College grads: How to connect with alumni and find potential opportunities

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Photo credit: Marie C Fields, Shutterstock

Photo credit: Marie C Fields, Shutterstock

If you just graduated from college and want a career that makes a difference, you might be a little stressed out; after all you are facing a job market with at least 6% unemployment, and possibly more, depending on which sources you use.

That being said, it’s possible to identify a terrific (first) opportunity by keeping in mind a few tips, specifically: don’t ignore the power of your alumni network.

Why you should pay attention to your alumni network

Typically, alumni are receptive to student inquiries from fellow graduates of their school, and it’s been shown that an effective job search is all about networking. According to Careerealism, some 80% of job openings are not advertised and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% are found through networking. So it pays to step out of the conventional process of merely responding to advertised roles to locate possibilities.

Jumpstart your career by connecting with alumni and conduct informational interviews to learn about your field of interest and potential opportunities. In fact, these conversations sometimes provide the opportunity to learn about openings in the contact’s organizations or even just the potential to pass along one’s resume to others in their field. Here’s how to get started:

Use LinkedIn

You can identify alumni via two approaches on LinkedIn. One, use the “advanced search” function and put your school’s name in the “school” space and then list terms relating to your target field (e.g. “nonprofit” or “public”) in the “keywords” section. A second avenue is by selecting “Education” under the “Interests” menu and then selecting “See Your School.” Leveraging these two approaches, you can locate alumni who share your interests, and even your geography (if you specify a location). You’ll see the alumni segmented by “Where they live,” “Where they work,” “What they do,” etc. Be sure to check off all of the various levels of relationship options for maximum output.

Once you’ve identified alumni who may work in the field that interests you, you can send them an Inmail via LinkedIn stating that you are seeking an opportunity to speak with them about their experiences (e.g. an informational interview).

A sample email might go something like this: “Hi Nancy. My name is Amy-Louise Goldberg and I am an alumna of the University of CA, San Diego. I am writing to see if we can arrange a brief informational discussion, as I am seeking to enter the career coaching field and would greatly appreciate your perspectives and insights. If you would be kind enough to arrange a time for a brief discussion, I will accommodate your schedule. Kind regards, Amy-Louise”

Tap any (on-line) alumni publications for updates on fellow graduates.

I’ve found opportunities by reading these alumni updates religiously. By reading about the activities of those who graduated from the same college as you, you may see a name you recognize or even one you don’t, who works an at organization of interest to you. You now have a reason to reach out (offering congratulations, for example, for a recent promotion or job change) and to begin a conversation about your shared interests.

A sample email might read: “Hi John. I noticed from the University of CA Alumni magazine that you’d recently gotten promoted to being the Vice President of Community Service at Lenox Hill Community Center. Congratulations! My name is Amy-Louise Goldberg, and, as an alumna of the University of CA, I am writing because I am seeking to enter the community service field and would greatly appreciate your perspectives and insights. If you would be kind enough to arrange a time for a brief discussion, I will accommodate your schedule. Kind regards, Amy-Louise.”

If you have access to a college alumni database, search for alumni who work in your field and/or target organizations

Once you’ve identified alumni in your field (and/or geography), if contact information is provided, you can reach out to them to engage them in discussion (e.g. around activism).

If contact information is not provided, you can do an advanced search on the Dogpile search engine (like Google but more comprehensive and allowing more complex searches) to try to locate their email or phone number via the Internet. You can put the name of the alum in the “exact phrase” box and their title and company in the other two (“all of these words” and “one of these words” respectively) search fields (trying various combinations of these three is sometimes necessary to yield the appropriate information). These types of searches may turn up useful contact information and you can use the LinkedIn sample email to reach out.

When preparing for your informational interview, here are some do’s and don’ts

Do’s

  • Ask alumni for a brief discussion, (initially by phone, unless they volunteer otherwise) where you can learn about their career trajectory (e.g. how they moved from architecture into green buildings) and some surrounding issues
  • Identify if they’d prefer to initiate or receive the networking call. Expect a half hour, though my informational interviews have lasted from 10 minutes to an hour.
  • Always ensure that the appointed time still works for the alum as the call starts and re-introduce yourself and the purpose of your call before you begin asking questions.
  • Prepare your informational interview questions in advance, but be flexible and willing to deviate from them as appropriate.
  • Great questions include what the alum likes most and least about their current role, what the greatest challenge in their role may be, what the key success factors in their field are, and the major steps along their path to their current role (research them as much as possible on LinkedIn first, though). You may also want to inquire about any particular training they’ve had, e.g. LEED certification, and the role their education has played in their career success.
  • As you move into the close of the informational interview, it’s helpful to ask if they have any general advice for someone looking to move into the field, as well as what resources they’ve found helpful along the way. If a rapport has developed during the call, you may also probe what they’ve learned about themselves from any career missteps and if they wish they’d known anything in particular about the field when they were where you are now.
  • Close the discussion by asking if there is any other advice they would care to share with you, and then ask for the names of 2-3 other individuals in the area of interest to whom they can refer you for additional perspective. Ideally, they will give you contact names and emails or phone numbers, but they may opt to introduce you via LinkedIn.
  • Thank them for speaking with you and follow up with an emailed thank-you note within 24 hours.

Don’ts

  • Be afraid to initiate contact for informational interviews. Most alums are receptive and can appreciate your situation as they were once in your shoes.
  • Ask close-ended yes/no questions that limit the course of the discussion.
  • Ask for a job at any point in the informational interview process. The purpose of the call (or live meeting) is to learn more about the field and the person with whom you are speaking. In a future communication, you may choose to forward a resume for their review, and then ultimately ask them whom to pass the resume along to within their organization. During the initial call, though, the focus is on listening and learning.
  • Pose questions that are too personal, such as if the alum’s compensation or marital situation.
  • Interrupt. Always listen attentively and paraphrase frequently to ensure they know you are listening.
  • Make one or two calls and stop there. You will learn more about career paths and options when you are able to speak with a range of alums in your field.

Have questions about reaching out to alumni? Ask them below.

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About Author

Amy-Louise Goldberg is a certified Executive Coach and Career Counselor at NYU Polytechnic in Brooklyn, New York. She was an executive recruiter for 19 years and has an MBA from the Kellogg School.

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