How To Organically and Authentically Grow Your Network in College

According to research done by Business Blog Inc., the vast majority of jobs are obtained through networking. Just take a look at the chart they have constructed below:

how to grow your network in college

Glassdoor states that 80-85% of all currently available jobs go unadvertised. Do you believe these two pieces of information to be true? If so, you will agree that learning how to create, maintain, and grow a network are all essential to a successful career. In this article, I will outline why you should adopt a Network Management System (NMS). Then I will go over how to and how not to go about growing your network. At the end I will link you to a template that you can use to build your own NMS.

01 | Why You Should Build Your Own NMS

I have already made my initial argument for adopting an NMS:

1. According to research done by Business Blog Inc., the majority of people find jobs by networking. 

If you are currently seeking a job then my first argument is probably reason enough for you to adopt the system. However, what if you aren’t seeking a job right now? Should you still adopt an NMS? My answer would be YES because:

2. Maintaining and growing a network may help you advance your career in ways that you could never have imagined.

A study performed by Harvard Business Review stated the following:

One manager we studied used his personal passion, hunting, to meet people from professions as diverse as stonemasonry and household moving. Almost none of these hunting friends had anything to do with his work in the consumer electronics industry, yet they all had to deal with one of his own daily concerns: customer relations. Hearing about their problems and techniques allowed him to view his own from a different perspective and helped him define principles that he could test in his work. Ultimately, what began as a personal network of hunting partners became operationally and strategically valuable to this manager.

This particular manager was able to leverage his network in order to improve his ability to deal with customer relations in his own line of work. Although this is an anecdotal situation, I’m certain that this is not an unusual benefit to having a strong network. My third argument is as follows:

3. Having an NMS allows you to easily keep in touch with people in your network in a meaningful and valuable way. This allows you to maintain and grow a healthy network.

An NMS functions similar to one of those little black books your mom may have had in order to keep in touch with her friends and family except that it’s more powerful. Unlike the little black book, your NMS will have contacts organized by name, e-mail, industry, interests, and any other information you think may be useful. You can search through your database and reach out to people you haven’t heard from in awhile and even connect one of your contacts with another in order to be of more value to THEM. 

Now, if I have sold you on the idea of building an NMS let’s discuss how to go about building your network. 

02 | How To Grow Your Network

I think one of the biggest fears people have with networking is that it can feel inauthentic and unethical. On one hand, you may feel that you are just manipulating others in order to gain something from them. On the other hand, you may feel that others are manipulating you and just trying to use you. My response to this is another quote from Harvard Business Review:

The best networkers do exactly the opposite: They take every opportunity to give to, and receive from, the network, whether they need help or not.

Networking only feels inauthentic and unethical when you don’t have the right mindset. Think of your network as a living organism similar to the seed of an apple tree. You have to plant that seed in fertile soil and water it consistently in order for it to grow and bear fruit. You can’t leave it unattended and expect it to bear any fruit for you. All of your relationships must be planted in fertile soil as well. What does that mean? They have to be built on authenticity, genuine friendship and trust. If your personalities click and the other person feels like a friend, you can assume that the seed of your relationship has been planted in fertile ground. The next step is to water the seed consistently. Keep in touch with your friend and be willing to help them and connect them with others even if it does not benefit you. Eventually, the tree will bear fruit. 

If you are a believer in Dunbar’s Number, you agree that the maximum amount of meaningful connections an individual can have is around 150 people. I believe that this number strengthens the argument that you should be very deliberate with who you choose to join your network. Everyone in your network should be valuable to you. No, I don’t mean that they should be able to open up doors for you or help further your career. I mean that you should value your relationship with them and consider it important. Being able to enjoy someone’s company is extremely valuable and these type of relationships make life more enjoyable. Therefore, it’s best to only consider those who are valuable to you and whom you want to keep in touch with to be an integral part of your network.

If people feel that they don’t have a meaningful relationship with you, it’s unlikely that they will be willing to help you out in any significant way. Why should they stick their neck out for you when you hardly have any rapport built up with them?

Does this mean ONLY 150 entries should go into your NMS? I would argue that the answer is no. First of all, we should make it clear that close friends and family members will take up some of those 150 spots and have no need to be put into your NMS. Secondly, our casual friends, close friends, and acquaintances are always changing. Examine your own life. Someone who was a close friend of yours 10 years ago may not be your best friend today. Dunbar's research suggests that 500 is the approximate limit of acquaintances you can have and 1500 is the number of people whose names you can match up with their face. Therefore, I think that you can choose a little less than 500 people who you think you can be friends with to put in your NMS. At the most, only about 150 of those will actually be meaningful. However, who those 150 people actually are can constantly be shifting. 

My final note on growing your network is to let it be organic. Try to genuinely be friends with people and never try to be “friends” with someone just because they are an “influencer” or in a position of power. You never know who someone will become one day. Just focus on growing an organic network and let the rest fall into place.

03 | How Not To Grow Your Network

If there are healthy ways to grow your network then, naturally, there are also unhealthy ways. Some unhealthy ways to grow your network include:

  • Sending random invites on LinkedIn to people you have no prior relationship with (some of you have connected with me on LinkedIn and that’s not what I’m referring to. I am referring to the blind invites people send to other people whose faces they have never even seen outside of LinkedIn. Many of these people are probably just trying to raise their total connections to 500+ in order to achieve some sort of ego boost or they may be desperate to land clients/employees for their business).
  • Treating people as if they are something to add to a list (your NMS).
  • Treating networking like a transaction or an exchange of value (I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine).

What do all of these methods have in common? They are inauthentic and not organic. By performing these actions, you are trying to force a relationship to happen in order to gain some sort of value. This is a recipe for disaster and will reflect poorly on your personal brand. 

04 | How To Grow Your Network In College

Most of this article covered how to organically grow your network and why you should do it. Some of you may be wondering, “how and where do I meet people in college?”

Once you are in the right frame of mind, it’s just a matter of putting yourself out there. Here is a list of things you can do:

  • Go to networking events
  • Go to career fairs
  • Join extracurricular and on-campus clubs
  • Start a blog (Here's my article on why you should start a blog)
  • Volunteer
  • Join a sports team
  • Go out with friends more often
  • Join a fraternity or sorority

It doesn’t really matter what you do. Just try to put yourself out there and make friends. That’s all networking is, at the end of the day. 

05 | Conclusion

This article was actually inspired by a podcast episode I heard on Collegeinfogeek. I chose to call the following template a Network Management System but the original creator calls it a CRM. Click on this link to read his description of how to use it. Here is a link to his template. I did not create this template but I use it. Networking is an incredibly important skill in life and I hope that you find this article useful. I would like to close with the following quote:

Building a leadership network is less a matter of skill than of will. When first efforts do not bring quick rewards, some may simply conclude that networking isn’t among their talents. But networking is not a talent; nor does it require a gregarious, extroverted personality. It is a skill, one that takes practice. We have seen over and over again that people who work at networking can learn not only how to do it well but also how to enjoy it. And they tend to be more successful in their careers than those who fail to leverage external ties or insist on defining their jobs narrowly.
— Harvard Business Review