For many freshly minted college graduates, the satisfaction of completing an undergraduate degree morphs into job search-related anxiety before the Gothic font on their diploma even has a chance to dry. Many proceed to blindly send out an entire Redwood’s worth of resumes, obsessively update their LinkedIn profile, and in true moments of desperation, actually start considering whether those craigslist “opportunities” to make $5,000 a week working from home are legit.

alumni_networksLanding the job of your dreams or even just a job is often determined, in part, by the old cliché of “who you know.” Outside of those lucky enough to have helpful family connections, most unemployed 22 year olds only know other unemployed 22 year olds, which makes networking within your current social circle a rather incestuous and futile exercise. This leaves you with two choices: hope that your American Girl doll collection will fetch enough on ebay to pay the rent or begin tapping into your college’s alumni network.

How alumni networks can (and cannot) help

Rid yourself of any “Skull and Bones” fantasies—the notion that attending a certain college will automatically open doors to a life of luxury and privilege is not realistic. While sharing an alma mater with a potential employer or networking contact can be helpful in the job search/career development process, simply showing up to an interview with a fellow Michigan alumnus, sporting a Wolverine lapel pin is not going to cause the boss to say, “A fellow Wolverine!!?? Scrap this interview. Here’s a cigar. Let me show you to your corner office.” Similarly, a desperate cold call to a random member of your school’s alumni database is not likely to land you a job (or a polite reply).

To effectively take advantage of alumni networks, work on cultivating meaningful relationships with alumni in your potential field throughout your college experience. Attend alumni events. Contact alums in your field and ask if you could speak with them about their career path. Most people will be happy to speak with you and offer advice. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 70% of jobs are found through some form of networking. While there are no statistics revealing the exact percentage of college grads who find employment specifically through alumni connections, it is safe to assume that the number is sizable. It is also a logical bet that schools with stronger alumni organizations will offer better networking opportunities than schools with less established and enthusiastic alumni communities.

Identifying a “strong” alumni network

Two primary indicators of institutions with strong alumni networks are sheer size and alumni generosity. Penn State has the largest dues-paying alumni network in the country with 172,000 members. Other large universities such as University of Illinois, Indiana, University of Michigan, Ohio State, and UCLA have massive numbers of graduates, but judging how connected they are to their alma maters (and therefore to you, a potential networker) requires additional data.

Identifying institutions with impressive percentages of alumni choosing to donate to their school is one way to gauge a sense of connectedness and “strength” of a network. In this arena, smaller liberal arts schools such as Bates, Williams, Middlebury, and Carleton lead the way. This can be a more helpful metric than the overall endowment an institution boasts. For example, a University of Hawaii alumnus Jay Shidler, a real estate mogul, just donated 69 million dollars to his alma mater. While this undoubtedly has a positive impact on the school’s endowment, it is not necessarily indicative of a strong alumni network (good luck getting Hawaii’s wealthiest resident on the phone to dispense career advice).

It can also be helpful to explore a prospective college’s career services webpage for how they assist current students in connecting with alumni. You should see evidence of upcoming events such career fairs, mock interviews, and speaking engagements involving alums. Schools recognized as having highly rated career services departments include Northeastern, The University of Richmond, and the aforementioned Penn State.

Another question worth asking is whether a given institution’s network has regional, national, or international reach? If you have a goal to work in a particular field or even for a specific company within that field, such considerations can be of critical importance.

Which alumni network will be able to help in your field/region?

One might assume that the colleges recruited at most heavily by a premier tech companies such as Microsoft or Apple would be the usual suspects: Stanford, MIT, Berkley, Harvard, etc. Yet in reality, Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft plucks the majority of their employees from places such as nearby University of Washington, Washington State, and Western Washington University. Apple, located in the heart of Silicon Valley draws a large portion of its workforce from nearby San Jose State and the University of Texas-Austin.

The world of Wall Street finance is similarly surprising. LinkedIn ranks Rutgers University right up there with The Ivies and a host of more-selective liberal arts schools in terms of career outcomes in the finance industry. With a large alumni base and close proximity to New York City, aspiring financial workers may be better served at Rutgers than a more prestigious school in a different region of the country.

CT’s Bottom Line: During the college selection process, give careful consideration to the strength of an alumni network in your future career field and geographic region. No matter where you attend school, connecting with alumni in your area of career interest is a solid investment of your time and energy that can pay dividends upon graduation.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew’s experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.