Your choice of which school to attend is one of the biggest life decisions you will make.

Not only does it shape your college experience, it also puts you into a professional alumni network of people who have the power and the ability to advance your career.

Don’t believe me? Listen to this conversation between Tim Ferris of the Four Hour Work Week and Cal Fussman, a New York Times bestselling author and a 20-year contributor to Esquire Magazine’s What I Learned feature. If you are still not convinced, take a look at this infographic in The New York Times.

Unfortunately, many of us are far from maximizing the lifelong benefits of our alumni network. We chalk it up to our busy schedules and the logistical difficulty of coordinating a 15-minute coffee meeting, let alone a longer meaningful conversation, with just about anyone. If you are nodding your head, the good news is that it is never too late to start networking with your college’s alumni network! Here are some networking tips on how to get started. 

Here are some networking tips on how to get started. 

1. Get re-connected.

Your alumni association cannot let you know about recent developments and upcoming events if all they have is your email address from three jobs ago! Make sure you update the contact information they have on file. Sure, that might mean a fundraising call or two during the year, but it’s a small price to pay for the opportunities you get in return.

Some school alumni associations have active LinkedIn and Facebook pages, so you may consider connecting via social media, as well.

2. Get involved.

One thing most alumni associations want more than donations is volunteers! The core of the association is usually formed by full-time school employees, but event planning, alumni coordination, and miscellaneous initiatives are often powered by alumni just like you. If you have time and interest, consider volunteering for a committee. It will get you in a conversation with like-minded alums and allow you to make meaningful connections. Besides, it is a great way to give back to your school through service.

3. Pick a few events to attend every year.

A virtual connection is great, but the ability to connect with former students in real life is even better. Your school probably offers dozens of events that are open to their alumni network, from football games to gala dinners and homecoming. Don’t feel like you have to attend every event – pick one or two to start, and maximize their potential by showing up ready to meet people. There may even be some dedicated alumni business networking events on the calendar!

As with any other networking event, it is best to go in with a goal in mind. Perhaps you would like to connect with two professionals in your area. Use the event as an opportunity to meet them and establish the initial fit, and follow up with a one-on-one coffee or lunch meeting. Aim to pick interesting people that you enjoy and form friendly connections. The rest will follow naturally.

4. Become a resource.

Along the lines of volunteering for alumni committees, consider becoming a resource for other parts of your school. Career services offices are often looking for professionals in their alumni network who can guide and mentor current students. Admission committees often look for volunteers to conduct interviews with incoming freshmen. These are great ways to be of service to your alma mater and advance your career at the same time. You never know–you might just meet your next superstar intern, or connect with your next professional opportunity!

5. Reach out to fellow alums.

If a proactive approach suits you, consider reaching out to fellow alumni who work at companies or in industries you might be interested in joining. The 'Alumni News' section in the back of the school magazine can offer great material to jump-start the conversation.

LinkedIn is a good way to expand your school network, as well. Find professionals by filtering search results using your school name, and send quick messages of introduction inviting them to connect with you. You already have one thing in common! Fellow alumni could become great resources for informational interviews and introductions. Alumni who work in your field could also serve as mentors.

If your alumni association hosts an active Facebook page, consider using that space to ask for advice and guidance on anything from career changes to job search tips.

6. Commit to staying in touch with key people.

As with any other networking, the key to getting the most out of your shared college connections is being consistent about staying in touch. Emails, notes and cards are all good options. You might set up Google alerts for people’s names so you can be the first to send a promotion congratulations email. Put the planned outreach on your calendar – that way it is more likely to get done. In short, don’t be that person who only reaches out to his network when he needs something!

7. Alumni groups aren’t just for schools.

Yes, it is true! Many companies have active former employee/alumni networks that are a fantastic opportunity to expand your professional connections and boost your career. Consulting and other large professional companies come to mind first, but it never hurts to check if your old employer has a formal alumni network. Your old co-workers go on to great things, from leading companies to launching their own firms. Those connections could be invaluable.

Formal professional alumni groups usually host a few events every year, from holiday gatherings to golf games. The beauty of many professional alumni networks, especially for larger firms, is that they offer regional chapters throughout the United States. It is a proven way to stay connected and meet professionals in a new geographic area.

8. Be a good referral partner and a people connector.

Contrary to the popular opinion, networking isn’t just about getting to know progressively more people. The true value of the networking exercise is in being able to connect people for mutual benefit. Perhaps one of your alumni network connections has a client service opportunity that requires fraud investigation expertise. If you happen to know an alumna who is a partner at a forensic firm, you will be adding value to both of them by making an introduction. Instant good karma–check!

By modeling good connection practices, you are building deeper relationships. That depth will get you better results in the long run than simply growing the number of superficial connections.

Now, you will get the most out of your alumni network connections if you make them a habit. Consistency wins the day, so use whatever tools you need to get you there – scheduling reminders work well for me. Leveraging your college connections makes a lot of sense – after all, this is a big part of what you have paid for.

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Photo credit: University of the Fraser Valley/Flickr

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