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Use this secret weapon to land your first job

Here’s how to leverage your school’s alumni network to break into the workforce.

Use this secret weapon to land your first job

Getting an insider to endorse your skills and experience could be just the ticket to snagging your first job. But persuading someone who you don’t know to go to bat for you isn’t so simple. The person is putting their reputation at the company on the line. Your best move? Tap your school’s alumni network.

Unfortunately, many college students take the wrong approach, says Denise Rudolph, assistant director of employer relations and recruiting at James Madison University. “You can’t just send someone an email and expect the person to help you get a job,” she says.

Follow these steps to connect with alumni in your desired field, establish good relationships and ultimately land a job.

Start early

When you’re a freshman, networking with alumni can help you navigate what Rudolph calls your “career exploration phase.” “When you’re in your first or second year of college, you may not even know what want you want to major in, let alone what field you want to work in,” she says. Talking with alumni from a range of industries can help you discover your passion.

Additionally, building relationships takes time. By starting to network as a freshman, you’ll be in a better position when your senior year rolls around and you’re looking for a job. “Networking with alumni is about seeing what the relationship can yield in the long run,” says Stephanie Waite, senior associate director of Yale’s Office of Career Strategy. “It’s not a short-term solution.”

But if are a junior or senior and you’re realizing now that networking slipped off your radar, don’t panic! It’s never too late to start.

Find the right people

Your campus career center is a great resource for getting alumni’s contact information, but it’s not a one-stop shop. “We recommend our students use LinkedIn to find college graduates working in their prospective industry or city,” says University of Virginia career counselor Kelly Kennedy. Like many schools, UVA has an official LinkedIn page, where current students can connect with registered alumni. The website also lets you search for alums using certain filters, such as by industry, region, years of experience or employer.

Want to find graduates who are working in a particular city? Many colleges also have regional alumni chapters. These local alumni groups often throw informal mixers, where students and alumni can meet in a casual setting. Another way to connect with people: “Ask professors to introduce you to their former students,” advises Geni Harclerode, assistant director of experiential learning and employer development at The Career Center at the University of Michigan. An in-person introduction is ideal, she says, but not always feasible.

You might be more inclined to reach out to recent grads than you are to the over-40 crowd. “Younger workers are often more relatable, so they’re seen as less intimidating,” says Waite, “and they can tell you what it’s like to transition from college to your first full-time job.” But don’t overlook the benefits of also talking to more seasoned alumni, since older employees may be in a position to hire you, Waite points out.

As Harclerode puts it: “You need to get a three-dimensional picture of the industry.”

Ace your intro email

You need to take a tactful approach when reaching out to alumni. Some guidelines: 1) introduce yourself and include your school year and major; 2) explain how you got the person’s contact information; 3) be specific with what you’re asking for from the person; and 4) attach your resume. Here’s a sample introduction:

“Hi, my name is ­­­­_____ and I’m a senior accounting 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 more about what you do at ______ on a daily basis, your career path and what it’s like to work in the field. I’ve attached a copy of my resume just so you have a frame of reference of my education and experience.”

Notice the distinction in that last sentence? You’re asking the person to look at your resume—not pass it on to HR. “The person might surmise that you’re interested in a job at their organization, but your goal is to build a relationship and position yourself for future conversations,” says Kennedy.

Ask the right questions

The initial conversation should be focused on learning more about the person, the company and the industry, says Waite. For example, you could ask, “What social media accounts do you like to follow for industry news?” or “Is there a particular time of year that your company does a lot of hiring?” Also, think about getting a little personal—feel free to ask “How did you decide this is what you want to do?”

Continue building the relationship

Send a follow-up email the next day and mail a handwritten thank you note. Mention a couple of takeaways from the meeting to show you were engaged in the conversation. Most importantly, stay in touch.

“Reach out periodically to provide the person with updates,” says Harclerode (e.g., “I saw your company was in the news yesterday…”). By cultivating the relationship, you’ll position yourself for a referral when you begin your job search.

Moreover, stay proactive by keeping an eye on the company’s job postings; when a position becomes available, ask your contact for help getting your application into the right person’s hands. Caveat: “The person may not be able to pass on your resume in lieu of you applying through normal channels, but they can make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle,” says Harclerode. 

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