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by Nan Liu Barnes | October 01, 2019


Like many other international students, I was very focused on the academic part of student life when I arrived in the U.S. In my junior year of college, I suddenly felt this job-seeking urgency. I was only a couple of years away from graduation, with one more summer internship opportunity left before entering the real world. As someone whose first language isn’t English, who did not fully understand the rules of job seeking in the U.S., and who didn’t have relevant work experience, I stepped into our campus career services office seeking help.

Looking back, I probably attended almost every workshop that didn’t conflict with my class schedule. I went to information sessions for companies I didn’t know existed. I participated in several career fairs even though I was so scared to talk to employers I hid in the bathroom before I talked with anyone.

Needless to say, I learned a lot in this process. But what I appreciated learning most was the unique way of American networking.

“Networking is making professional friends.”—Jennifer Krupp

My favorite online definition of networking comes from Investopedia: “Networking is the exchange of information and ideas among people with a common profession or special interest, usually in an informal social setting.”

I also like the short and sweet definition by my Olin Business School colleague Jennifer Krupp: “Networking is making professional friends.” International students especially like it as it removes some of the anxiety from the foreign concept of networking.

Why Build Relationships When You Could Be Applying Online?

Most MBA and specialty master’s programs in the U.S. last one to two years. It’s common to feel like you should apply to many jobs as soon as you get to school in order to use the Optional Practical Training time permitted for your program. Why “waste” time on networking and building relationships?

As unbelievable as it might seem to you, networking is not only three times more efficient than applying online but also an unavoidable step for an international student to start a successful career in the U.S.

First, networking allows you to tap into a hidden job market that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. Last time I checked, the hidden market made up at least 70 percent of all open positions in the U.S.

Second, networking is a great way to help you explore career interests, learn about the industry you would like to enter, and get ready for your interview success. This is extremely helpful for you to gain insights so you can answer interview questions such as “Why did you pick this industry?” and “Why do you want to work for us?”

Finally, networking is crucial as it allows you to get used to connecting with experienced professionals and build a knowledge base for the transition from student to professional. According to reports by the Graduate Management Admission Council, oral communication skills and the ability to work with others should be an international student’s top priority to practice.

While classes offered through your academic program are essential to help you get the technical skills you need to be successful, you are in charge of developing your soft skills to become a highly valued professional.

How Can You Connect and Build Relationships with Other Professionals

The networking approach below is customized for international students. You’re not alone if you’re shy when it comes to initiating conversations with strangers, feeling rejected when there’s no response, or worrying about the awkward silence when you don’t know what to say. I hope these steps are helpful and easy to follow.

Step 1: Invite

  • Ask existing friends and acquaintances for a 15- to 30-minute chat to learn about their career paths (classmates, professors, friends at the gym, people you met at a friend’s party, etc.). Also, send customized invitations on LinkedIn to professional contacts you’d like to get to know (see additional resource at the end of the chapter). Note that in-person or phone chats are the best.
  • Make sure that you’re sincere in your desire to connect and that your contacts know you’re not asking for a job, internship, or referral. Asking for advice and insight (rather than a job, internship, or referral) makes others more comfortable and more willing to respond. Be grateful to those who say yes; be understanding of those who say no or don’t respond.
  • If you’re not sure what to say, think of times when people have reached out to you. What did they say that made you want to say yes to them?

Step 2: Prepare

  • Think about what interests you about the contact’s career path so far and what you want to learn the most from this person. If you need additional ideas, try searching “great informational interview questions” on the Internet.
  • Write three to five of your favorite questions in your notebook.
  • Learn by example and listen to podcasts of coffee chats done by other professionals. (See additional resources at the end of the chapter for some suggestions.)

Step 3: Chat

  • Start with and focus on connecting. Ask questions such as “How was your weekend?” or “Do you have any fun summer plans?” (Refer to the previous chapter on small talk.)
  • When you run out of topics, ask one of the questions you’ve prepared in your notebook.
  • Take notes on key things you’ve learned about your contacts and the professions they’re in.
  • Be sure you get all of the contact information of people you chat with so you can follow up and thank them.

Step 4: Appreciate

  • Refer to your notes and send a personalized email or handwritten thank-you note.
  • Reciprocate if you can, and say yes to others who seek your advice and insights.

Step 5: Follow Up

  • Let your contacts know if something you read or hear reminds you of them, such as articles about their companies or interesting news about their favorite restaurants in town.
  • Invite your contacts to in-person chats over coffee or lunch if you’re going to be near their offices.
  • Keep follow-up emails short and sweet. If you have a lot that you wanted to share, maybe it’s time to schedule a second chat.
  • This approach helps you focus on connecting with and making professional friends. Remember, you’re encouraged to ask for insights and advice, but not for jobs, internships, or referrals. The industry knowledge and connection experience you gain from networking form a foundation for your career success as an international student.

Enjoy Networking!

I never thought I would ever say “I enjoy networking” as an introverted international student 10 years ago. While I still get nervous when I go to a new event and struggle to phrase the perfect question to ask sometimes, I fully embrace the concept of meeting and connecting with people thoughtfully. It is my hope that you’ll find a networking approach that works best for you and, better yet, that you will enjoy it. Relationships take time. Will you ask someone to do coffee or lunch with you today?

This post was excerpted from the new Vault Guide to the International MBA Job Search.

Nan Liu Barnes is a Generalist Coach in the Specialized Master’s Program at the Weston Career Center at Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. Nan holds a BA in economics and a master’s degree in accounting, both from Washington University in St. Louis. After several years of corporate accounting experience, she decided to pursue her passion in career coaching to give back to her alma mater for everything she learned as an international student. Outside of work, Nan enjoys spending time with her family, volunteering at her church, and watching home renovation shows and Chinese dramas.