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American secondary education is difficult. Students not only face rigorous academic demands but also deal with them in a foreign environment. As a new frontier, it’s sink or swim, both socially and professionally.

In an ideal world, things would be simpler. College and subsequent careers would both be centered around an individual’s passions. The problem with that is, most people don’t have themselves figured out by the age of 18 or 22 (or even 40). By the time someone is sure of their calling, it’s often long after their college days. And that’s ok. Passion will always drive creativity and work ethic at any stage of life.

So, what is the best insurance for an uncertain career path? Networking. In theory, it’s built on momentum and varying degrees of quid pro quo. Networking starts small, usually with friends and family. Then, as one’s professional ambitions swell, so does the number of relevant people circulating in your given field.

Pinboard criss-crossed with string to outline interconnection

The good news is that thoughtful, hard-working people are in short supply across every industry. Particularly now, amid waves of the Great Resignation, those in the position to hire are more likely to give new employees and fresh insights their due.

College has always been a necessary transition between student and professional life. In marketing or advertising, even entry level positions require at least a 2-year degree. That said, a degree in an adjacent field doesn’t discount one’s potential in marketing. On the contrary, it demonstrates a fresh perspective. Leveraging such opportunities, however, requires a robust and well-nurtured network of peers and mentors.

In my experience, young professionals are commonly beaten over the head with an abundance of well-intended advice. Mostly for good reason. But just as important as the advice, itself, is the habit of staying in touch with those who deliver it. So, three cheers for LinkedIn. But lasting professional relationships aren’t built on automated notifications. Phone calls, thank you notes, and other “analog” displays of personal interest are far more effective ways to stand out

This is especially true when calling in favors for an interview or introduction. When those meetings finally come, it’s important to remember the role of experience. It is one of the critical, differentiating qualities between an employee and a C-level executive. Acknowledging that not only allows one to recognize their current limitations but focus their competitive message on the ability to learn.

The first time I sat down with a Fortune 500 CEO, I couldn’t tell my temples from my toes, and was overwhelmed by the gulf between us. I looked across the desk and saw innumerable differences in socioeconomic status, education, and colleagues. But instead of shrinking into a houseplant (which is what I wanted to do), I forced myself to vocalize who I knew I was. I acknowledged that I was new to the industry, but quickly followed with the fact that I’m also a hungry, curious person. And while it turned out he couldn’t hire me at the moment, he could help me out by connecting me to a lot more people who might.

That meeting changed my life. It felt as though David had politely introduced himself, and Goliath decided to hear him out instead of destroying him. The only reason that happened in the first place was because of relationship maintenance. In other words: Networking.

Bull statue squaring off with figure of small girl

And it’s easier than you think. Every time I’ve met someone influential in marketing, I asked the same questions: How did you get to where you are? Are there any related media you’d recommend? And most importantly: Who else should I be talking to?

The practice of networking doesn’t require exceptional intuition or interpersonal skills, but it does rely on foresight. It takes a clear understanding of who you really are – and what you’re really learning in college. Because most of your natural talents and personal skills are transferable to the professional world.

Do you have a perfect record for completing course assignments on time? That suggests you excel at meeting deadlines in a high-pressure environment. Have your friends told you you’re a great party planner and host? That’s a clear indication of your people management skills.

Regardless of the caliber of your education or its stated direction, professional progression is a cumulative game. You just put one foot in front of the other, taking advantage of your best past self.

Noah Bridges

Author Noah Bridges

Digital Marketing

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