You’ve always pictured your career as a simple sequence: First comes school, then comes work. But it doesn’t have to be that clear-cut. After all, there are career counselors, industry clubs, and networking events on every campus, and they’re there for a reason. Are you using those resources as effectively as you ought to be?
It’s never too early to start building relationships that will help you in your professional life. If you can fit some contact-making activities in with your class schedule, you’ll be well ahead of many of the people who will be competing for jobs with you. If you really make the right moves, you’ll be in a position to provide some critical help to those same people – because you’ll have your prospects locked down early, and they’ll want your guidance. Here are some ways to get a leg up:
1. Don’t limit your options.
It’s always good to have an idea of the career you would like to pursue after graduation. But as you take classes and meet new people, you may find your interest in your path starting to wane. Don’t let this prospect scare you; it’s scarier to be stuck and miserable than flexible and happy. If you encounter a possibility for your future that you may not have considered yet, set up a conversation with the person who introduced that possibility to you, and find out more about how you can make it happen for yourself.
2. Start as soon as possible.
Once you’re certain about the career you want, start building a suitable résumé for that career early. Get involved in activities on campus where you can make use of the skills you’ll need to develop. Join clubs where like-minded students gather to share information. If there aren’t any clubs like that on your campus, set one up yourself and invite classmates to join you. As the head of a club, you can invite industry experts to come and speak about their experiences. You’ll not only get valuable advice, but a pool of contacts.
3. Write and perfect your elevator pitch.
Imagine you’re riding an elevator with a possible contact. Before she reaches her floor, what can you say about yourself that will make her think of you as a potential hire? That’s an elevator pitch: a clear, concise, and memorable summary of your talents and your goals. Employers and recruiters meet hundreds of applicants every year, so you’ll need to stand out. Tell them something that will make them say “Oh, yes, you’re the one who . . .” if and when you meet a second time. You can fill in that blank with a hobby or a special skill that’s relevant to the industry. It’s not a good idea to fill it in by spilling your coffee on their shirt.
4. Don’t waste a contact’s time.
Once you’ve made a few contacts, you’re ready to set up some informational meetings, where you can chat one-on-one about your career objectives and how to meet them. People who work in your chosen industry are often happy to share their stories and recommendations. What they’re not happy to do is have their time wasted on a conversation that lacks focus. If all you can ask them to do is “tell me about this field,” you’re treating them the way you should have treated Google months ago. Prepare some specific and detailed questions for your contacts that show them you’ve done some basic research. They’ll be even more impressed if you’ve looked them up on LinkedIn and have questions about their own career paths.
5. Don’t let your leads linger.
If you’ve done a good job with the above four steps, it’s time to put those contacts to use. Be sure to thank them after you meet, even if it’s just for their time. Let them know about events that might interest them, and ask if you might see them there. Keep your eyes out for job openings at their current and previous companies and ask for referrals. Try to touch base with them at least once every three months. You shouldn’t hassle anyone, but you should maintain pleasant and productive relationships with your contacts throughout your career. You never know when or how they could be a big help.