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Networking might sound like something you do while wearing a business suit and looking for a job. While that can certainly be true, it’s also something you do at club meetings, dinner parties, campus events, and nearly any situation where like-minded people are gathered, even if you’re not currently in the market for a job. 

That’s what makes your college campus the perfect place to begin building your network. We’ll explain why networking in college can be beneficial and share some tips that will make it second nature. 

What is networking?

Networking is a broad term that describes the practice of interacting with people to build professional relationships. It’s usually done between people within the same field or by professionals with a common link, like being part of the same local community. 

Networking facilitates the exchange of ideas, like professional advice and job opportunities. T can be done in formal and informal settings. The goal is to build long-term connections that are beneficial to both parties. 

Do I need to network in college?

As a college student, you have a lot on your plate. Between classes, studying, participating in extracurriculars and trying to have some form of a social life, there’s not a lot of room left over for activities that aren’t 100% necessary. 

So, do you have to network in college? The short answer is no; it’s not a requirement. In fact, you’ll do a lot of networking simply by going about your college life as you make friends and participate in activities. You’ll meet people who you’ll keep in touch with for years to come, and some of those connections may prove beneficial to your career. 

Still, there’s a lot to be gained from intentional networking as a college student. You’ll not only get an early start building your professional network, but you’ll also be more equipped to enter the workforce and could wind up with a better job right out of school than other peers who put networking on the back burner. 

Benefits of networking while you’re in college

Forge beneficial relationships

No matter which career path you choose, who you know will be a defining factor in your success. Being connected to influential and accomplished individuals helps you get a ‘seat at the table,’ which means having knowledge of and access to opportunities you would not have had without the pre-existing personal relationships. 

Gain career direction

You don’t have to make big decisions about your career on your own–and arguably, no one should. Input from more seasoned professionals you meet via networking can help you narrow your focus on a path that will be most suitable and rewarding to you while avoiding mistakes others have made in the past. 

Access job opportunities

If you have a strong professional network, it’s not uncommon to hear about a job opening before it’s publicly posted. This gives you a leg up on other candidates and can help you get hired faster. You may even make such a positive impression that a decision-maker creates a job for you in order to have you on their team.

Build soft skills

Networking requires numerous soft skills, including communication, confidence, and relationship-building. Employers value these skills, so strengthening them through networking will also strengthen your resume. Plus, effective networking requires you to look for ways to help others, which is a useful mindset in the workplace, too. 

Reap personal rewards

The benefits of networking go beyond the professional. A strong network also functions as a support system that can help you overcome obstacles in your personal life. No matter your situation, someone in your network has likely been in your shoes before and can offer guidance during challenging times. 

Effective networking strategies for college students

Networking doesn’t have to be a chore. Follow these steps to get comfortable networking in various situations you’ll encounter during your college career. 

1. Interact with peers

One of the most effective ways to network while you’re in college is also one of the easiest: get out and meet your fellow students. It can be intimidating to put yourself out there, especially when you first arrive on campus, but the great thing about college is that schools invest a ton of resources in programs to get students involved. 

From the casual meet-and-greet in your dorm building to the formal orientation at the student union, you’ll have all sorts of opportunities to interact with young, ambitious people who are in the same boat as you. Taking advantage of them will not only expand your network, but help you meet some lifelong friends, as well. 

2. Join clubs

College campuses are rich with organizations that revolve around students’ interests, including athletics, hobbies, academics, politics, volunteer work, social events, and about anything else you can think of. 

Joining clubs you’re genuinely interested in will help you get involved in the community while enriching your college experience. It will also give you the chance to gain leadership experience, such as through elected and appointed club positions, which can be useful in building your resume. 

3. Attend on-campus events

Campus events like guest lectures and panels allow you to rub elbows with faculty, alumni, and leaders in your desired field. These events are prime networking opportunities, as they typically have a designated time to mingle before or after the main event. Plus, the older people in attendance are likely to welcome interactions with members of the student body. 

Keep an eye on your school’s calendar and make it a point to attend a few interesting happenings each semester. Practice going up to people and warmly introducing yourself. It can feel strange initially, but it’s the basis of networking and gets much easier with time. 

4. Visit your school’s career center

Tuition isn’t cheap, so it pays to take advantage of all the free resources available to you as a student. One excellent resource is your school’s career center. 

College career centers were made to help students network. A career counselor can help you refine your resume, practice interviewing, match you with a mentor, and connect you with alumni who want to help students, among other valuable services. 

5. Participate online

Many classes are conducted virtually, but that doesn’t mean you should sit idly behind your computer screen if you’re enrolled in them. Participate in live chats accompanying lectures, share your thoughts in course-specific discussion forums, and interact in online groups for your major. You’ll get your name out there while connecting with other students who are on a similar academic path. 

6. Create a LinkedIn profile

You may not be part of the workforce just yet, but you can still begin building an online presence that will benefit you once you join it. 

It’s standard practice for an employer to check out prospective candidates on LinkedIn when hiring. Which of the following do you think they’d find more impressive: an established profile with numerous connections and a history of thoughtful posts or a brand new profile that’s sparsely filled out and barely looks complete? The first category is obviously the better option. Make sure you’re part of it by creating a LinkedIn profile and starting to interact on the platform now. 

7. Participate in internships

Internships are formal programs that give college students real-world experience in their desired field. As an intern, you’ll work alongside professionals who have the job you one day want to hold, gaining valuable experience and building your professional skill set. 

Internships can greatly expand your network and offer a direct path to future employment. We talk in detail about how to find a rewarding internship here. 

8. Set up informational interviews

Informational interviews are a chance to learn about a specific job from someone who’s established in the field. They’re not a job interview; there’s no open position at stake. Rather, they’re an informal conversation between you and someone who works in a role or an industry that appeals to you. It’s a chance to ask questions, gain career direction, and make a connection that could benefit your professional life. 

Learn more about informational interviews and how to conduct one here. 

Additional tips for networking in college

Don’t ask for favors

Here’s the thing about networking: while it can help you in many ways, an immediate gain shouldn’t be your primary objective. Don’t enter a new relationship with a favor in mind, like getting an internship or a job interview. Instead, focus on building a meaningful connection with the other person over shared interests and goals. The professional benefits will unfold naturally over the long term. And, if you want to ask for a favor in the future, you’ll have the foundation of a solid relationship on which to do so. 

Look for opportunities to help

The best networkers are those with a mindset geared toward helping others. Suppose you bring value to someone else through a beneficial introduction or a heads-up about a relevant opportunity. In that case, they’ll be much more likely to think of you in similar situations in the future. 

Don’t forget to follow up

Networking goes beyond the initial introduction. Continue to nurture the relationships you form over time by checking in with your contacts occasionally. You don’t have to stay in constant communication; catching up on what’s new once or twice a year or touching base when you have useful information to share is appropriate. 

By starting to build your network early while you’re still in college, you’ll be off to a stronger start and have more professional opportunities at your fingertips once graduation day arrives. 

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Pete Newsome is the founder of zengig, which he created after more than two decades in staffing and recruiting. He’s also President of 4 Corner Resources, the Forbes America's Best Staffing and Recruiting Firm he founded in 2005, and is a member of the American Staffing Association and TechServe Alliance. In addition to his passion for staffing, Pete is now committed to zengig becoming the most comprehensive source of expert advice, tools, and resources for career growth and happiness. When he’s not in the office or spending time with his family of six, you can find Pete sharing his career knowledge and expertise through public speaking, writing, and as the host of the Finding Career Zen & Hire Calling podcasts. Connect with Pete on LinkedIn