How to find a career mentor while you’re still in college

Get a head start now with the help of your own personal work guru.

How to find a career mentor while you’re still in college

Pop quiz: What do Mr. Miyagi, Yoda and Professor Dumbledore have in common? Aside from being pretty badass film icons, they’re each incredibly gifted mentors.

True, the chances of meeting someone who can transform you into a karate master or Jedi Knight are slim. But you can find a mentor to help show you the way forward.

“A mentor can help you establish your career direction and set long-term goals,” says Beth Zefo, co-author of Grad to Great: Discover the Secrets to Success in Your First Career.

And the great thing about being in a college environment is having access and exposure to so many people who are more than qualified to help guide you through the job search process, and later, the working world. 

But why limit yourself to just one mentor? “Having multiple mentors enables you to get different perspectives and advice,” says Barbara Hewitt, associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.

Take these steps to create your job “squad” now—and you’ll have a core team of advisors and career guides you can rely on when you need them most.

Connect with upper classmen

A person doesn’t have to be twice your age or even out of college to be a great mentor for you. “Freshmen and sophomores can learn a lot from juniors and seniors,” says Hewitt. For one, they have experience applying for internships. They can also help you craft your resume and hone your interviewing skills.

To connect with older students, “talk to people in your clubs, people in your fraternity or people on your sports teams,” says Hewitt. “Having a shared interest gives you an easy way in.”

Cozy up to a college professor

Forming a bond with one of your professors can pay off in several ways, depending on your field of study.

A business school professor, for example, might have contacts in the industry that can help you snag a competitive internship; an art history professor could be able to recommend what upper-level courses you should take; and a psychology professor may be in the position to assign you to a research project, which would be a nice badge to add to your resume. Regardless of their discipline, “many professors have relationships with entry-level recruiters,” says Zefo.

To reap these benefits, you’ll need to put effort into not only building but also maintaining the relationship. “Go to your professor’s office hours and check in during summer break,” advises Hewitt. Just having a well-connected professor isn’t enough. You’ve got to nurture that relationship if you want him or her to help you.

Network with alumni

Many college graduates are eager to help current students, says Kelly Kennedy, a career counselor at the University of Virginia. Check to see if your school’s career center has an alumni-mentoring program in place that you can tap into to connect with professionals. If not, see if your college maintains an online database of alumni contact information.

When reaching out to alumni, give context as to what you’re looking for, says Kennedy. For example, you might email and say, “Hi, my name is _____ and I’m a senior advertising major at _____ University. I found your contact information through our alumni office. I’d love just 20 minutes of your time to meet for a coffee and hear what it’s like to work in the field.”

Leverage your first internship

If you’re a sophomore—or a high-achieving freshman—you’re probably gearing up for your first summer internship. But as you get your first taste of interacting with real working professionals, you need to stay focused on building relationships with full-time employees. (You know, your future co-workers.)

You want to connect with two types of employees: 1) an entry-level worker who’s familiar with the hiring process for new graduates, and 2) a mid-level manager who has hiring power. You should be able to find common ground with younger employees relatively easily. If you’re hesitant to contact a manager, however, simply ask your internship coordinator to introduce you, says Zefo.

You’ll also want to expand your reach to employees in other departments to gain insight into how other divisions operate and, of course, to recruit more mentors. To maintain relationships, check in quarterly via either email or phone, says Zefo.

Reciprocate the relationship

The mentor-mentee bond is a two-way street. Put simply: To be a good mentee, you need to contribute something of value. “Just helping your mentor when he or she gets bogged down with work is a good way to reciprocate,” says Hewitt. Reverse mentoring—such as teaching an older colleague how to use social media—is also a good approach.