As an undergraduate student at Pepperdine University, Amy Adams' study abroad trip helped her find something she wasn't looking for, but would value for years to come: a career mentor.
Adams began assisting one of the school's program directors while in London. Their relationship at work allowed them to grow close and naturally turned into one of mentoring. When both returned to California, where Pepperdine is based, Adams' mentor continued helping her find employment. Her mentor helped her get a job on campus, then another position once she graduated.
It's been more than 10 years since the two met, and their relationship is still going strong.
[Photos: See the top 10 National Universities.]
"We do keep up a few times a year," says Adams.
Now, as the director of the Seaver College Career Center at Pepperdine, Adams helps other college students find mentors who can advise and support them as they start careers. She believes it's never too early for students to have mentors. Even freshmen can start looking for one.
"It's absolutely important and probably one of the most critical things a student can do to sort of pave the way for their professional success," she says.
"Having sort of somebody who is working on your behalf professionally can really help set you apart as you compete for internships and jobs."
A good mentor is someone who listens, wants to invest in a student's professional future and is working in the student's field of interest, experts say.
College students have a variety of ways to find mentors and make sure the relationship is long-lasting. At some schools, administrators take the lead on making sure students find professional mentors.
[Build in-demand job skills at college.]
The Tiger Ties Mentorship Program at Clemson University, for example, uses computer software to pair students in the College of Business and Behavioral Science with alumni mentors.
"It's like online dating," says Renee Hebert, director of the college's Office of Student Enrichment. About 200 student-alumni matches are made based on common interests, a student's major, location and other criteria.
If a school doesn't have a formal system for helping students find a mentor, Hebert encourages students to use other avenues to find alumni, who are often invested in seeing students succeed.
"Go on LinkedIn," she says. Alumni events and a university's alumni center are also good places to start your search, Hebert says.
Other career experts encourage students to visit their school's career services department as well as tell professors that they're looking for a mentor. What's most important, Hebert says, is that students tell people they're looking for career guidance.
"If you don't ask, then we don't know how we can help you," she says.
[Avoid these big college application mistakes.]
If students are shy, however, approaching potential mentors or telling others about a mentor search can be intimidating.
Julia Baker Jones, director of the Chidsey Center for Leadership Development at Davidson College, has a tip for undergrads in this position.
"What I tend to do is to get involved in things I care about, and meet the people who are connected to those and develop those relationships organically by working together," she says. "Then they know what I'm about and I have a sense of what they're about. We might not officially say 'You're my formal mentor,' but those have been the main mentors in my life."
Baker Jones encourages undergrads to seek career mentors once they are sophomores.
Once a student has found a mentor, it's important to discuss how the relationship will work, experts say.
"Set the ground rules," says Hebert. "So for example: How often will we talk in one month? What is the expectation if I email you? What's the expectation of receiving a return email? Is that within 48 hours? Is it 24? What does that look like? How will we communicate? Will it be via phone? Text messaging? Email? A combination? In person?"
Students should expect to do the bulk of the work of establishing meeting times and working around their mentor's schedule, experts say. And because many relationships work best when both parties have something to gain, students should help their mentors when given the opportunity.