What is “networking” and why does it matter?
Some (lucky) people naturally love networking. Most of us don't love reaching out to strangers for favors, and it can be intimidating to approach. Before diving in, though, it's helpful to frame networking as building a relationship to share and receive information. It's not messaging someone on LinkedIn to ask for a job. Instead, try and think about informal chats you have had with your thesis advisor, someone a few years ahead of you in college, or one of your parents' friends. These conversations may have been about what you want to major in, how to target a specific company, or what you want to do next in your career overall. Viewing networking in this way (which we really think is the right way to view it) makes for much more valuable conversations and much less awkwardness.
Through networking, you can learn firsthand about a company and ( hopefully ) get a referral. Referrals benefit both the applicant and the firm. On the employer side, companies prefer referrals because they take some of the uncertainty out of hiring. A referral is a pre-vetted and pre-approved candidate. And from the candidate side, your chances of being invited to interview improve immensely with a referral. A referral often also moves your application past early screenings (eg, resume screen, test). In short, a referral dramatically improves your chances of joining a firm. In fact, up to 50% of hires come from referrals. That being said, it's important to also remember that the goals of networking conversations are to gain (1) a better understanding of the firm, and (2) guidance on the application process. An offer to refer you is a bonus and is not something that should be explicitly requested.
Step 1: Prepare
Before beginning to network, we recommend having (1) the list of firms you plan to apply to (of course, it is absolutely okay to add to this as you start networking), (2) a solid draft of your resume (find out how to write a strong resume here), and (3) an up-to-date LinkedIn profile (see our suggestions for a great profile here). Once you have all these in place, it is the perfect time to start networking. That being said, also be aware of any on-campus recruiting deadlines, if you are a student. Ideally, you will want to start reaching out to potential contacts ~4 weeks before application deadlines, to allow for time to connect.
Step 2: Make connections
The goal is to have 1-2 quality conversations at each firm, ideally, at the office(s) you are targeting. We recommend reaching out to anyone from the Associate to Project Leader levels who have ideally been at the firm for at least a year. There are several avenues you can consider for making connections, and you will likely make use of a combination throughout your search.
- Personal connections. This could be a friend or family member at the firm. It's helpful to also ask close friends and family if they know anyone in management consulting - you might be pleasantly surprised. If you're reaching out to a personal connection, do so in whichever format (eg, text, email) feels the most natural for the relationship.
- University resources. Your university's career services should be able to direct you to an alumni directory, which often includes an alumni's current employers and contact information. If it only includes the latter, you can still identify relevant alumni on LinkedIn and then reach out via their provided contact information (direct emails often have a higher response rate than LinkedIn messages do). In addition, we highly recommend attending on-campus recruiting events or online webinars.
- LinkedIn. This is a fantastic resource that allows you to filter for employees at your target firms by office location, university, and shared connections. We recommend reaching out to people at your target firm and office(s) that you also share something in common with (eg, connection, university, past employer). However, if you are having trouble finding someone who meets all of those criteria, then focus instead on the target firm and location. LinkedIn also allows the person you are reaching out to skim your profile (so you know there's a degree of interest in you as an applicant if they agree to connect). A few recommendations specific to LinkedIn:
- Message type: Send an inMail, which allows more characters in your message. If you are short on inMails, you can first send a connection request and then follow up with a full message, if you like (inMails are free if both parties have Premium accounts and you are the first connection).
- Don't overdo it: Reach out to no more than 5 people at a given office. People at work chat, and this can come off as being too much.
- Fishbowl and other professional apps. These are growing in popularity and represent another great channel for networking outreach.
We suggest using these templates, once you have figured out who to reach out to. Also, we do not recommend including your resume when you first reach out (this can come off as presumptive). Instead, ask for a quick phone call or coffee chat to learn more about their experience at their firm. Remember, you are not reaching out to ask for a referral - you are reaching out to get their advice.
Step 3: Get the most out of your conversations
If you're able to schedule a time for coffee or a phone call, we recommend discussing the items below. Overall, you want to make sure to leave a good impression (be prepared, be polite, and express genuine interest in the conversation).
Introductions. You'd be surprised at how often people tend to dive right into their questions, but that is a missed opportunity to start building a relationship and presenting yourself as a candidate. Instead, thank them for taking the time to speak with you, say you would like to introduce yourself briefly, and that you would appreciate them doing the same before diving into questions.
Questions about their experience. Take notes during this part of the call or meeting, especially. These will be great anecdotes to reference in your cover letter and during interviews.
What is the composition of the firm's work?
What types of projects have they worked on?
How does staffing work at the firm?
How have they found the overall culture and office?
What is employee turnover like?
How have they found the work/life balance?
Application advice. While you never want to explicitly ask for an interview, by asking about application advice, you are demonstrating that you are very serious about the firm and giving a natural opening for them to offer a referral.
Is there anything specific they recommend highlighting in an application?
Are they familiar with different hiring needs by the office?
Could they share what to expect for the interview process?
Is there anyone else they might be able to put you in touch with to better understand the items above? (note: this question may be skipped if they offer to refer you, but this could be a good way to ensure the next step if that offer isn't extended)
Thank them for their time and confirm any next steps. Do keep an eye on the time during your call, and aim to fill about 30 minutes (unless a different time frame has been offered), and try not to run over, out of respect for their time. If they do offer a referral and/or offer any other questions you may have, close with making sure you have their preferred contact information (especially if you got in touch over LinkedIn, they might offer an email address) and that you'll follow up with your application materials shortly.
Step 4: Follow up and maintain the relationship
Last but not least, don't forget to follow up on any next steps, as well as thank them for taking the time to speak. Even if you are not referred, it is still nice to let people you have spoken with know whether you end up interviewing at the firm. Also, feel free to connect on LinkedIn with people you have spoken to. It's great to build out a network on LinkedIn, and a nice way to keep people you have been in touch with informed of where you land next.