For those of you who still think that networking is what grown ups do at dull parties whilst sipping sherry and talking about the weather, well now is the time to GET REAL! Whilst you’re dissing the idea of networking, your more enterprising mates have discovered the true value of making contacts and connections – as the old saying goes, ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know’.. or nowadays, ‘who knows you’. Here is our guide to student networking – the basics.
Networking – why do it?
Over half of all jobs now are found in the hidden job market – that means they are not advertised but filled through ‘connections’ of some sort – someone knows someone who knows someone else who might be a good fit, or someone approached a recruiter, or someone who knew a recruiter, at just the right time.
Take Shelley, for example: a part time accountancy student working the early weekend shifts in her local Tesco store. Always smiling, always cheerful and chatty even at at 7 .a.m on a Sunday morning when customers called in to collect their papers. Shelley talked to everyone she served and all the regulars knew she was a student and what she was studying. One day, one of the regulars told her that a major accountancy firm was relocating to a town 20 miles away and suggested that she should call them to see if they had any opportunities. A few weeks later Shelley announced that she was leaving the store because she had been offered a part time job whilst still studying, with a full time job on offer when her studies finished.
Shelley’s story encapsulates the essence of networking: firstly, networking doesn’t have to occur at a formal event; secondly, being nice to everyone pays off – you just don’t know who they are or who they know; thirdly, you have to put yourself out there. Shelley was in a great place to meet people – successful people are often early birds and working the early morning shift meant that Shelley had time to chat to them. But most importantly, she was nice and chatty – it’s not rocket science, if you make an effort to get on with people, they will remember you.
So what is networking?
Networking is about playing the long game: it is not about finding a job today, next week or next month. Initially it is about information gathering: even if you don’t know what career you want to pursue you can find out a lot about all sorts of different careers just by talking to people who work in or around various industries or professions. You can also find out what skills and experience are needed and explore whether you have the interest and aptitude to go down a particular path.
Once you have decided on a career, networking is about meeting people who can offer advice, answer specific questions and possibly point you in the direction of other people who may be able to help you. Remember, work experience placements and internships are frequently found through informal connections. You can also use networking to get feedback on your CV – you can find out what style of CV suits the particular industry or company you are interested in and, if you get to know someone well enough, you could ask if they would cast an eye over your CV to see whether there are any gaps or glaring omissions.
It is also important to understand upfront what networking is not: it is never about directly asking someone you meet for a job (that is just plain rude!) or contacting complete strangers (except in very special cases) or droning on about yourself when you do meet someone who might be useful (remember, it is they who are interesting, not you!). If you can’t play the long game, then maybe networking is not for you!
When and where should you start networking?
Like charity, networking starts at home. Stop viewing your parents’ friends and your friends’ parents as dinosaurs and see them as potential assets. Ask them all about their careers- what they do, how they got there, what a typical day is like, what sort of work is involved and what sort of skills are needed. They will have decades of experience and expertise and will be flattered that you are interested. Even if you decide later that you would hate a career in their field, at least you have discovered something – and,again, you don’t know who they know!
If you decide that you do find that field interesting, don’t ask for a placement but do ask if they know how you might go about getting some experience in that field. If you are polite and enthusiastic and they are in a position to help, the chances are that they will.You want to start building your network early – as soon as you are old enough to have a sensible discussion about careers and well before you leave school. In addition to family and friends, you will be able to add to your network through clubs and societies as well as part time jobs and work experience. Even if you hated that holiday job in the factory, keep in touch with colleagues and managers – you just never know…!
Also look out for old boys/girls from school who are doing jobs that you are interested in; the fact that they went to the same school counts for a lot and they may well be happy to offer advice and support. And don’t forget the people with whom you have volunteered in the past – add them to the list, and make sure you keep in touch. And whilst we are on the subject of volunteering – fundraising is a great way to connect with people with lots of social currency, so take any opportunity you can to help raise money at events locally, at school and at University.
Networking at University
Once you get to University, there will be lots of opportunities to network. All sorts of different companies will visit your campus for career events, career fairs, skills workshops, company presentations, open days, networking lunches and events, university societies. Make sure you know what is going on – keep an ear to the ground at Uni and visit Company websites.
Make a list early on of the big companies that you might be interested in working for (even if it is only a vague interest at this stage) and monitor when they will be visiting your campus. Whilst these may not be opportunities for you to shine individually, they are invaluable opportunities to glean vital information on what different roles really involve, what companies are looking for, how they assess candidates and the future direction of the Company. If you do want to make an application at a later stage then this information will be essential. Some events may provide the opportunity to meet Company representatives and this is where you really do need to understand the etiquette of networking – check it out here.
When you have a really good idea of what career you wish to pursue, that is the time to start casting your net more widely. Industry conferences and events are a great way of finding out about what’s going on in any sector and of meeting influential people. They cost a lot to attend but it is a question of priorities and there comes a time when a weekend clubbing in Ibiza has to be sacrificed for a weekend in Scarborough at the leading conference in your chosen sector. Make sure you get your money’s worth – do your research before attending and use social media to reach out to other people who are attending.
Meeting and connecting with new people can be daunting and you need an armoury of ‘tools’ to help you:
– play the student card: recognise that people are more likely to help you whilst you are still a student than at virtually any other time in your career. As you are just asking for advice or information there is much less pressure on the person you are approaching and you present little risk because you are not actually looking for a job. So this is the time to make those approaches – but make sure when you approach people you do not know, that you are expressing a genuine interest and not just trying to tap into their contact list. No-one likes being used!
-learn ‘small talk’: if you haven’t mastered it, then now is the time. Being able to engage strangers in conversation is all about asking questions -people love talking about themselves! Before you launch into asking questions to get the information that you want, you need to win over and befriend your chosen target by getting to know them. That doesn’t mean diving in with a host of personal questions; it just means finding something upbeat and positive to chat about for a few minutes. Practise the art of small talk with your parents’ friends and your friends’ parents first.
– prepare your elevator speech: this is the term used for your 20-30 second introduction to new people at events such as open days and conferences. For example: ” Hi- I am Jo Bloggs and I am student at X school/ College/University. I am thinking about a career in Y and I am here today to find out as much as I can about the best way of starting out in this field.” Armed with your rehearsed introduction you will feel confident of walking up to strangers and starting a conversation and they will have a way into the conversation straightaway. Make sure you have some back up questions to carry on the conversation and that you listen carefully to what they say. You may have to tailor your elevator speech to different situations but once you get the habit, it will become second nature.
-print some personal cards: you may not have a business card yet, but a personal card can be a very useful way of providing someone with your contact details: phone, email, twitter, LinkedIn, your blog etc. There are lots of ways you can make it interesting but think of your personal cards in the same way as you would an interview outfit: if it takes an outrageous card for someone to remember you, then you probably haven’t created the right impression. Click here for the etiquette on giving and receiving business cards.
-consider buying your personal URL: If you can register your own domain name by buying your own name, it can be a good way of retaining a permanent contact address. This is the time in your life when you will be moving around but your personal URL will stay the same. It will also help SEO and background checks in future.
–LinkedIn for students: if you haven’t already discovered it, make sure you do by the time you are looking for internships and work placements. But be very careful about using LinkedIn when dealing with non students: it is not like Facebook and most business people are not seeking to have thousands of ‘friends’. In fact, the more senior the person, the less likely they will be to accept new approaches. If you want to use LinkedIn to approach a senior individual out of the blue then you must have a very good reason to do so. For example, if you have read a paper or article they have written and you have a valid question about something in that article, then you could consider approaching them. Generally speaking, LinkedIn is a great source of information for students but must be used sparingly when seeking to make new contacts in the business world, especially at a senior level.
– build your database: start compiling a database of contacts from the beginning; as you gather more contacts you can start to prioritise and categorise and always make sure that you keep your list up to date. Your database will also help you keep track of when and how you communicated with people and their responses.
So that’s the basics of networking but like any other social behaviour there are some ground rules you need to understand and apply. Find out more about the etiquette of networking here.