Most people go to college to get a job.
Recreation is an added benefit on top of getting a job. Education comes second to recreation in terms of hours spent studying.
That is the great secret of a college education. It’s the secret everybody within the walls of the university knows but isn’t allowed to really say. It’s the topic that’s covered over drinks at the campus bar, and it’s what the “cool” professor tells students in class.
Whether or not university marketers and employees want to believe this secret is irrelevant. Maybe universities should be a place for liberal enlightenment, bright civic discussion, and a robust environment for becoming a better citizen.
But the reality is that students see college differently. It’s a career-enhancement tool first and foremost, a status tool second, and a recreation tool third. And if education is gained along the way, great.
Even when we look at realistic measures for college graduate employment, universities do a poor job. Just this past week, I sat down with an Ivy League computer science grad who was struggling to find a job. “The school doesn’t teach you how to get a job. Everything you’re talking about — networking, talking to people, searching out companies — that’s something nobody on campus taught,” they said.
When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I distinctly remember on-campus recruiting because Goldman Sachs and McKinsey would come to campus. My classmates would spend weeks preparing for the recruiting events and hope they got invited to those companies’ mixers.
But few companies can do this. Your high-growth, young startup certainly can’t (a startup is any early stage, high-growth company, not just tech companies). Students who want to work at a company with growth opportunities outside a typical career are left in the cold. That’s because most companies don’t hire on a tracked path like Facebook or Google. They hire based on relationships, internal referrals, and on your ability to break through the noise and signal value to them quickly.
Here’s how to land yourself a job you love at a startup you’re excited about, even if your school hasn’t taught you how.
Take Advantage of Your University’s Resources
Most hires are made based on referrals — especially for startups where the cost of hiring a bad employee is significantly higher than at Big Tech Inc or Big Bank Inc. So networking does matter.
As a student, you’re already paying a lot of money, mostly for administrative overhead. While on campus, use all the resources you can that connect you to the outside world.
Most universities have a few basic tools that, if you use them, help you start talking to companies. The trick is: You have to take advantage of them. In larger schools in particular, the left arm isn’t talking to the right hand, so you may have to aggressively search out these resources.
In all of these cases, use your student email address. Most people like helping students, especially students at their alma mater or university.
Keep your email brief (I have 12 email scripts that you can use). Tell them why you’re reaching out. Make it easy to reply to. Most people will be happy to talk.
University alumni networks are as valuable as the work you put into them. If you just post a resume in a LinkedIn group or attend an alumni networking event, you’ll probably be frustrated by your prospects.
Instead of approaching strangers with resumes and business cards, find the regional alumni representative for the city where you want to work. Email them and tell them you’re currently a student at their alma mater and that you want to meet. Most will agree to do so.
When you meet with them (try to do this in person instead of over the phone—it will make a better impression), tell them exactly what kind of company you want to work for and what you can do for that company. Even better, come prepared with a list of local alumni you looked up on LinkedIn and ask if they can introduce you to a few of them.
Once you land these introductions and conversations, don’t just show up saying, “I want to work for you!” Tell the person on the other side of the table what, exactly, you can do to help them, and why you want to help them. If you have a portfolio of past work, bring that.
Most universities have some form of an incubator or entrepreneurship center (sometimes both). These places can get you introductions to startup founders and investors.
In this case, reach out to the director of the incubator and try to meet. Follow a similar approach as with the alumni representative. Offer to send along a short “blurb” — a description about yourself and what you’re interested in — and ask if they can forward it to incubator-connected companies.
Not all college incubators are created equal, so don’t be surprised if this doesn’t generate great results. If you’re at a school known for technology or entrepreneurship (e.g., Stanford University, University of Illinois, Carnegie Mellon University), you’ll have better luck.
If not, you may want to devote more of your time to pursuing other options.
Reach Out to Other Honeypots
Anywhere you can find people likely to hire you or refer you to somebody who can is called a “honeypot.” You want to spend your time around honeypots because that’s how you’ll make useful connections.
Most honeypots aren’t networking events or happy hours. They’re events with another primary purpose or an organization or group that has an incentive to help people get hired at great companies.
Events on Campus
Stay on top of campus events. Look for interesting visiting speakers who are founders, investors, or advisors to startups.
Go to their events and try to meet them afterward. Introduce yourself and tell them you’re looking to work for a specific kind of company like those to whom they’re connected. Ask for their contact info so you can send a follow-up email.
If you’re in a large city you’re near an accelerator. These organizations take in startups, invest in them, give them office space and training, and then try to make a profit by helping them raise more money and then get acquired by a bigger company or go public.
Here’s a list of incubators and accelerators. Every accelerator is like a venture capital fund in the sense that it has a portfolio of companies that it wants to succeed. A big part of succeeding as an early-stage company is hiring the right people. So if you go to an accelerator and pitch them on connecting you to specific startups in their portfolio, they’ll probably at least listen to you.
A word of caution: Most accelerators aren’t very good. Y Combinator is the platinum standard in terms of exits. TechStars and 500 Startups are also quite good. Others may be better for their specific sector (e.g., AlphaLab Gear does a good job for hardware companies). Just be sure to check out how much a company is still growing after it’s gone through an accelerator.
Like accelerators, venture capitalists have a portfolio of companies they want to succeed. You can approach a venture-capital firm and ask to be connected to specific portfolio companies. If you have a compelling portfolio and signal the right traits, this can be a fast-track to great positions at high-growth companies.
When you reach out to the VC firm, don’t just send an email saying, “Hi, I’m looking to work for a company in tech. Here’s my resume.” That makes it hard for the firm to know who they should send it to, if at all, and makes it hard for them to know whether you’ll make them look good.
Instead, choose specific companies you want to talk to, have a specific way you can help in mind, and make it ridiculously easy for them to forward your email along.
You can also reach out to local trade organizations with a similar approach. These organizations tend to be hit or miss, but if you have a clear ask and have done your research (i.e., you look at the contact’s network on LinkedIn), you can usually get a few introductions from it.
One of the (few) things universities are really good at is putting a lot of smart people in the same place. Ask your friends if they know people who are hiring. Don’t ask in an open-ended fashion. Put together a list of characteristics you’d like to see in a company and ping three or four friends if they know anybody at companies with those characteristics.
You may even have friends and former classmates who have started their own companies. Be sure to ask them — if the company is growing, they are hiring.
Take Time Off from School to Work
The best thing you can have on a job search is work experience. You don’t have to wait until graduation to get experience. There’s no legal requirement stopping you from applying the above techniques when you’re a sophomore or a freshman. Job requirements are “wish lists.” Just because a company says they want to see a degree doesn’t mean that you actually need that degree.
If you find a job opportunity you can’t pass up while still in school, talk to your university about taking a leave of absence. Most universities are good at letting you do this without compromising financial aid (Universities: If you aren’t good at this, get with the times or face extinction like these peers).
That experience will take you further than a credential without experience ever could.
Generally speaking, people like helping students, so take advantage of the fact that you’re a student when reaching out. Play up this fact. Back it up with a portfolio or evidence of your ability to get work done and you’ll be in a strong position to get a startup job. It’s up to you to do for your career what your college can’t.
Zak Slayback writes about careers at zakslayback.com. He is a principal at 1517 Fund, a venture capital fund that invests in technology startups started by founders in college or taking time off from college. He’s also the author of How to Get Ahead, from McGraw-Hill, summer 2019. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.