Burkus, “and you know what you’re looking to do [when you graduate], now is the time to start finding the groups and communities that relate to that industry and building relationships.” As with many things that are deeply valuable, you may need to make a serious time investment before you reap the rewards.
3. Help others
“No one is truly self-made,” says Burkus. “You won’t be either. So whenever you’ve achieved something, look around for the people you may know trying to get to where you are, and help them out … just like someone, somewhere, helped you.”
You could also volunteer and participate in campus charitable events. There’s a good chance you’ll meet like-minded people who may have connections in places you want to be. “Don’t volunteer just to volunteer,” says Carst. “Find a cause that you’re passionate about, or create your own and recruit people to work with you.
“In either case, you’ll be sharing the experience of creating something, not for money, but for the betterment of people, animals, the environment, or any great cause. When people work together toward a common goal, especially one that’s not related to money, connections are generally more meaningful. These are the people who could one day hook you up with a project or job, or will introduce you to an important person.”
4. Think globally
The word peer is defined as a person who is equal to another in abilities, qualifications, age, background, and social status. So peers can include more than just the guy sitting next to you in econ.
It’s very easy to fall into a rut and hang out with people just like you. Thinking about who your peers are in a different way will broaden your horizons. “If you live in a bubble with people who look and think [exactly] like you, your choices will be limited,” says Carst. “Learn from other perspectives, and your choices and opportunities will expand as well.”
For instance, if you’re planning a semester abroad, really get to know the students you meet in your host country (and in other countries, if you’re traveling while you’re overseas). Keep in touch with them via email, LinkedIn, or even texts when you get back home. “You can’t just watch Netflix, scroll through Facebook and Instagram, and hang out with like-minded friends on the weekends and expect that other perspectives will fall in your lap,” says Carst. Getting to know people from other races and cultures expands your worldview—and your peer network.
Weak ties, strong outcomes
“The Strength of Weak Ties” is one a heavily cited paper in sociology. In it, researchers report that job seekers gained the most traction not from their closest friends but from friends of friends or from people whom they see less frequently—warm acquaintances, you could call them. “Even though the strong ties are more likely to be motivated to help us,” Burkus says, “it turns out that our weak ties’ access to new sources of information may be more valuable.”
So forget networking (as you know it) and nurture relationships instead. Cultivating friendships and making your world bigger increases your chances of success.