It's never too early to start networking. And if you want a job when you complete your diploma, you've got to know people in the industry in which you want to work.
"The concept is to plant the seeds before you need to harvest them," says Heather Krasna, director of career services at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Affairs. "By the time you're about to graduate, it's getting to be a little late in the day to start building those connections."
So how should college students go about making new connections and getting the most out of them when they have a full course load—and a social schedule to boot?
Here are 6 tips for networking while you're still in college:
1. Play the student card: Alumni and other contacts are more likely to want to help you while you're still a student, Krasna says. "It's less pressure because the person is just asking for advice," she says, and not yet looking for a job. That means if you want to pick the brain of someone who works in the industry you want to go into or even request an informational interview, now's the time to do it. Grow those relationships while there's no pressure, so those contacts will want to help you when you transition to the work world.
2. Use your friends' parents as resources: They've got decades of experience and are probably willing to share their expertise with you—and maybe even their contacts, too. Students tend to overlook their parents' friends when it comes to networking, but those parents are often well connected or know people who are. They'll still be around after you graduate, but it can be less awkward to ask for their advice and guidance while you're in school, says Jodi Glickman, communications expert and author of Great on the Job. "You want to build up this stable of resources before you need them, so that when you actually are looking for a job, you can go in and tap in," she says.
[Use these 13 tips to find a mentor.]
3. Get out of the bubble: The isolation of some college campuses fosters learning, but when it comes to networking, students can get ahead by networking off campus, says Emily Bennington, who helps college graduates transition into careers through her company, Professional Studio 365. Check out conferences in your field or your local Chamber of Commerce. "Rather than using your savings for a spring break in Daytona ... go to a conference that's within your industry," Bennington says. "Use social media strategically about six to eight weeks in advance of your landing at that conference to reach out to people who are going to be at that event."
4. Use LinkedIn: Too many students make the mistake of thinking they can avoid LinkedIn until after college, but the smart move is to use it now to track the network you're building. LinkedIn recently launched new options for students that make it easier than ever to get the hang of this network. If you still have trouble getting into the LinkedIn habit, try spending half the time you'd normally spend on Facebook on LinkedIn instead, Krasna suggests.
[See how LinkedIn offers new options for students.]
5. Use Twitter strategically: While LinkedIn is lauded as the professional social network, Twitter can be even more useful for connecting with people you want to know. Make a list of people in your industry who you look up to, and use the network strategically to connect with them. Like LinkedIn, Twitter can help you take all of these strategies to the next level because it provides an opportunity to keep in touch with the network you're building.
6. Get an internship: This is the most obvious option, but it can't be overstated. The value of an internship is tremendous, both in terms of skills and contacts. Employers often hire full-time workers from their internship pool, which means having an internship puts you ahead of other job seekers. In addition to giving you real-life experience to put on your résumé, an internship puts you in eyesight of people who work in your field of choice, which means they're more likely to think of you when job opportunities arise.