Leveraging Your Alumni Network

Arguably the most powerful weapon in your professional toolkit is your network. Starting with your Alumni Network specifically.

There’s an old saying that says, “You don’t go to Harvard for the education, you go for the people.” The saying doesn’t imply that you’d get a poor education at Harvard, but rather refers to the idea that the network is far more powerful than the education.

In many cases, this is true.

Your alumni network is your secret weapon. It will open doors for you that you may not have known existed. To ignore the alumni network is to ignore half of the reason you invested in graduate school in the first place. Yes, the education is important. You couldn’t do what you do without it. But the network is how you’ll get the opportunity to do the work you studied.

Why the Alumni Network Holds the Key to Your Success

Any time you apply for a job, you want to focus on, what I like to call, your unfair advantage: what do you have to offer that no one else does? What can get your resume to the top of the pile?

Your alumni network is an unfair advantage. Use it.

(Afraid the only strong alumni networks are from Ivy League schools? Luckily, that’s not the case at all! Keep reading – you never know who from your Alma Mater is doing just what you want to be doing.)

Starting a conversation with a recruiter, business owner, or manager is much easier to do when there’s a commonality in place. Let’s use an example of starting a conversation when you’re out on the street:

Say you’re walking a new puppy who’s clearly struggling to deal with a leash. Someone walks up to you and says, “Hi, I’m ____. And I’m a dog trainer and would be happy to help you with your new puppy.”

What’s your gut reaction? Likely, it’s one of skepticism. What does this person want from me (seems more like they want a job than they want to help you).

Now let’s say this happens instead: “Hi, I’m _____ and I have the same kind of dog breed. How’s your puppy doing?”

Now your gut reaction is likely one of, Oh, this person understands what I’m going through – maybe they have some advice to help!

The reason the second approach keeps you from feeling defensive is because this person started a conversation based on a commonality. He or she didn’t ask you for anything, but rather sparked your interest because you both have an immediate understanding of what it’s like to have a puppy of the same breed. There’s a good chance the conversation would continue and you’d organically find out that person is a trainer and maybe even ask them for their services.

Now let’s look at one more version of the same scenario: “Hi, I’m ____. I have a puppy of the same breed and am having a heck of a time trying to get her to ____. Do you mind sharing how you keep her in line?”

This time the person gave you more than just a commonality, they’ve paid you a compliment. By asking for your advice, they’ve implied that you understand what you’re doing. While you’ve had to make yourself vulnerable here (explaining that there’s a skill you’re still working on), you’ve started a conversation that could lead to a relationship. In this case, you could tell the person that you’re aspiring to become a trainer and simply become friends. Over time, that person will likely ask you how things are going when you bump into each other, you’ll exchange tips on your pups, and potentially this person could think of you when they hear of other pet owners looking for a trainer.

Ready to loop this back to your life? Here’s the breakdown:

When you approach someone using a commonality, you have an instant conversation starter that builds trust.

When you approach someone with a request for advice instead of a request for a job (or a pitch), then you’re paying that person a compliment. This makes them want to help you more. Because we want to help people we like. And we like people who make us feel smart, important, and who perceive us as the expert. When you ask for advice – you are assuming the person you are asking is the “expert” with the answer. It’s a sign of respect.

Done right, this exchange can forge a relationship that leads to many opportunities down the line (not to mention the helpful advice that you needed anyway). Don’t try to close the deal of getting hired right away – instead, build the foundation of a network that can open doors for you now and serve you for years to come.

One last point on this to remember about your unfair advantage: everyone’s busy. And people want to engage with and hire people they know they can trust. People hire candidates from their Alma Maters because they know what to expect from them – they took the same classes, endured the same trials and tribulations, understand what kind of work product you’re going to produce. Why not utilize this fact to help you obtain your dream job?

How to Find and Approach Your Alumni Network

There are many ways to find people in your alumni network. A common resistance point I hear is people worried they will come off as a stalker or think it is “weird” to reach out to someone they don’t know.

Let’s address this head on: People like helping other people.

How do you feel when someone reaches out to you who needs your help? Who sees you as someone ahead of them? Who wants to learn about your path and your journey? You feel flattered. You remember what it was like to be in that position.

That’s what will happen here. The person you reach out to will feel flattered that you chose them as the guide-point for what you want to become. Doing your research will prove that you’re motivated and contacting them instead of others will show them that you deem them an expert in your field.

So, some ways to find people in your alumni network are:

  1. Alumni Listings. If you can’t find them publicly, contact your Alma Mater to get the list of contact information they have on file. All schools have this. It’s usually protected with a login, but they have it. Remember, it’s their list of potential donors – they have it.
  2. LinkedIn. There are lots of ways to use this tool. You could use it to identify who you are connected to that has the job you want. Then you could use it to connect with someone who works or worked at the company you want to apply to. You could use it to connect with someone at the company you want to apply to.)

a. Search LinkedIn for your school and see who’s already in your network that comes up.

b. Search the degree you earned, instead of your specific school. Broaden the search to find those who obtained the same graduate degree as you. What you studied is just as good of a point of commonality as the school you went to.

Now let’s talk about what to say. As is the case with all networking, you’ll be most successful if you keep the email friendly, open, and brief. Try this template:

Hi, I’m _____ and I graduated from _____, class of ____. I noticed you were class of ____ and wanted to introduce myself. I see that you’re over at _______ holding the ______ position. Can you help me understand how you got there?

You don’t have to impress the person with your GPA or awards or past experience. Make yourself vulnerable and show an openness to learning. They’re not going to be more or less likely to help you because of your accomplishments. If they help you, it’s because the commonality made them open to you and because they know what it was like to be in your position.

If they have time and a desire to help, you’ll get a response. And once you do, a relationship, advice, and potential news of job openings and a personal recommendation can follow.

Just remember, this isn’t about closing the job deal overnight. It’s about building – and nurturing – relationships. These alumni have already paved a path to success using the same degree and coursework you did. Open yourself up to help from them and you might get a lot more in the end.

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