One of the most important things you can get in college, in addition to your degree, is a solid network of peers, professors, and industry connections who can help you grow as a professional and connect you to new opportunities now and in the future. However, many students who study online think it may be challenging to build lasting connections, due to the lack of proximity and opportunity for conversation that typically presents itself before and after class, and in group work. While not on the list of course offerings, learning to network as an adult online student can help launch you to the next level in your career, and make your time in college even more valuable.
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Networking Skills College Students Need to Have (or develop)
If you're new to networking or are one of the many people who feel uncomfortable in mingling social situations, don't worry. There are several skills that you can develop over time to put your best foot forward when networking as an online college student. Some of the best ways you can make a good first impression and a lasting connection are listed below.
When you are in video calls in class, or reading with people in person, be sure that you are practicing good hygiene and professional address, so you are making the best first impression possible. Wearing professional clothes instead of lounge clothes can help you present yourself as a professional you are and be treated as such.
Respond in a timely manner.
One of the challenges of connecting online is remembering follow-up can be hard when you don’t see them face to face on a regular basis. Not responding quickly to emails or forgetting to follow up on a question can mean the difference between a lasting connection or a missed opportunity. Make a point to check through your emails for messages that you missed or make yourself notes if needed.
Listen and ask questions.
Have you ever been in an uncomfortable social situation when the other person would not stop talking about themselves? It can be frustrating to feel like your point of view doesn't matter to the conversation. Be sure when you connect with someone you are asking questions and listening to understand not simply respond. Doing so will enable you to deepen the conversation and help the other person feel valued outside of what they can do for you.
Look to serve.
Oftentimes people approach networking situations with the mindset of, “What can this person do for me?” Zig Ziglar said it best: “You can get everything you want in life if you will just help enough other people get what they want in life.” Jesus also lived life with a service-first mentality and we should always drive to follow in His example. Make yourself an invaluable part of other people's networks by having a heart for service and providing value any chance you can.
It's fine to go to a networking event and come home with a business card, but if you never follow up, you might as well have not gone at all. Be sure that you check in with your contacts every so often to see how they're doing so they, and you, are not forgotten.
Manage your online presence.
We live in a digital age, so it is important to keep your digital presence well-groomed. Perform a Google search on yourself and see what some of the results are. Be sure that your social posts are set to the correct privacy, or better yet don't post anything you wouldn't want a future employer to be privy to. Ensure your LinkedIn account and other social media are up-to-date with current photos, positions, and location so you can best connect with others.
How to Network with Professors
Professors are commonly hired to their role because of their expertise in the industry. That means that they have careers, skills, and network connections that they have built up over time. They are also invested in student success. For those reasons, professors may be some of your most valuable connections you can grow during your time as a student. Here are some ways you can connect with your professors on a meaningful level.
Participate in class.
Your biggest first impression to your professor is your performance in class. While you do not need to be a straight-A student to put your best foot forward, you do need to show that you take your studies and future career seriously. Be sure to engage in discussion and asked questions when needed, and complete your homework assignments on time. Doing so will help your professor take you more seriously, and make them more inclined to recommend you to future employers or write letters of recommendation for graduate or professional school.
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Request a video call.
As an online student, it's easy to relegate to emailing professors back and forth, but consider requesting a video meeting if you cannot come to campus and meet them in person. Using free software like Google Hangouts, Zoom, or Skype can help put you and your professor face to face where you can cover more ground than you can sending emails back and forth. You can ask to talk with them about homework assignments or simply use their office hours to discuss your future goals and plans to achieve them.
Ask for advice.
Professors are invested in serving students, so do not hesitate to ask them for advice. You may need help on completing an assignment, determining which source is the most reputable or even general career advice. They are experts in the field, but they have also helped students navigate a variety of issues before. Lean on their years of expertise and experience helping students solve their issues.
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Don’t enroll in the class, submit your assignments, and check out. You’ll likely pass the class, but you’ll have missed the chance to connect with them. There will surely be opportunities for you to get in touch about projects, the course subject, or simply to get to know them and their expectations. If nothing else, thank them for the work they put in toward helping you get your degree!
How to Network with Peers
The names listed in the class roster are future (or current) professionals, leaders, and visionaries. Right now, they may just be another person working toward their degree, but just like you, they have goals they are working toward. They should become your friends, members support system, and a vital part of your professional network. Here’s how you can connect with them, even as an online student.
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Engage in the message boards (really).
Almost every online course requires students to engage in an online forum by creating or commenting on threads. It can be easy to view this as just another item on the list to check off, but doing so will ensure you miss out. Really do your best to get to know these students in the discussion boards and craft thoughtful responses to them. You will stand out as someone who is truly interested and engaging while building relationships with your peers.
Set up group study sessions.
Just because you’re taking courses virtually doesn’t mean you can’t set up group study sessions before exams! Find a time that works with everyone and join a video call from the comfort of your own home. Speaking over video will help you get a better sense of who they are and connect with them in real-time.
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Connect on social media.
Try following and friending your classmates on social media just as you would a new acquaintance. Seeing what they post and comment on their social platforms will help you get to know them outside of the classroom setting and connect on a deeper level. It will also allow you to stay in touch long after the class discussion boards have closed and you’ve switched away from your university email addresses! Be sure to add them as a connection on Linkedin. The platform typically allows for more formal conversations to take place, so you can separate your personal, family life from your professional network.
Meet in person.
If you are able, set up a local meeting with your classmates. Even if you don’t attend class in person, you can always gather to work on homework, study material, or simply chat over a cup of coffee. The goal is to gain a deeper connection than you can gain in quick online interactions, and this is a great way to do so.
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How to Network with Industry Professionals
Ultimately, you’ll want to get to know people who will be working in the same field as you. That may be difficult if you’re studying something like business but want to focus specifically on aging or ranking up in the military. Adding people who currently work in your desired profession to your network will help you grow and develop as a professional. Here are some ways you can make those connections.
Work or volunteer with them.
One common piece of advice to traditional undergraduate students is to get an internship, which helps them gain experience while building relationships. Adult students may not have time for extra part-time work or may be overqualified. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t work alongside them for your full-time job or take on a volunteer role. If you are passionate about a cause, consider volunteering at events or seeing how else you can be of value. As you get to know them, you can ask more in-depth questions about what it takes to succeed in the industry and if they know of any upcoming opportunities.
Ask for a meeting.
There’s nothing wrong with being upfront and asking for a meeting in person or on the phone. Be honest about your intentions for connecting with them, approach the conversation respectfully, and take their advice. Most people are happy to share their experiences and advice over a cup of coffee or a pastry!
Use them as a source on your next project.
If you’re writing a research paper that calls for more information than you already know, call up an industry professional and ask for an interview. Your professor will likely condone you for getting an expert’s opinion, and you’ll have the benefit of meeting the professional and gaining some of their knowledge.
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Connect at career fairs.
As mentioned earlier, career fairs are a great place to network as a college student. Employers and hiring teams attend these to meet new candidates and talk about opportunities. It is worth it to go, see what’s available, and get practice talking to industry representatives. While there, you can speak with them about their company or even ask them to help get you in touch with someone whose role is closely aligned with your interests.
Ask your existing network for help.
Reach out to your friends and family to see if they know of anyone who may be good for you to connect with. You may be surprised who they know that can be a valuable connection for you now or down the road. As an added bonus, it may be more comfortable for you to have someone introduce you than to reach out yourself!
Networking Events for College Students
There are many networking events for college students, even if you don't live on or near campus, or even if you're an older college student. Be on the lookout for opportunities where you will meet with people who don't often run inside your circle. You may be surprised what new connections present themselves.
Metropolitan areas often have career fairs to connect employers with future employees. Even if you are satisfied with your current position, it's a good rule of thumb to attend career fairs so you can see what opportunities are available. You can also connect with recruiters at companies you find interesting or maybe one you would like to work with in the future. Even if they don't have a position open at the level you are aiming for, you may be able to stay in touch with them and keep your name top of mind for when something does become available.
Chamber of Commerce Events
Chamber of commerce events are a great way to meet local business owners and leaders. They often have dedicated time for networking so you can dive into a discussion with others in attendance. In addition to networking opportunities, the meetings are often scheduled around professional development topics so you can hone your professional skills while growing your connections.
Remember how we said one of the most important skills you can develop is a heart for service? Volunteering with organizations you feel passionate about is one of the best ways to connect with other like-minded people. you might serve on the board, volunteer at events, or even do basic tasks like clean-up. Volunteering will show others that you are invested for more than your own gain, and help you develop skills and friendships along the way.
Check into what organizations exist locally. If you want to join the Rotary Club, a city task force, or a committee, you may be able to access a network in your own backyard. Many churches are always on the lookout for volunteers, so there are sure to be ways for you to use your time and skills in service to your church as well.
College is a great time to learn skills relevant to your desired profession, but we hope you will use these tools to build a vibrant gathering of connections as you work toward your degree. If you’ve used these tools and are still challenged by the idea of networking, reach out to your academic advisor. They are here to help you succeed every step of the way!