Many university students make the assumption that a degree is enough to get ahead professionally. Unfortunately, given how competitive the job market is, our schooling may be little more than a footnote to human resources departments forced to sort through countless resumes. This assumes, of course, that you've found suitable places to send your resume in the first place.
With university being so much more accessible today thanks to the availability of student loans and other financing options, the market is flooded each year with graduates. This means businesses can afford to be more selective in who they hire, with some eschewing outside candidates entirely.
Given the competitive job climate, it's never been more important for you to have a strong network of both fellow graduates and seasoned professionals who can offer advice and steer you towards opportunities. Regardless of your major or career field, there are five key steps to building a network while in college.
1. Pay Your Dues
Building a strong network obviously requires getting out there and meeting people. Finding an internship or volunteer opportunity while earning your medical specialties degree, for example, is a proven way to meet individuals with established careers in the same field. These opportunities rarely require full time hours, with most offering flexible scheduling opportunities for students with hectic course loads. One advantage to interning is that it allows you to build your network in a professional environment, meaning potential colleagues will get to see exactly what you bring to the table.
Best of all, the benefits don't stop at networking. Plenty of colleges offer credit in exchange for hours spent volunteering and interning, not to mention that a well-placed position will help pad out your resume with relevant industry experience and net you a reference for future interviews. Finding an internship to build your network is no different than looking for a job, with the positions often being posted on the same sites businesses use to scout full-time employees.
2. Class Participation
You may not realize it, but just by virtue of being enrolled in college, you're already part of a budding network. Between classmates, professors, academic advisers, and other individuals that form your college experience, you have access to a vast network of people also looking to build connections.
Fellow classmates are your future colleagues and competition, so building relationships early is essential if you hope to have allies, as well as contacts in other industries once you enter the professional world. Furthermore, your professors have years, if not decades of experience, and with that experience comes their own networks of colleagues. In other words, begin building your personal network by forging strong bonds with your peers, but also form connections with experienced individuals who can weave you into their already established networks.
3. Get Your Money's Worth
Your college tuition doesn't just go towards books and lab fees. As a student, you are also granted access to your campus's career services office, a valuable resource if you're trying to build a network. While your classes are meant to give you the theoretical knowledge that underpins your chosen career path, it's the career services office that gives students the real-world tools and connections needed to succeed. Many students pass through their campuses without so much as a cursory visit to career services, a crucial mistake.
"Career Services" is a broad umbrella and you might be surprised by how much your college's department has to offer. Their staff provides everything from help building your resume, information on internships, and, most importantly, access to your campus's alumni network. Reaching out to graduates is a sound method of adding like-minded people to your network and can often give you access to career opportunities reserved for alumni.
4. The Career Cotillion
There are conventions and social events for everything from comic book collecting to knitting, so it should come as no surprise that your college holds events specifically designed for networking. Frequently organized according to academic discipline and with participation from the campus alumni network, these events are attended by former students looking to scout talent from the next generation of graduates.
Furthermore, these events will give you an opportunity to socialize with fellow students outside of the classroom setting or party scene. This is vital, as your network should have a healthy mix of peers and established professionals. Attending these events is absolutely essential, even if it means skipping a class. Don't limit yourself to campus events, either. Local job fairs, chamber of commerce meetings, and other public events are useful for branching out beyond the academic community.
5. Networking in Your Pajamas
Face-to-face meetings are an important part of networking, but the Internet is an equally valuable social market waiting to be tapped. Your digital network is just as important your local connections, since it will garner you contacts from around the globe. Best of all, it can be done without ever leaving your dorm. Facebook and LinkedIn are the "big two," so to speak, as the former will connect you with peers, while the latter is perfect for meeting experts in your future career.
Don't be afraid to message or add strangers, as the worst you'll get is ignored. Make sure to take full advantage of every social network's full suite of features. Join groups and scan event pages for networking opportunities. Remember also that building your network goes beyond just socializing with individuals. Most businesses have social media accounts and interacting with them is an excellent way to build professional contacts. If you're lucky, it could even lead to a future career opportunity.
It Takes a Village
Common wisdom holds that it takes a village to raise a child. As we grow older, so to do our aspirations and the demands that face us. Naturally, as your life broadens, so too must the web of relationships and connections that comprise your support network. The college campus is the perfect environment for developing the social bonds needed to succeed professionally. Go out and meet people, take advantages of campus services, and before long you'll have a vast network of individuals willing to help you on your journey towards a successful career.
Dixie Somers is a freelance writer. Find Dixie on Facebook.