Hey, college students! It's time to hone in on one of your most powerful career-building tools: networking.

Unfortunately, you won't hear much about the importance of networking in your college classes — and it's not because you're daydreaming during the professor's lecture. It's just that professional networking doesn't really fit into an organic-chemistry syllabus or world-literature discussion.

So, let's get started right here, right now with the definition of networking.

You're familiar with social networks, right? You gain followers on Instagram and add friends on Snapchat. Networking, in the professional sense, is similar in that you're establishing connections with people typically in your field. These connections could be working professionals, experts, thought leaders, or even professors.

The purpose of networking is to form relationships with those who'll help get you to where you want to go, and the earlier you start building up your network, the better. That's why it's important to start networking in college — before you're even ready to enter the workforce.

The benefits of networking in college

Although networking might seem like a bunch of small talk, the connections you establish could result in big post-graduation opportunities.

As you build up your network, you'll find that your connections are rooting for you. Typically, they won't mind helping you because they've probably been where you are right now. So, if you're looking for career guidance, industry insight, or internship leads, someone in your network can help you out. Most importantly these connections could also play an integral role in helping you secure your first job out of college.

Sure, this sounds like something career mavens like to say, but statistics show that building a strong network creates job opportunities. For example, 35 percent of professionals say they secured their current or most recent job through a professional connection, according to Jobvite's 2018 Job Seeker Nation study. On the other side of the coin, 60 percent of survey respondents say they've referred a friend or contact to a company.

“Social media, referrals, and word-of-mouth are go-to sources of new opportunities for job seekers,” the report states.

Think about it: A hiring manager could receive hundreds of two-dimensional applications for any given job opening. From behind a computer screen, how are you, as a recent graduate, going to stand out? Of course, college grads will want a top-notch resume and an attention-grabbing cover letter. To get their eyeballs that far, a glowing recommendation from a current employee or mutual connection just might do the trick.

You shouldn't feel ashamed that someone gave you a hand; you still secured the job. Listen to anyone map out their career and at some point someone in their network probably gave them a little bit of a boost, too. Networking is one of those “I-scratch-your-back, you-scratch-my-back” sort of things, and down the road you'll probably help someone out too. Sure, it's not all about who you know, but you'll find that who you know can really help jumpstart start your career — so don't ignore this powerful tool.

7 simple networking tips for college students

Let's be real: Networking probably isn't at the forefront of your mind right now. You're just trying to get through another public-speaking class without throwing up and passing your accounting exam without forgetting how to do the math.

But trust us, the future-you who's already happily employed while walking across the stage at graduation will thank present-you for building a professional network. The question now, is where do you begin? Networking doesn't necessarily mean you have to suit up and sputter industry jargon over dry cocktails. Instead, here are seven simple networking tips to help get you started:

1. Build networking into your everyday routine

If the idea of networking is intimidating to your introvert-self, you're not alone. But, with a little intention, you can start building your network during your everyday activities, like engaging with your professors and classmates.

You're going to class… right? Sometimes your professors and classmates can be some of your most valuable assets when it comes to job hunting. Not only can your professors offer valuable industry insight and advice, they've also taught some bright students in the past — what are they up to now? Sometimes those former students will email professors links to job openings: “Graduation is coming up… know any promising students who could take on this role?” By actually talking to your professors, it keeps your name in the back of their minds when this question arises.

And sure, today your classmates are wearing pajamas to lecture and look pretty sloppy, but who knows where they might land after graduation. Wouldn't it be nice to build a relationship with them now? One day they just might work at your dream company, and you can say “Hey, remember me from philosophy class? Yeah, it was the worst.”

2. Get involved on campus

There are a number of benefits to getting involved on campus. You'll make friends, beef up your resume with college involvement, and, yes, build your network.

There are a ton of ways to get involved on campus, including honor societies, professional clubs, social sororities and fraternities, jobs, student media, club spots — you name it. Not only will you be able to connect with a number of other students, you'll also be able to connect with speakers, advisers, and mentors.

If your campus has an involvement or club fair, go! Or sign up for a campus email newsletter, peruse the bulletin boards in the study lounges or library, and talk to classmates and friends. As cheesy as it sounds, there's something out there for everyone.

3. Pay a visit to your campus career center

Chances are, your campus has a career center full of free resources. You might think: Do I really need these? Yes, yes you do!

Find open internships or jobs posted by alumni, get tips on how to build your online presence, participate in a mock job interview, and learn about upcoming job fairs. Even if you aren't actively looking for a job right now, it can't hurt to stop by these job fairs. Shake hands with company representatives, pass your resume around, have conversations, learn what's going on in your industry, and see where your potential future lies.

4. Develop your online presence

If the idea of talking to strangers makes you a little sweaty, don't worry. You can also network from behind a screen — though not exclusively.

Start by building your online presence. If you haven't already, create your LinkedIn profile. Depending on your industry, you might also want to make a website or start an online portfolio. Even if it's a little sparse right now, you're getting an awesome head start.

You can also leverage social media, as long as your social profiles are cleaned up. Your school might even have an alumni group on Facebook, and these can be infinitely helpful. Alumni will often post job openings within their company, and if you're a fit, you can reach out to the poster to learn more. You already have one thing in common (ahem, where you went to school), so start a conversation. Ask thoughtful questions about the company and the open position. They just might go to their manager on Monday morning and give you a glowing recommendation, putting you ahead of the pack.

5. Be open to new connections

Honestly, establishing a networking connection could happen anywhere. Maybe you're at your bus stop and overhear a professor talking and politely join in. Or you're in line at the local coffee shop and hear a fellow student chatting about the guest lecturer they're excited about.

6. Don't be afraid to make the first move

Ok, so this is sounding like a dating guide. But really, don't be afraid to make the first move when it comes to building your network. Confidence can go a long way! Our best small-talk tip? Be genuine. Don't treat networking like a game of who can make the most connections or how many resumes you can pass around. Instead, genuinely take interest in who you're talking to — who they are and what they do. Try to remember important information about them. If you have to, jot some notes down in your phone.

If you're having trouble keeping a conversation flowing, start asking some thoughtful questions: “How did you become the CEO of your company?” “What does your day-to-day look like?” “Any advice for  a young person who's looking to get into your industry?” “What are some important things I should look for when applying to jobs?” These are just some examples of what you could ask.

7. Maintain your networks

We can't emphasize enough that networking is more than collecting business cards, passing out resumes, and gaining LinkedIn connections. It's hard work, and you'll want to invest some time in maintaining your networks. If you meet someone at a job fair, for example, shoot them an email afterward. Even if they don't have your perfect job position open right now, let them know you appreciate the time they took to talk to you.

For brownie points, throw in something personal you learned during your conversation. This will show that you were genuinely listening, and they just might remember you when they're hiring again.

The importance of networking in college is very real

Now that you understand the benefits of networking in college, go ahead and get out there! If you're hesitant or shy, know it'll get better with some practice and time. Plus, the sooner you start networking, the better your chances are of connecting with someone who'll help give you a little job-search boost later on.

Good luck!

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