Successfully tapping into your alumni network

Successfully tapping into your alumni network
By Kaitlin Madden, CareerBuilder Writer

People differ in the level of their enthusiasm for their alma mater -- from those who make the annual homecoming pilgrimage, to others who make the occasional donation to the alumni fund -- but most of us would agree that we have some pride in the university, graduate school and even high school we attended.

With this pride often comes an instant connection to fellow schoolmates, forming a camaraderie that can be a great career asset, if approached and used strategically.

"In my experience, alumni often misuse their connections with one another by approaching fellow alumni with requests that are hard to fill," says Chandlee Bryan, former career services director at Dartmouth College and co-author of "The Twitter Job Search Guide." "'I need help getting a job' is much harder to respond to than an expression of interest in learning more about what another person does."

Here are a few tips to make sure you get the most out of your alumni network:

Make targeted connections

While social networking sites can allow you to find fellow alums easily, establish criteria before you begin sending rapid-fire connection requests to every person in your school's alumni group.

"I don't recommend cold-call requests," Bryan says. "Blanket requests to connect on social networks because you went to the same school are a turn-off. Researching an individual's interests and then sending an invite to meet works better."

Should you just be starting out on your alumni networking journey and want to see who's out there, Bryan recommends following those you might like to get to know on Twitter. "As Twitter requires no previous connection to 'follow' and you can search for groups of users by interest, it is a fast way to connect," she says.

Be proactive

Don't wait until you need a job or startup capital to begin your networking efforts. Not only will people be less inclined to help you if you ask them for a favor right off the bat, but you'll also waste a lot of valuable time if you wait until you need something to start networking.

"You don't go in gangbusters and say 'Hey, we went to the same school, so can you help me get a job?'" says Darrell Gurney, author of "Backdoor Job Search: Never Apply for a Job Again." "You focus always on the person and the relationship ... and then gradually, but with intention, other business or networking opportunities can arise. Underneath it all, people always just like helping other people. You just have to focus on the people and the relationships, and the rest takes care of itself."

Bryan agrees. "One of my college classmates did this brilliantly," she says. "He reached out to me and to other alums on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter before he needed it. We developed a friendship that we didn't have in college. When he was laid off, he found a new job in less than a week over Facebook simply by letting his network know of his situation. You see, he had already built the goodwill."

Find common ground at networking events

Alumni networking events can bring your classmates out of the woodwork, but -- especially if the event isn't being held close to campus or you went to a big school -- you might not know anyone there. While you'll always have the "So when did you graduate?" icebreaker, there are other, more engaging ways to approach these fraternal strangers at networking events. Try asking about what dorm they lived in freshman year or what activities they were involved in at school instead.

"Try to find common experiences you can talk about, especially if you were involved in the same clubs or course of study. 'Did you have professor x' is a great icebreaker," Bryan says.

Sign up for the newsletter

Subscribing to your alumni newsletter or magazine is not only a great way to keep up-to-date on alumni events in your area, it can also be helpful in targeting your networking efforts, since alumni publications often feature stories about successful alums, or a "where are they now" section that summarizes what people are up to.

Though you can always find out about your classmates' careers on LinkedIn or Facebook, your alumni newsletter makes a valuable companion to these online networking sites. For example, your newsletter may feature a classmate you didn't know in college, who is now the CEO of a leading business in your industry. Now, you not only know the person is a great networking contact for you, but you also have a reason to reach out on LinkedIn. Mention that you were impressed with the feature in the alumni newsletter as a conversation starter.

The most important thing to remember about your alumni network, though, is that if you're not using it to your advantage, you're likely missing out on potential job and career opportunities. Many of your fellow alumni will be happy to connect with you and offer you advice and insight on your career.

Kaitlin Madden is a writer and blogger for and its job blog, The Work Buzz. She researches and writes about job search strategy, career management, hiring trends and workplace issues. Follow @CBForJobSeekers on Twitter.