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College in Common: How to Maximize the Potential of Your Alumni Network

We’ve all heard that it’s not what you know but who you know that makes the difference. In the highly competitive job market most new grads are facing today, that couldn’t be more true. Being able to leverage connections to find out about job opportunities and get recommendations can be an incredibly valuable asset. What many students don’t realize is just how great of a network they already have just by virtue of having attended college.

College alumni networks are a great way to meet people who are already working in your area of interest, and even better, you already have one big thing in common: you attended the same college. Whether through networking events, your college’s career services, or your own social media searching, you can meet, get to know, and find help from alumni in every aspect of your career. Not sure where to begin? It’s not as hard as you might think.

Why Your Alumni Network Matters

If you’re like most college students, you probably haven’t spent much time thinking about the benefits your alumni network has to offer. It’s never too soon to start, however. Alumni have the ability to connect new grads and current students with amazing opportunities, from hard-to-find internships to job openings not posted to the general public.

This might be a bigger deal than you think. In some industries, knowing the right people can be a big part of what gets you ahead. Don’t believe it? Check out this infographic from The New York Times. It maps out the connections between some of Wall Street’s biggest names, showing just how powerful leveraging alumni relationships can be in starting a successful, and in this case extremely profitable, career.

Even students who aren’t planning on being power players on Wall Street can benefit from building relationships with alumni during their college years and beyond. Gina DeLapa, a former career counselor at Grand Valley State University, says alumni connections are often more important and useful than students realize. “Students should absolutely be leveraging alumni connections; it’s part of what they’re paying for. Most colleges and universities pride themselves on connecting alumni with students through career-specific databases and special events that bring students and alumni face to face.”

While there are some great short-term benefits to developing relationships with alumni, like finding jobs and internships, there are some wonderful long-term ones, as well. Alumni in your field can serve as mentors and guide you through the first few years of your career, helping you learn the ropes and understand what it takes to be successful. Additionally, should you choose to move on to a new job or even start yours own business, your alumni network may be able to point you to job openings for non-entry level positions or hook you up with clients.

Alumni Networks in the Social Media Era

While face-to-face meetups are still a common and extremely beneficial way to build connections with alumni, social media is opening up new avenues for networking. In fact, many schools foster alumni networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and, more recently, Google +. These offer students the chance to talk with alumni across the country as well as those who live locally.

Even though these types of sites may seem like impersonal places to make connections, they can be just as useful as meeting with alumni in more traditional formats. John Muscarello, at 2008 grad of York College of Pennsylvania, used his school’s LinkedIn alumni group to find a job and build a professional network. While some might be intimidated, he says it was easy: “I simply introduced myself to alumni and asked them for help and guidance during my job search.” His success wasn’t a fluke, however. “My sister used the same tactic and found a job in less than six weeks.”

Social media can be much more than a chance to find out where to look for work. Many alumni groups have begun hosting Twitter chats where alumni offer advice, tools, and resources for job hunting and career advancement. Other schools, like DePaul, have created special Facebook pages where students can ask questions and get answers from alumni, with alumni acting as career advisors and mentors.

While ample opportunities already exist for students, recent grads, and alumni to connect online, as social media evolves and colleges become more engaged with it, opportunities may expand further. It may just become the go-to place for alumni help and guidance for many young professionals.

Standout Schools

While nearly all colleges and universities have some kind of alumni network or alumni relations office through a career services department, some have invested more in these connections than others.

According to recent data, Pennsylvania State University boasts the largest dues-paying alumni association in the nation, with almost 165,000 members worldwide. This gives students access to a range of alumni from nearly every field imaginable, which students can meet and get to know to through the Nittany Lion Alumni Career Network, career fairs and networking events, and webinars and workshops like Alumni JOBSearch and Alumni CareerShape.

Of course, big alumni networks aren’t the only ones with the power to hook grads up with job opportunities and career guidance. Other, smaller networks can also offer focused and immensely beneficial resources to students and recent grads.

One example is Harvey Mudd, a private math, science, and engineering college. Judy Fisher, the director of career services at the school, says the Office of Career Services works hard to connect students with alumni when they are applying for internships and full-time positions in companies where alumni work. This can often help students stand out among a sea of applicants. “Often, job applications disappear into the void if there isn’t someone on the inside who can advocate for the student’s candidacy,” she says. “Of course, alumni are the perfect people to find out how the hiring manager might be or speak with someone in HR about the quality of education at Harvey Mudd.”

The Office of Career Services has recently begun working with the Office of Alumni Services to bring alumni to campus to talk about their current positions or graduate school experiences. It has so far proven to be a popular resource for students. “There were over 100 students in attendance on a (recent) Saturday afternoon, and the feedback was incredible,” Fisher said. “Many of them made valuable connections to follow up with after the event.”

Resources don’t end there, however. The school has also embraced social media, encouraging students to join their LinkedIn alumni group, as well as offering on-campus events like etiquette dinners and mock interviews that allow students to meet and get to work with the school’s alumni.

What if your school has neither a large network nor a focused career-services program? You can still seek out alumni on your own. Start by speaking to the head of the alumni network to see if there are any alumni who are willing to meet up or offer mentoring. This is also a great time to use social media to seek out former students of your school. Even if you don’t have a dedicated alumni page, you can search by school on most sites to find alumni who may be willing to talk with you. Finally, if you really feel your school could do a better job with alumni relations, let them know. They want to make both their current students and their alumni happy, and may be willing to work at growing the network or setting up new programs.

Making Your Alumni Network Work for You

Your school’s alumni network can play a critical role in preparing you for a career, but like many students, you may not know how to even begin taking advantage of it. Here are some tips that will make those first steps less intimidating and help you sustain your relationships with alumni over the course of your college career and beyond.

  • Start early. The earlier students start working with alumni, the better. DeLapa says, “The best time for students to start connecting with alumni is freshman or sophomore year. The second best time is now.”
  • Use your school’s resources. Your tuition doesn’t just cover your courses; it also offers you access to a wide range of services on campus. Among these is the career services office, which is usually a great place to contact for information on getting in touch with alumni. Many schools will offer career fairs, networking events, and resume help through these offices, so they’re definitely worth checking out.
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out on your own. With social media it’s easier than ever to connect with alumni on your own, but many students feel awkward or unsure of doing so. They shouldn’t. According to DeLapa, most alumni are honored to be asked for career advice and help, and if they aren’t, the worst they’ll say is no.
  • Once you make connections, stay in touch. Don’t let your alumni connections go cold after you’ve made them. Send regular messages to those who’ve helped you, updating them on what you’re doing and asking any additional questions you may have.
  • Be professional. When interacting with alumni and career services staff, you should do your best to look and act professionally, just as you would with a potential employer. Think it doesn’t matter? DeLapa says it definitely does. “If I meet a student who is poorly dressed, poorly groomed, demanding, or otherwise unprofessional, I will assume that’s how he or she would appear to an alum or potential employer.” This obviously isn’t how you want to be perceived, so if you don’t know how to dress or act, ask for help. Most career services offices offer courses on professional dress and etiquette.
  • Ask about jobs. If you need a job after graduation, one of the first places you should look to is your alumni network. You can ask alumni you know, check out the association’s Twitter feed or LinkedIn page, or even contact career services to see what inquiries they’ve had from alumni. Sometimes, alumni will share these openings with their alma mater before the general public, giving you first access to great positions.
  • Look for in-house alums when applying for jobs. Alumni can also help when you’re applying for jobs you haven’t found through your school. Do a quick search on LinkedIn or your school’s alumni network to see if any former students work at the company to which you’re applying. Steve Langerud, director of professional opportunities at DePauw University, says that alumni are often willing advocates for fellow alumni and students. “The range of opportunities is from company owners, who hire other alumni or students, to recommendations to hiring managers on behalf of another alum or student to even a simple introduction,” he says.
  • Give back. If you’ve benefited from alumni connections, don’t forget to give back to your fellow students to return the favor. You may just find that it helps you in your own career by keeping you up-to-date on new trends and issues and lets you scout out some great new talent for your company.

These days, simply getting a college degree isn’t enough to land you a great job after graduation. You often have to have the right experience and know the right people to get a job in those first few months after school ends. Alumni can help you with all of these things and can even act as mentors and advisors throughout your post-college career. All you have to do is be willing to reach out and ask for their help. Take that first step, and you could be reaping the benefits for years to come.

April 17th, 2013 written by Staff Writers

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