Networking elicits fear in many job hunters’ minds, regardless of age, but it can be especially mysterious when you’re just starting out. While building a network may seem daunting when you’re searching for your first job, it’s not as difficult as you might think. Chances are, you’ve already built up quite a large network just by living your life up to this point—and one of those people in your circle could be just the connection you need to land the job you want.
One underutilized way to leverage your network to get your first job is to set up informational interviews. Approaching your job hunt with an “I’m-here-to-learn” mentality from successful people in your desired industry can help you view your job search as a learning experience, as well as help you discover what you truly want (and don’t want) to do.
With any kind of networking, “think more about who you’re talking to and less about selling yourself,” Lee Rossini, vice president of marketing for software company Limeade. Here’s how to do it right, keeping your end goal of full-time employment in mind:
Build your network everywhere
Think about your friends, your parents’ friends, your teachers, your neighbors, your summer-job bosses . . . the list goes on. You may not think of these people as a network when you’re young, but they can be one of your most valuable resources as you transition into working full-time.
Stephanie Smith, a magazine editor who recently transitioned into vice president of content for Connect Meetings, experienced this firsthand when she moved from Atlanta to New York after college to pursue a career in publishing. The young son of a woman she was temping for, who knew of Smith’s aspirations, went to elementary school with the son of prominent women’s magazine editor. Smith’s boss reached out to the editor and helped Smith get into an internship program at the company.
A few months later, Smith landed a full-time job as the editor’s assistant through a connection she’d built during her internship with the company’s CFO. “We connected because we were both from the South,” she says, “so when the job came open, he made the call for me, and I was the only person they interviewed because of him.” Lesson learned? You can bond (and network) with people over just about any commonality.
Set up an informational interview
Think about people who you know love their jobs, the company they’re with and/or have purpose in what they do, and ask if you can learn from them. “That’s the best way to start,” says Rossini, who also helped start an internal referral program for his company’s employees. It doesn’t have to be complicated. See if you can set up a time to shadow them so you can get a feel for what they do, who they interact with, and what they work on during an average work day.
“It’s really no skin off an employee’s nose to know someone’s interested and show them a day in the life,” says Rossini. “I’ve had 30 years of experience and mistakes that I’d love to pass on—and there are countless people like me who are willing to have conversations, just not enough people ask.”
Ask the right way
Blasting out dozens of cold emails or LinkedIn messages isn’t going to cut it—and forget about cold calling. Think of the person on the receiving end of your inquiry, and be intentional about who’re you’re writing and what you’re realistically asking of them. If you have even a remote connection, you’re more likely to get a response.
“A lot of people don’t understand how many emails we get,” says Rossini. “When I get something cold with no connection, asking three, five, 15 questions, that’s a recipe for delete.”
Make a concrete ask (i.e. for 20 minutes of time to talk about a specific thing you’d like to know more about), and make it clear that you understand that they’re doing you a favor. Complimenting something that the person has done recently, such as an article they’ve written, can help you stand out, as it shows that you’ve taken time to learn about them. And depending on the industry you’re interested in, a little bribing (within reason) can work, too. Offering to buy them a coffee may help you earn a meeting.
“I’m addicted to Starbucks’ Trenta iced teas, so if someone offers to get one and bring it to me, they can absolutely have 15 minutes of my time,” says Smith. “Anything like that where you’re a little bit brazen but still humble, funny, or unusual, that gets my attention.”
Finally, if you meet someone with an interesting job at an event, ask if it’s okay for you to reach out while you’re still face-to-face. This way, they know to expect an email from you and will be more likely to recall your name when it pops up in their inbox. “That feels a lot more polite and professional,” says Rossini, “And, quite frankly, it’s very hard to say no to.”
Have a plan
Once you’ve set up a time to meet, prepare. Consider what you’d like to know about their job, career path, company, and field ahead of time. Rather than asking 15 questions in rapid fire, think about the top-line questions you’d like answered, and focus on having a dialogue.
There’s no right way to get into any job, whether it’s an entry-level position or an executive role. Everyone’s story is unique, so start there: Ask them how they got where they are and how you can get there. “If you can get people talking about themselves or how they did something, that’s the best way in,” says Smith.
Written thank-you notes may feel old school, but they are still the gold standard for showing your appreciation to a professional who shares their time. “Usually I get something that says, ‘Thank you for your time, I’m very interested in jobs, please keep in touch,'” says Rossini, “but there’s not anything that differentiates [it]. I want it to be more authentic than that.”
If you must send an email, create a bridge back to the person by telling them what you learned from your time together and what you’re going to do with that information. That shows it’s not just a copy-and-paste note, says Rossini.
Stay in touch
Even if your connection don’t have a job opening for you this week, this month, or even this year, it’s important to keep your name top of mind. The worst thing you can do is lose touch, then only get back in contact when you want something, says Smith. Instead, maintain regular correspondence, even if it’s just a simple email.
“Every time you notice something someone has done, just send them a note over email or LinkedIn to say ‘good job,'” says Smith. “Don’t ask for anything—if you don’t have the angle, they’ll like you even more.”
Not every informational interview or conversation with someone in your network will turn into a job. In fact, most probably won’t—but it only takes one. Approaching your job hunt with an open mind, a respectful attitude, and a desire to learn from others will set you on the right path.