If you’ve got your elevator pitch down-pat, learning how to connect with alumni will really help you land an internship or your first job. In this game, your network can be as large as your imagination.
Networks are built on great relationships, and to build great relationships, you have to learn about the other person. What better way to do this than ask questions? If you want someone to take an interest in you, you must reciprocate and show an interest in them as well.
In this post, I’ll show you each step for building relationships with alumni through cold emails and informational interviews.
Professional Networking in College: How to Connect With Alumni
Talking to alumni from your college can be awkward, especially when it feels like you’re talking to them just because you want something. However, you probably have much more in common than you think and you’d be surprised to learn how eager some of them are to help fellow alumni or students.
When I was in college, I joined the Finance Club and they produced a list of former club members. This list showed their full name, what year they graduated, and what company they currently work for. After doing some research in how to infer email addresses (usually email@example.com), I began sending emails to alumni.
For the most part, I had no idea what would become of these emails and I did this before I even knew what an elevator pitch was. What I did know, however, was that I wanted to utilize my alumni network to the best of my ability in order to learn about different industries and build relationships. If I could do that well enough, I could land a job that would help me dig out of my enormous student loan debt.
For every ten emails I sent, I probably got one reply back. A 10% success rate doesn’t sound great, but getting replies from Goldman Sachs and Blackrock vice presidents because of cold emails was a great feeling. When you’re learning how to connect with alumni on the fly like I was, any and all progress was welcomed.
The next step was to get them on the phone for fifteen to twenty minutes for an informational interview. This was crucial in my development as a business professional. To build a great network and a comfort level talking to strangers (key in business!), this will be crucial for you as well.
Firstly, I’ll lay out the format I used in the email. You want to assume most people are busy, so keep it short and sweet.
Part 1: The Greeting
To keep people from being freaked out, you want to let them know who you are and how you were able to contact them. Also, starting with just their first name is fine. It should look something like this:
I’m a student at Your Former University and as a member of the Debate Club, I was able to find your information in the alumni contact list.”
Line 2: The Heart
I call this “The Heart” for two reasons. For one, it’s the core of why you’re reaching out to them. Secondly, you should show passion and interest in order to entice them to help you as they recollect their younger days when they weren’t so important and busy. Take this for example:
“I’m very interested in pursuing a career in digital marketing and I’d love to learn more from someone like yourself with several years of experience in the industry.”
Line 3: The Ask
Get to this part quickly because people with jobs typically have three projects to work on, five new voicemails to listen to and an annoying co-worker that won’t stop hovering at their desk and talking despite the fact they haven’t made eye contact in ten minutes.
All kidding aside, they simply don’t want to read a four page paper on why you want to talk to them. Ask to get on the phone for a short amount of time – it’ll probably turn out to be longer anyways. It’s as simple as this:
“Are you open to a fifteen minute call? Please let me know your availability and we can go from there. Thank you in advance for your time.
Now, an in-person meeting is the ideal situation, so ask if they’d like to grab a cup of coffee if you’re in the same area. Pro tip: if they say yes, pick a place near where they work.
Now let’s examine how to succeed once you schedule the call or meeting.
Speaking to someone in order to learn from them is called an informational interview. This is the bread and butter of networking and connecting with alumni.
Let’s assume they respond to your email and you’re able to get them on the phone. Here’s some step-by-step advice on how to structure the call so you can make the most of your time.
1. Use small talk to break the ice but don’t dwell on it unless the conversation is really flowing and they’re driving it. An easy topic is things that are going on with your school/their alma mater.
2. Take control of the call early by stating the reason for the call and then giving your elevator pitch. Obviously, you’ll want to alter the elevator speech a little bit to fit the scenario (for instance, don’t say “here’s my card” if you’re on the phone).
Taking control and communicating directly will help the other party identify what they can help you with and it also gives the conversation purpose. You don’t want them to feel like they’re directing the action because it’ll feel like a waste of time and they’ll assume you lack assertiveness.
3. Next, take an interest in who they are by asking about their background and how they got to the point they’re currently at. People generally love to talk about themselves because it’s a topic they know well. It’ll also help you build a connection through things you have in common and will give you a good foundation to move forward with.
4. Ask what their job is like on a day-to-day basis. Hopefully, you’ll hear details that appeal to you which will allow you to transition to number 5.
5. Pick out parts that interest you and dig deeper by asking pointed, intelligent questions. It also helps if you mention some of your past experience within your question as that gives you some credibility in being truly invested in the industry/job. Most importantly, never be afraid to ask for an explanation for something you don’t understand.
6. Towards the end of the call, you want to steer the conversation towards the goal you had in mind (internship, job, or just learning more). If it’s a job or internship and you feel the call has gone well, ask them what they would suggest you do next. You’ll know that they think highly of you if they give you another contact to speak with. If not, they’ll likely say you need to learn more about the industry or job function before moving forward. If that’s the case, assure them you’re researching on your own time and ask if there’s anyone else they can refer you to. You can also ask to speak again at a later time.
You always want to be cognizant of time and if you’re getting close to reaching the end of your 15 minutes before you get to number 5, mention that you don’t want to tie them up if they need to end the call. If they need to go, thank them for their time and ask if you can set up a time to chat again. If they like you, they’ll have no problem with that.
7. Send a follow-up email thanking them for their time and mention one or two follow-up items or bits of advice that they gave you. Always remember that they don’t owe you anything and they didn’t have to go out of their way to speak with you. Be grateful and gracious.
Networking in college made easy… through my mistakes
In my experience, I set up calls without doing enough research to speak intelligently about the industry and job function that I was inquiring about. That was a big mistake on my part – do lots and lots of research beforehand. If you can, speak to a family member or friend in the industry because they’ll have the inside scoop that you make you look much better than having just read things online.
Knowing how to connect with alumni is a crucial networking skill. Alumni can be an incredible resource at any point in your career, so don’t think that this advice is only for first time job seekers. If you’re prepared, friendly and aren’t afraid to assert yourself, the world will open its doors to you.
All opinions expressed on this blog are solely those of Home at 30 and are in no way affiliated with any other organization or institution. The purpose of this blog is to give general education and information about investing, wealth, careers, and college; It is not intended to be professional advice.
Author: Josh Ramos
Josh has paid off $130k in student loan debt in 4 years. By founding Home at 30, he wants to help end the student debt crisis by helping students and young professionals make decisions that will reward them for a lifetime.