The term networking has become a bit of a buzzword over the last few years. Like with so many words, it is now an everyday, go-to verb. I love that networking is now consciously accepted as purposeful and valuable work, especially for students. Learning to network for students is very important, especially in a digital world where opportunities are vast, creative and quickly becoming accessible for all. In theory, networking seems ‘easy’: how difficult can it be to strike up a conversation? In practice, however, every student is different and looking for individual opportunities. So, how can every student learn to network effectively and purposefully?
From experience and conversations with many students, networking outside the school environment can feel scary. With so many school experiences still geared towards conventional university interviews and further education, networking isn’t perhaps as intuitive a skill as we may like to think. Unfortunately the professional world we live in (or the majority of students are made aware of) is still dominated by social etiquette that does not always appreciate diversity and therefore can be a daunting experience for many. Learning to network is an important lesson and skill students can practice at school so they feel well prepared to take on the world of work and professionalism when they’re no longer controlled by a timetable of lessons (which is probably the only type of networking so many students experience!).
Questions about networking that I’ve been asked in the past include:
How do I get in touch with people I want to work with?
How do you start a conversation with someone without it being awkward?
What do I write in an email?
How many times should I contact someone without it becoming annoying?
What do I do when they don’t respond?
What should I say?
It’s natural to focus on yourself and the impression you’re making when it comes to networking. Note how these questions are more about the individual, than they are about the act of getting to know someone else.
If we flip the act of networking as getting to know others, building relationships, finding like-minded people to connect with, having conversations with people we find interesting and engaging in topics that interest us too, the notion of networking becomes much less daunting and all the more purposeful.
Networking for secondary school students
When you start secondary education, one of the best ways to begin your networking journey is to actively think about and research topics that interest you. Whether it be a subject, an area of business, a trending topic, a career or industry, write down your questions and do some research. One of the best places to begin is the classroom; ask relevant teachers for their advice. For example, if you’re interested in politics or current affairs, speak to your history or English teachers and ask them for their tips and advice - they are likely to point you in a helpful direction.
Pay attention to the books and lessons you engage with
This may sound really obvious, but the lessons we find engaging, triggering and interesting can help when it comes to networking. Put quite simply, be curious. Final year student and previous Co-head of Speakers and Performers at TedXAstonUniversity, Noor-ul-Huda Sheikh, says the act of networking is proactive, confident and shows your interests - that’s a really positive trait! Research and writing down questions is a great way to begin your networking journey from an early age as you are gathering information and content to explore and discuss. Along the way, your teachers, research or people you know may signpost people that you can contact (either by email, social media or in person) to further your knowledge, interest - and opportunities.
Think about what you want to achieve from networking (not necessarily a job!)
When I speak to students about why they feel anxious about networking, I soon realise it’s because they treat it as the one and only interview with a professional. We need to alter this mindset a little. Although for a few, one conversation may end in a contract, networking is usually an opportunity for you to meet and get to know individuals in a similar field to you. It’s an opportunity for you to learn from them, engage in questions and seek advice and information that will help you with your next steps. Always think next steps:
If you have an interest in the field of marketing, retail, e-commerce, sport, education, medicine, go to networking events with professionals in the relevant fields, get to know them and what they do…do your research beforehand and see where the conversations may lead…opportunities can be endless and unprecedented!
Be professional and leave an impression: you never know where a conversation or connection may lead, so it’s important to present your best professional self when engaging in conversations at networking events.
If you’d like to maintain contact for future opportunities, people are likely to share business cards, LinkedIn profiles or email addresses. Connect, drop them a line to say it was ‘great to meet and connect’ and you hope to stay in touch. Networking doesn’t need to be as overwhelming or pressurised as you may think.
Face to face networking events
When it comes to face-to-face events, the tips above apply just the same. Take a friend and the more events you try to go to, the more likely you are to build confidence and discover what you like about networking too.
For some, networking and establishing connections feels like a no-brainer, however it is not like this for many students. For example, Introvert expert, Sophie Morris, has written a blog post and recorded a podcast for School Should Be, where she shares some tips and advice on learning and networking for introverted students.
As an ex-teacher and now Diversity and Inclusion Lead in schools, I’m very aware that several students find the majority of networking events do not cater for ‘all’. This is hopefully slowly changing and depending on your individual circumstances, it can help to go with a friend or ask a teacher for advice on how to navigate networking events to make the most out of them. The Neurodiversity Network has some great resources and information for parents, teachers and students on neurodiversity in the workplace and education too. There is more to come on School Should Be too…watch this space!
LinkedIn and Social Media Networking
The world of Social Media can come across as rather toxic, however there are several ways you can positively engage with it to support your professional and personal development. LinkedIn is a fantastic, professional platform that you can access from the age of 13. In fact, it is a very popular and opportunity filled platform for young people to engage with and network effectively. If I were you, plan to set up your LinkedIn profile once you’ve finished reading this blog!
Trainee Solicitor, Vlogger and Blogger, Simranjeet Kaur Mann, has created some excellent YouTube videos to help students with LinkedIn networking. Simranjeet’s FAQs on networking are very useful for all students looking to answer practical questions from how to begin and end conversations at networking events. Ultimately, from their own experiences, Simranjeet and Noor say it’s all about forming relationships: do your research, connect with like minded individuals, ask genuine questions to help you learn more and further your career development, and be consistent.
Post regularly and engage in professional dialogue on LinkedIn; read the LinkedIn articles that interest you, share your views and thoughts on topics of interest (this is where those lessons on writing and tone come in handy!) and engage in e-conversation with others too! This is also possible on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, however LinkedIn is a recommended platform for professional networking.
Simranjeet also recorded a fantastic podcast with me for School Should Be, all about navigating the world of social media for young people: check it out here!
LinkedIn for young students
As a young student, you may be thinking, what do I put in my profile? Well, here are a few pointers to get you started:
A professional headshot: think not so much of a straight-faced passport picture, or an Instagram filtered photo…perhaps somewhere in between!
Say that you are a student at school or university and share info about your studies.
You do loads as a student; think about the extra-curricular activities, clubs and trips, competitions you’ve taken part in (Duke of Edinburgh, anyone?) - share them in your personal profile!
Feel free to put a call to action and your interests: say what you’re hoping to do work-wise in the future and the types of opportunities you’re hoping to access, whether they be paid work or internships.
List your skills - your strengths are abundant! Let LinkedIn help you with this and think beyond the school environment. You may be a good communicator, writer, photographer, problem solver…don’t shy away from owning your skills and confidence!
Emails, DMs and networking: what do I say?!
This is probably one of the more popular questions in the virtual world of networking. Essentially, don’t be afraid to make contact - remember, you are being proactive, you are showing an interest and you are trying to further your development - employers and professionals love to see it!
This is where face-to-face networking can also help as if you have met someone in person, they are perhaps more likely to respond, or put you in touch with someone who can help! Equally, reaching out directly on LinkedIn can work really well too!
Research: why are you contacting this particular individual? What do you want to ask or find out more about? Have a genuine question to navigate your message.
Keep the tone of the message professional and friendly.
Provide a brief intro to who you are: say that you’re a student interested in…looking for advice on…you would really appreciate their time to help you with…and ask your question(s)!
Try limiting your emails and DMs (especially DMs!) to a few sentences to start the conversation.
Give it a few days to a week to follow up - don’t be afraid to say, ‘I wanted to follow up and see if it was possible to…’. After all, people are busy and sometimes emails and DMs can fill up! If you still don’t get a response, don’t be dismayed. There are thousands of people willing to help proactive young people - so keep networking!
Networking is a practical skill to learn, practice and be consistent with - in many ways it can sometimes prove more valuable and purposeful than a CV, especially in the current world we live in…just don’t tell your teachers I said that!