Slide Show >>
Now that recruiters are back on B-school campuses, and more companies are competing for top talent, everyone's looking for an edge (see BusinessWeek.com, 10/27/05, "Recruiters Are Slugging It Out"). In addition to the cattle-call information sessions that have long been mainstays of the recruitment process, smaller, more informal networking events are proving increasingly popular. At top schools, first-year MBAs interested in banking or consulting can expect to attend upwards of 20 dinners, cocktail parties, and coffee chats over the course of the fall semester.
Rob Sivitilli, a managing director at JPMorgan (JPM) who recruits on campus at the University of Chicago, says the company has started downplaying the larger "speaker plus cocktail hour" presentations in favor of networking events with a much higher banker-to-student ratio. This year, JPMorgan will bring about 30 bankers to campus—each stationed at a table, in order to avoid the "crop circles" that typically form around recruiters.
Julia Zupko, senior associate director at Chicago's MBA career-services office, says one reason informal events are increasingly popular is that more recruiters are interested in connecting with students on a personal level. This year, Chicago's career-services office will also be doing away with its annual posterboard-and-pamphlets career fair in favor of new "Corporate Networking Nights." Zupko says the new cocktail-party format will bring students together with recruiters from 10 to 20 companies in a "less transactional" environment that lends itself to more in-depth interactions than a standard resume-drop event.
Zupko admits, though, that though such events may be more informal, they aren't necessarily easier to navigate. "Networking in business school is a must do, but it's still something people struggle to do really well," she says. While most B-schools offer some sort of networking training, Marie Mookini, senior associate director of career services at Stanford, says the cocktail party can still strike fear into the hearts of even the savviest students—the ones who wouldn't dream of attending an event without researching the company first, or sending a follow-up note afterwards.
While most top-notch MBAs already have the basics down pat, we asked students, recruiters, career-services professionals, and networking experts for more specific advice about navigating the labyrinth of events that is the fall recruiting season. Consider this networking for advanced swimmers.
1. Don't go to every networking event advertised: Recruiting season is a whirlwind of events that leaves students at most top schools breathless. But going to events unprepared just to show your face probably isn't worth your time.
Instead of running yourself ragged, be strategic: Attend the events where you're most likely to meet the people you want to network with. "Networking is planting seeds," says Chicago-based networking expert Lillian Bjorseth. "The more fertile the ground, the more likely you are to get a good crop."
Limiting the number of events you attend will also make it easier to prepare ahead of time, so you can feel relaxed and confident when you're there. Stanford's Mookini recommends that students have a specific goal in mind for any event they attend, whether it be meeting a partner or getting a feel for the company culture. "If you go with a purpose, it's easier to not be so bothered by the frenzy," she says. "Having a focus helps anchor you, psychologically."
2. Don't go straight for the big-cheese: Instead of braving the mob scene for two minutes with a partner or head recruiter, chat up someone else from the company who isn't being bombarded by students. Your chances of making a lasting impressing will be higher when you have more time to have a genuine conversation, says Shirin Ghadessy, a second-year MBA at Wharton].
Don't worry if the person you're speaking with isn't in the exact division you want to end up in, says Zupko. But don't fall into the trap of chatting with your friends instead of focusing on the reason why you came to the event, says Casey McCullar, a second-year Tuck student: "Your friends will still be there in an hour, but the recruiter will be long gone."
3. Don't chow down: Yes, those taquitos look tasty, but they could also be distracting you from your goals at a networking event. "Often, people are nervous so they head straight for the bar, but that's not what you're there to do—you're there to work," says Philadelphia-area networking expert Gail Madison.
Eating beforehand ensures that you won't appear ravenous—or have to worry about dribbling salsa on your tie. New York-based networking expert Olivia Fox Cabane also advises against holding your drink in your right hand—the ice and condensation will make your handshake feel cold and clammy. Instead, she says, wrap a napkin around your glass, or better yet, hold it in your left hand.
4. Don't just stand there: "One of the worst things you can do is just creep up to a group of people without saying something," says Graham Blackwell, a second-year student at Chicago. "After a while, they're uncomfortable, you're uncomfortable—you just have to let them know you're there."
Madison recommends waiting for a lull in the conversation, and then assertively but politely working your way to the front of the group to introduce yourself. And if you see a classmate hovering towards the outside of a group, why not show off your skills as a team player by introducing him or her as well? Once the introductions are over, jump right into the conversation.
"When there's a good opportunity to casually bring up something you've done, people often get timid," says Blackwell. "They want to make such a good impression that they get tongue-tied." But over-thinking what you want to say, didn't say, wish you had said, or are going to say next is a waste of time, says Cabane. "In the end, what matters to people is how it felt to be talking to you."
5. Don't be a brown-noser: Everybody likes a compliment, sure, but nobody likes a suck up—especially not your fellow MBAs. "It's so annoying to watch!" says Ghadessy. And recruiters can always sniff out blatant brown-nosing. "It's pretty transparent when someone says to us, 'I think JPMorgan is the best bank.' They're not going to score that many points with that—it's a throwaway comment," says Sivitilli.
Even if you think you're being smooth, Cabane says insincerity will still come across extremely quickly. "We only control a very small fraction of our nonverbal communications, so people will pick up if you don't believe what you say."
6. Don't ask yes-or-no questions: Generic ice-breakers like "Is this your first time at the event?" or "Did you have trouble finding it?" are no way to start a conversation, says Bjorseth. And with a short amount of time to make an impression, you don't have time for filler conversation.
"Banks are looking for people with something to talk about in addition to the weather," says Sivitilli. Mookini advises students to read a newspaper or a magazine beforehand so you'll be up on world events and have something to contribute to the conversation.
7. Don't ask only work-related questions: While it's important to show recruiters you've done you homework by asking insightful questions about their company—Sivitilli says "What's an interesting deal you've worked on this year?" is a good one—in general it's better to stick to topics relating to the general economy, such as big deals in the news, rather than more formal questions about their business.
And to make a lasting impression, it's important to establish a personal connection as well. "You've got to fish for that one thing that you can relate to them with, whether it be a sports team, an alma mater, the nightlife scene in their city—something that gets them excited and will help you stick out as someone with a real personality rather then student number 123 that they've spoken to that night," says Ghadessy.
8. Don't confuse informal with casual: As a student, McCullar says that more informal conversations with recruiters are valuable when both parties move out of "sell mode" and start being honest. But McCullar also cautions, "If you get too comfortable and start talking to them like you're at a party, you can lose focus."
Mookini likens recruiting events to first dates: Whether it's dinner at a five-star restaurant or a walk on the beach, you're still being evaluated—and first impressions always count. "Until you get an offer, assume every second, every interaction is being remembered," says Booz Allen recruiter Peter Sullivan. "You certainly want to be personable. We want to get to know you. But there are ways to do that professionally."
9. Forget the hard sell, but don't forget your story: "Trying to sell somebody else when you first meet them is the fastest way to ruin a relationship before it even begins," says Cabane. "You can't just memorize your story and give that same spiel over and over," says Zupko.
Instead, you need to know yourself well enough that you can work details about your background and credentials fluidly into a conversation. Sivitilli says he will often turn to potential hires and say flat-out, "Tell me something that's going to help me remember you." A good answer, he says, "doesn't have to be a pitch, it just has to be something that reflects their professional successes."
That means an answer like "When I was young, I used to sing a lot" isn't ideal, Sivitilli says, because "that doesn't really tie into anything." A better answer: "I volunteered for Teach for America and I trained a lot of people in math."
10. Don't overstay your welcome: Monopolizing recruiters' time won't win you any points at a crowded event, warns Boston-based networking expert Diane Darling. "More facetime doesn't mean a better impression," adds second-year Haas student Neeraj Pendse. "If there's nothing interesting for you to talk about, move on."
Pendse says MBAs should be aware that making a good impression on recruiters isn't the only thing at stake at networking events—"You don't want to be remembered as pushy and irritating by your classmates!" (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/12/06, "The Art of the Schmooze").
In the end, of course, these do's and don'ts can only take you so far. "Cocktail parties are just ambiguous, awkward situations," says Mookini. "I wish there were more discrete guidelines, but a lot of times you have to play it by ear."
Click here for a slide show on networking.