It’s packed. You are surrounded by sound resistant walls on three sides, with rows of upholstered seats leading to a dimly lit stage.
A middle-aged man dressed in business casual attire paces back and forth across the stage with an executive-like presence, while droning on about something loosely related to the PowerPoint slides projected in the background.
Meanwhile, hundreds of students are watching with varying levels of intensity.
Some are leaning forward in their seat, eyes peeled and scribbling notes. Others are on their phone, waiting for the resume drop before claiming back whatever is left of their night.
This is the classic information session, where brand name companies (e.g., Goldman Sachs, Google, Mckinsey, Bain, Deloitte) present to hundreds of students about the opportunity to work at their glorious firm.
After the presentation, students rush to establish a personal relationship with company representatives by forming circles around the most senior professionals.
Because the application and interview process usually kicks off just a few days after the information session.
The average job application gets 250+ applicants. The brand name companies mentioned earlier receive thousands.
Students need an in to get an interview for a competitive position, and many rely on building relationships during the information session.
However, I believe it’s too late if you waited until the information session to network with a company.
In this guide, I will cover the following four topics:
- Why most students miss the mark with networking
- Why you need to build a consistent habit of networking
- Three strategies to build a meaningful relationship
- Three tactics to find professionals
What is networking and why do most students get it wrong?
Networking is simply about meeting people and building relationships, and there are two types of relationships: organic and inorganic.
Organic relationships stem from people you meet and interact with due to common circumstance. For example, making friends on your dorm room floor, meeting friends of friends at a party, or catching up with a family friend. These are all examples of circumstances that brought two people together organically.
Inorganic relationships are an attempt to build relationships without an obvious, common circumstance. Sounds a lot like networking right? At its core, cold emailing someone is no different than meeting that same person in your class. Under both circumstances you are trying to build an authentic relationship that’s mutually beneficial.
In my experience, students face two major challenges with building inorganic relationships:
- It can feel impossible to add value to a professional as a student with little to offer. Even students with authentic intent are worried about asking professionals for their time, especially senior managers and leaders.
- Students tend to forget the original intent of building inorganic relationships. They instead fixate on the transactional benefits of networking, such as getting a job referral. This makes it difficult to be authentic.
For many students, the objective of attending an information session is to draw attention to their application to make it past the resume screen.
It’s similar to explicitly telling a company representative the following:
“Hi there, I just met you and noticed that your company is interviewing candidates next week. I think I’m a great fit and would appreciate a referral. Please make sure you refer me within the next week otherwise this will have been a waste of time.”
Even if you do have genuine intent, it’s difficult to build an authentic relationship when hundreds of students are networking in a transactional manner.
There’s too much noise at large information sessions, making it difficult to consistently build meaningful relationships with employers.
Build a consistent habit of networking
I know it feels like if you can just land that one job offer with your dream company you’ll be done recruiting forever.
But believe it or not, you will go through the recruiting process many times after college.
Your first job is just that -- your first job. Statistically, most people don’t stick around at their first job for more than a few years.
Because you will have to recruit repeatedly throughout your career, you need to develop strong habits and behaviors to drive consistent, successful outcomes.
By systematizing your approach to networking, you can avoid relying on luck to carry you through the process (i.e., hitting it off with senior professionals at information sessions).Paradoxically, I experienced the best outcomes from networking when I didn’t focus on results. At its core, networking is no different than building organic relationships in class.
If you only remember one lesson from this article, it's that the best time to network is when you don’t need immediate results.
Again...The best time to network is when you don’t need immediate results.
That is the secret to getting consistent results from networking.
Networking works when you reach out to professionals with genuine curiosity and without an agenda, which requires networking far in advance of any application deadline.
By starting early and giving yourself time to network, you can build, test, and evaluate career hypotheses to authentically discover your professional interests.
Once you've built a strong relationship, you can follow up to ask for help with job applications in the future. There's nothing wrong with asking for that type of help -- just don't start there.
The beauty and peril of networking is that it works best for early birds and poorly for late ones.
A college Freshmen with no career direction can build a reliable network today, which ends up helping her find a full time job post-graduation.
Conversely, a junior looking for a summer internship who waits for information sessions to start networking is simply too late.
How to network in college (student edition)
It’s true that you need to create value for the other person to build a strong relationship. But this doesn’t have to be transactional value.
Believe it or not, you do have something to offer: an engaging conversation and satisfying validation.
As I reflected on my strongest inorganic relationships, I noticed 3 recurring themes with my initial conversations.
Networking Theme 1: Have an engaging and genuine conversation
Simple to understand, but difficult to master. In a nutshell, you want the other person to walk away feeling energized. A great way to do this is by driving a lively conversation through interesting questions.
This requires researching the other person and their career prior to meeting them. Refrain from asking questions with obvious answers that you could find with a quick Google search. Be thoughtful with your conversation, considerate of the other person’s time, and be vulnerable about the challenges you face.
Networking Theme 2: Put the other person in a position of leverage
Leverage is when every unit of input leads to many units of output. The best conversations I’ve had are with people who were in a position of massive leverage to help me.
Someone is in a position of leverage when a short conversation can dramatically influence your thinking and impact your life trajectory. The 30 minutes they invest in a conversation leads to massive value for yourself. And it’s okay that if it feels one-sided, because people like to be leveraged.
For example, 2 by 22 started because I realized my position of leverage to help confused students with their career goals. By helping students with challenges I previously faced, I noticed their eyes lit up with a sense of understanding and confidence. They left the conversation with a newfound feeling of empowerment.
There is something exhilarating about helping someone else from a leveraged position without a tangible incentive or benefit in return.
As a student, the key is to find people who can deeply impact your life through a short conversation. Often these are people who struggled through similar challenges as yourself or have a career aligned with your professional goals.
Once you identify people in leveraged positions, reach out and enable them to help you through an authentic conversation. Let them have a 10x impact on your life by asking the right questions and steering the conversation. It’s your job to do this.
Networking Theme 3: Express appreciation
The first two themes are to engage and create leverage. The last is to close the feedback loop by sincerely thanking them for investing time to help you.
Let them know if they gave you specific advice that changed your perspective. Keep them updated if you implemented their suggestions (this is a great way to stay in touch).
Feeling appreciated is foundational to strong relationships -- let the other person know you appreciate them. By doing so, you are also providing them with validation that their advice worked. This reinforces their position of leverage to help others and enriches the experience of mentorship.
And that’s it — these are the 3 simple steps to building a valuable, inorganic relationship.
- Have a fun conversation.
- Put the other person in a position of leverage.
- Thank them sincerely.
Inorganic relationship building is no less authentic than organic relationship building. Remember that the point of networking is to build a real relationship, not solicit interviews and job referrals from professionals.
It’s okay to ask about the interview process, hint at a job referral, or request introductions to others during the conversation. But that should not be your leading reason to speak with them.
Be authentic with your thirst to learn from others, and the transactional benefits will follow.
By aspiring to meet and learn from new people, you are inherently networking.
And before you make excuses about why you can’t get in touch with interesting people, here are a handful of tactics that I’ve used to consistently meet incredible people.
The following assumes you are familiar with cold emailing. If not, read my guide to cold emailing.
Finding Professionals Tactic 1: Attend career fairs and information sessions
Surprised I said that? What I really mean is attend career fairs and information sessions 1 full year before you intend on applying to that position.
For example, if you’re interested in landing a junior year internship at a specific company, attend their information session during your sophomore year. Then, use that year to build and nurture meaningful relationships.
Next year when you’re a junior, attend the same information session and use it as an opportunity to say hello to familiar faces. By now you should already be on their radar.
Everyone else will be stressed about quickly building relationships, but you’ll be one step ahead.
Finding Professionals Tactic 2: Use LinkedIn to your advantage
I promise they’re not paying me to say this. LinkedIn is a game changer when it comes to finding and connecting with interesting people of all backgrounds.
This is the first time in history where the professional accomplishments and interests of nearly every professional are publicly available online. Better yet, LinkedIn offers search tools to find the exact types of people you’re looking for. I wrote about how to use LinkedIn filters here.
If you’re not sure who to reach out to, start with alumni! Your university probably has alumni in most careers imaginable. Use LinkedIn to filter by alumni, or ask your career center for a list of alumni. Once you find people that look interesting, start emailing away!
Alumni of student organizations, sports teams, high school, or anything similar are also great places to start your search.
Finding Professionals Tactic 3: Ask people you already know for introductions
This is a powerful yet underutilized tactic to meet new professionals. I’ve noticed that ambitious students have a tendency to act as a lone wolf and minimize their reliance on others for help.
Yet nobody becomes successful without extraordinary help from the people around them. In fact, experienced professionals rely heavily on their networks to find their next job.
Take a page out of their playbook and ask your network for help. Talk to your friends and professors about your career interests and ask them to connect you with anyone relevant in their networks.
Landing a job offer is not the end of the road
There are an infinite number of ways you can find amazing people to connect with, and college is the perfect time to meet new people.
If you build a habit of consistently meeting and learning from new people, the transactional of networking will come.
- You’ll have an insider champion for every company you’re interested in
- You’ll will feel a sense of direction because of your robust understanding of many different career paths
- You’ll have multiple, experienced perspectives when making difficult career decisions
- You’ll be able to run mock interviews and ask for interview tips from experienced professionals with first hand knowledge of the entry level interview process
A friend of mine met someone new every week during his last summer internship. His goal was to learn as much as possible about technology and product management from professionals in the field.
Shortly after, he landed a full time job offer with Facebook’s Rotational Product Management program.
There are so many benefits to networking, but it starts with an unwavering belief in consistent and genuine relationship building.
As you have more of these conversations, you’ll become aware of the magnitude of opportunity surrounding you. You just have to take the leap and reach out when most people won’t.
Soon, this will become automatic. You will crave different perspectives, ideas, and experiences from meeting new people.
And eventually with the help of your network, you will finally land your dream junior-year internship or full time job. It will feel amazing… for a fleeting moment.
Because once you start craving different perspectives, there’s no going back. Life will feel boring if you stop meeting new people and hearing new ideas.
The ultimate testament to a consistent and genuine networking system is when you’re still looking to learn from new people, despite already having locked down your dream job or internship.
You will see the world for all its opportunities and feel empowered to reach for them through conversation.
And that feeling will last much longer than landing any one job.