I was not always good at professional networking … and I’m still not that good, but when I came to college, I understood that networking is one of the most important skills to advance one’s career, land internships, jobs, and, in my opinion, make the most of the college experience.

Through networking, I have met incredible people including the COO/CFO of Mashable, the head of a $3 billion sector at Bank of New York, amazing Syracuse University alumni and faculty, and people who own startups and who are doing exactly what I want to be doing.

And the best part? All of these connections have led to opportunities between interning at Bank of New York as a freshmen, interviewing at Mashable, working on angel investing projects, starting a student-run accelerator on campus, attending venture capital events, meeting people, and even writing blog posts for InfoSpace!

Break the mold

Before coming to college, more specifically before spending time on EntreTech (a 5-day immersive iSchool program visiting startups in New York City), I had a “black and white” view of professional networking. I believed that I had to act incredibly professional and fit a certain mold. After talking about it with my peers and observing my friends network, I think a lot of people feel the same way I did. Now, I feel this mindset can take all the fun out of work and can even kill some of your career aspirations.

I had been networking all freshmen year with occasional success, I credit this to the action of following up. It is incredible how much a sincere email can mean after meeting someone, even better if you ask someone to get coffee in the future. One thing I took away from following up with people is how people are willing to spend time talking with an excited, young college student that just wants some advice.

Find your networking style

Although I really did not understand networking until I went on EntreTech, I was essentially networking the whole time I was on the trip. This gave me the ability to try different networking styles out.

The first two days, as incredible as they were, I was trying to fit the professional mold that I assumed was expected of me. I asked formal questions and had some good and some average conversations.

Then, on the third day I loosened up a little bit. I had been meeting so many new people and decided it might work to just relax and be myself instead of trying to be something I wasn’t. Not surprisingly, it worked better than me trying to act like an old man. Just like the people in my personal life, professionals liked me because I was truly interested in what they were doing and I had some experiences to share.

To me, this was all about being sincere. It is the easiest for me to be myself and once people sensed the calm and happiness that came with that I felt as if they were much more likely to enjoy the conversation and tell me that I was free to contact them in the future.

Don’t forget to network on campus!

To bring everything back to ‘Cuse, there are countless opportunities on campus to improve your networking skills. Networking includes everything from your LinkedIn page to your business cards to the way you send an email.

It is easy to walk into the iSchool, or any career services office on campus, and ask for some resume help, email help, or even better, to be connected with alumni that are doing what you want to be doing.

I recently talked to Julie Walas-Huynh, the iSchool’s director of academic advising and student engagement, about what I was looking for in a summer internship, and the next week I had three phone calls set up with really inspirational people. Reaching out and grabbing the resources that we can use in college is crucial, and in my opinion one of the reasons why Syracuse is so great.

It is important to remember that professional networking doesn’t just include attending networking events. Developing a relationship with your career advisor and asking them to introduce you to professionals is a huge part of it, and great way to practice being in big rooms with a lot of people.

There is always room for improvement.

No matter what the industry is, networking is not easy. It is so weird going up to someone and trying to start a conversation, especially if you are trying to get something from him or her like a phone number, connection, or a potential job opportunity.

I remember at the end of one night everyone was asked to raise their hand if they had any point where they felt like they were bad at networking – everyone raised their hand, even the faculty on the trip! You have to be like an athlete and have a short memory after an awkward silence or bad conversation. It happens to everyone.

Get Going!

For me, it was about realizing I could be myself, ask a bunch of genuine questions, and people were more than happy to talk. This turned the experience of networking into something that was enjoyable instead of threatening.

My advice: get out there and do it. You will only get better with practice, and trust me, you will get better. Just remember:

  1. Be sincere.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Ask for advice.
  4. Remember most people are happy to help.
  5. There is no shame in having a bad conversation.
  6. Be happy, be yourself, and most importantly, try to have fun!