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Networking Your Way to an Interview

By Matthew Demmer
Quick Tips
  1. Cast a wide net – Your family, on-campus outlets, alumni networks, and social networks and organizations are all good places to start searching, but don’t count out your aunt’s dog walker who has a great consulting contact!
  2. Preparation is key – You wouldn’t go into a job interview unprepared, so you shouldn’t pick up the phone without doing your homework either. Do a Google search on the potential contact in advance and maybe even dig up some dirt that you can use to blackmail him into giving you an interview (only joking).
  3. Be respectfully aggressive – If they don’t answer the email, call. If they don’t return, call again. The person whom you let slip between your fingers is one more person you won’t be getting a job from.
  4. Informational interview = good networking – Contrary to common opinion, informational interviews are not a waste of time. They’re a valuable opportunity for you to get your foot in the door of a particular industry, make a good impression without the pressures of a real interview, and establish a contact with someone at the company where you want to work.
  5. Mind your P’s and Q’s – Anyone who talks to you is doing you a favor. Follow-up with a thank you letter or call within forty-eight hours of talking to them

We all had that friend in college who was fanatical about taking the best professors and the most notable classes, even if he had to wake up at 8:30 on a Friday. While the rest of us were shuffling our schedules to keep three-day weekends and one o’clock wake-ups

, our overly ambitious friend was reading articles, researching classes, and talking to professors to gain entrance into their exclusive courses. In the working world, that’s called networking, and you can bet that anal amigo will have a much easier time getting a job than the rest of us. About.com and CollegeRecruiter.com estimate that up to 80% of job seekers get their gigs through some form of networking. It wasn’t good to be in the bottom 20% of your class at university, and it certainly isn’t good to be in it now when the competition is even more fierce. Networking is a nuanced art, and not knowing what to ask for and whom to ask will probably let you keep those coveted three day weekends and late wake-ups, but only because you’ll be unemployed. So let’s break down exactly how to sail this odd social sea.

Why Networking Works

The first key to networking is attitude. You have to avoid sycophantic sucking up or throwing on an I’m-more-qualified-than-I-actually-am-because-I-went-to-Oxford-and Harvard-and-therefore-know-everything affect. People naturally distrust ass-kissing and hate smugness. The key is to be candid about what you want to do and how much you appreciate outside guidance. Remember that people like to find any way they possibly can to feel good about themselves, and helping you get a job is a pretty painless way for someone to get their karma quotient without shelling out a few hard earned bucks to the local bum. Opening an honest dialogue with the people around you in positions of any kind of power whatsoever is the first step to building a network that will eventually lead to mentorship, advice, and (hopefully) a job with a corner office, a plush leather chair, and a closet full of mint condition Transformer action figures (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

Keep It in Family

The most obvious and occasionally most annoying of all the networking strategies is asking family for help. Nothing’s worse than having to “talk about the future” with your parents and their aged cohorts, but those very people whose car you took joyriding when you were fourteen are your first stop for finding a job. Remember, most of your family and their friends will have been working in their respective industries for about twenty to thirty years by the time you graduate from college, meaning that they likely know not only a ton of people in their own industry but many others in surrounding industries. They are also the people most eager to help, since they remember you as a cute little kid with a penchant for running through the house naked (and hopefully not as a disgruntled teenager with a penchant for grand theft auto—the crime, not the videogame).

On Campus Outlets

Everyone on campus is a potential networking aide. Frat buddies and A/V clowns all have parents and parents’ friends. Professors, particularly in business and international relations, will likely have great contacts in their respective fields. Spend that last semester talking it up with your favorite and most influential profs and the conversation may very well lead to a contact.

Alumni Networks

Graduating does not mean cutting the academic umbilical cord. In fact, you're going to want to keep that cord as alive for aslong as you can. Anyway, start with the university website, but if that doesn’t work, reach out to the career or alumni office. Find any alumni, no matter how recently they’ve graduated, who works in your future field, shoot them an email detailing who you are and what you are looking to do, and request an informational interview. You can also work backwards with this, searching company websites for fellow grads and contacting them that way. If the number of forty-year olds who still don their college sweatshirts and get aneurysms during the Final Four are any indication, people are very connected to their alma mater and are often more than happy to give job advice in exchange for a little nostalgic reliving of on-campus exploits. Finally, don't rule out the influence of people one to three years out of college, as they are often used to vet resumes from their alma mater.

Social Networks

As good as Facebook and Friendster were for sharing funny pictures of yourself pole-dancing in a tutu, they are just as helpful now in terms of finding a job (p.s. please see our strategy guide Cleaning Up Your Online Profile for ways to avoid sabotaging yourself after college). Most of these sites list current employers in a person’s profile (if he or she chooses to provide it), so don’t hesitate to search for the company and see who turns up in your network. Someone may just be unwittingly linked to you or a friend. And if you haven’t yet done so, you should probably join a career-networking site like LinkedIn or the humorously named Doostang, which don't involve hilarious pictures but are specifically geared to career networking.

Organizations & Teams

Recreational teams are a great means for networking. That quiet third basemen on your softball squad just might be a VP at the company you want to work for. He also might be a serial killer. Either way, it’s not a bad idea to find out. Two other resources, MeetUp.com and Google Groups can also get you in with potential employers. MeetUp is more for, well, actually meeting up, as in physically (wait, people still do that?) while Google Groups is all web-based. Both let you share your interests and discuss the job search with people who might be able to hook you up with a contact. At the very least, you could get a good recipe for banana cream pie.

What to Ask For and How to Ask

So once you’ve assembled this network of high powered execs who want nothing more than to take you under their wing Gordon Gecko style (but hopefully without the accompanying backstabbing and whole jail time thing), how do you ask for what you want? This can be extremely awkward, since you frequently don’t know the person and therefore have no conversational in. The key is to be confident, clear, and prepared, and to let them do the talking.

Cold Emailing vs. Cold Calling

Both have their downsides, so it really just depends on the person you’re contacting. Some people are too busy to read emails from random people whom they’ve never heard of before and others are almost impossible to reach by phone. The best plan is to start off with a nice, courteous email that describes your connection to the person right off the bat (no matter how removed) and explain that you are interested in meeting or speaking on the phone. If they don’t respond for a week or so, pick up the phone. If that doesn’t work, stalk them outside of their office until they’ve agreed to see you upon pain of death. The key to all three is to be prepared. Make sure the email spells out exactly who you are, why you’re so freaking great (without sounding like it), and what you want to do. On the call, be clear and comfortable and make sure you have all your information and the information on the company in front of you. Check out this article on cold calling for more tips.

Informational Interviews

Informational interviews may seem like a giant waste of time, but they are in fact the perfect way to get your foot in the door. Asking to sit down and have coffee with someone is far more benign than asking for a real interview and far harder to refuse. People love to show how much they know about anything and that includes their industry and company. They don’t feel the pressure to evaluate you as a potential employee and will therefore speak more openly. It’s also a great opportunity for you to make a good impression without the nervous surroundings of a real interview. If it seems to be going well, try to test the "real" interview waters toward the end and see where it leads. For more information and suggestions on informational interviews, check out Yahoo’s HotJobs.

Networking Karma

It may be a pain, but networking is by far the best way to find a good gig. It's also a great way to figure out the ins and outs of a certain industry and to help you specify what you really want to do and where you want to do it. Ask around, write the emails, and make the calls. Then, when you've landed a great job and the next greenhorn comes around, pay it forward. In the networking game, what comes around goes around...



Does anyone actually used LinkedIn? I have gotten a few ivitations to these career networking sites but I don't know anyone who actually uses them.

Ben -- I can't speak to how useful or not LinkedIn will be for you, but I suggest you check out OneWire (www.onewire.com). In addition to being job matching site and a career management tool that you can use long after graduation, OneWire offers networking tools that allow you to search for other students and alumni from your school to explore employment opportunities and build your professional network. All you have to do to get started is create your free profile.

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