Networking to Build Connections

The skill of “networking,” means meeting people who share your interests and who could provide you with guidance or assistance. It is also about you helping others when the opportunity arises. Networking is an important part of academic life, but many students feel they lack the skills to network confidently and effectively. Here are a few strategies that will help you make valuable connections:

1] The most important strategy is to approach networking with the appropriate mindset. Don’t go to an event thinking, “I must meet someone who can advance my career or my studies.” This puts a lot of pressure on you, and may make you come across as a little aggressive. Instead, your mindset should be more like, “This is great! I’ll get to meet lots of people who share my interests.”

 
2] Don’t try to impress. Just be yourself. Be open and curious about the people with whom you speaking. The best connections are made between people who share a passion, so share your ideas, goals and interests.

 
3] When you first meet someone, make eye contact as you give them a firm handshake. First impressions have a strong impact on how people perceive you.

 
4] Make sure to introduce yourself in a way that stimulates conversation. “Hello, I’m Fred” is not nearly as likely to lead to a good conversation as “Hello, I’m Fred Coleman. I’m the student assistant for the Ideas Institute.”

 
5] Always ask for a business card, and also write a quick note on those you’ve connected with, so you don’t forget who is who and what you discussed.

 
6] Don’t feel that you need to meet everyone in the room at an event and find multiple opportunities or pieces of information. Making a good connection with one person who could give you some guidance in the future is a great outcome.

 
7] Remember that sometimes you will feel that you didn’t make any meaningful connections at an event. This happens often, so don’t be too disappointed. And, just being at an event might give you a good opening for a conversation in the future: “Weren’t you at the Saving the Seas workshop in January? I really enjoyed the guest speaker.”

 
8] Understand that everyone at the event may be networking to make valuable connections, and as a student you may not be at the top of their list of people they want to chat with. Don’t be disheartened by this. It doesn’t indicate any problem with you. Some people are simply less generous with their time than others, or are focused on important connections they themselves wish to make.

 
9] Keep in mind that people you speak with may be learning from you, too. Although some of them may be more advanced in their careers, you may have fresh ideas they haven’t yet encountered.

 
10] If you had a great conversation with someone, consider sending them an email to express how much you enjoyed meeting and speaking with them.

 
11] And have fun! You’ll me much more approachable and engaging if you are enjoying yourself.

Exercising Body and Mind

I’ve been writing lately about some of the strategies that support university students’ success by helping all the hard work and studying pay off.

In a New York Times blog, Gretchen Reynolds writes about “The Right Dose of Exercise for a Longer Life.” She gives details on a large study published recently in JAMA Internal Medicine.

The study examined 14 years of data from over 661,000 adults. Here’s what death records for that period showed:

“They found that, unsurprisingly, the people who did not exercise at all were at the highest risk of early death.

But those who exercised a little, not meeting the recommendations but doing something, lowered their risk of premature death by 20 percent.

Those who met the guidelines precisely, completing 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise, enjoyed greater longevity benefits and 31 percent less risk of dying during the 14-year period compared with those who never exercised.

The sweet spot for exercise benefits, however, came among those who tripled the recommended level of exercise, working out moderately, mostly by walking, for 450 minutes per week, or a little more than an hour per day. Those people were 39 percent less likely to die prematurely than people who never exercised.”

Wow. Reducing your chance of dying by 31% just with 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week! That seems worthwhile, to say the least. Most of the adults in the study were middle-aged, so the exact figures may differ from those of the average reader of my blog. Nevertheless, the results are striking.

University students can become intensely focused on their studies, often to the point where they ignore their health. They don’t sleep right, eat right, or exercise. For a few days before your finals this might make sense, but not over the long term. After all, we work hard in university to build a successful future, and nothing can derail your future plans more quickly than dying.

Keep in mind, also, that exercise doesn’t just reduce your chances of death and illness; it also gives you energy, helps reduce stress and keep you calm, and improves focus.

And don’t abandon your plan to exercise because you’re more in the mood for a walk than something more strenuous. Another recent JAMA Internal Medicine study that Reynolds comments on explains that moderate exercise like walking will give you most of the longevity benefit from exercise. Try to have about one-third of your exercise time be “vigorous” if you can, but remember that a nice brisk walk is still doing a great job of helping you stay healthy.

“Resume” Virtues and “Eulogy” Virtues

Being a university student, or aspiring to be, can consume all your physical and mental energy. Applications, marks and references seem like the centre of the universe. And they are, in a way, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that university life is just one part of a bigger picture.

In The New York Times recently, columnist David Brooks wrote about his moral “bucket list.” He laments the fact that so many of us lose track of core values as we pursue academic and career goals:

“It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.”

I like Brooks’ article as a reminder of the multifaceted nature of accomplishment and fulfillment. An excellent career is only strengthened by paying attention to the things that make you a deeply good person, too. Remembering that academic life is not everything also helps you stay strong during the inevitable setbacks in your studies. There’s always more to life than that which seems most pressing at the moment.

Brooks also reminds us that fulfilment comes from looking beyond ourselves:

“Commencement speakers are always telling young people to follow their passions. Be true to yourself. This is a vision of life that begins with self and ends with self. But people on the road to inner light do not find their vocations by asking, what do I want from life? They ask, what is life asking of me? How can I match my intrinsic talent with one of the world’s deep needs?”

It’s alright to focus entirely on your studies. You need to sometimes! But in those quiet moments between exams and papers, contemplate whether you’re doing all that you can to improve not only your academic self, but also the core virtues that make everything else worthwhile.

POSTSCRIPT: I have to mention that applicants who can show the sort of well-roundedness Brooks advocates are much more likely to wow admissions committees.

Classroom Manners

It’s always helpful to know what your professors and instructors are thinking. Gaining insight into your professors’ perceptions can help you shine in the classroom. It can help you achieve better grades and build your reputation as a committed student with strong potential for success.

Here are a few tips to improve your professors’ perceptions of you and help you avoid frustrating behaviour. These are small things, but everything you do, large or small, contributes to people’s opinions of you. It’s the same in the workplace, the classroom, or anywhere else.

1] When a professor asks you to raise your hand, raise it high to make it clear what you are doing. So if a professor says something like, “Please raise your hand if you have ever taken a philosophy course,” stick you hand right up so it’s easy for the professor to see and for her to count you. Many students when asked to raise their hand lift it about three centimetres off the table. Some barely manage a finger twitch. It makes it impossible for professors to count how many people are answering affirmatively, and it’s frustrating. Don’t make the professor have to waste class time coaxing you “No, REALLY raise your hand.”

2] If you contribute a comment or question to the class discussion and your professor says, “Pardon me?” answer again, but LOUDER. It’s surprising how many students repeat their answer at the exact volume the professor couldn’t hear the first time. If someone can’t hear you, speak up.

3] When the professor says, “Let’s get started,” she doesn’t mean “Let’s get started after you finish your text message and conversation about the Oscars, and then loudly unwrap your snack.” You should be ready to start the instant the professor is ready. It’s just good classroom manners.

Whatever context you’re in, you’ll appear more sophisticated, committed, eager and polished if you work hard to maintain a high standard of behaviour and etiquette.

Obtaining Highly Convincing Reference Letters

It’s important to understand that good grades and intelligence are only part of the achievements highlighted in the most convincing reference letters. The ideal reference letter also provides a clear picture of the student’s (or job applicant’s) other abilities. Strong references allow the reader to imagine vividly what it’s like to have the student, or referee, in the classroom or workplace.

In his book, Intelligence and How to Get It, social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett explains that:

…above a certain level of intelligence, most employers do not seem to be after still more of it. Instead, they claim that they’re after strong work ethic, reliability, self-discipline, perseverance, responsibility, communication skills, teamwork ability, and adaptability to change.

I would add creativity and leadership to the list.

The bottom line is that if you hope to obtain reference letters that attract employers and admissions committees, you need to work hard to develop a comprehensive range of skills that reaches beyond the core of intelligence. And developing these skills is only part of your goal. You must also clearly demonstrate them to your professors and instructors.

This means that you must showcase your enthusiastic participation, ask insightful questions, and help motivate your peers during group work. Just being in class every day and doing well on your tests and papers doesn’t guarantee you excellent reference letters. Intelligence and hard thinking work are absolutely vital, but it takes more to become the type of student who receives stellar  references that open the doors to great jobs and university programs.

The good news is that with some focused effort you can quickly make impressive changes to how professors perceive you. One great strategy is making sure to ask one or two questions every class. And raise your hand to volunteer answers when the instructor asks the whole class a question. Make sure you’re not the team member slumped wordlessly onto the table while everyone else shares ideas. And if you’re given twenty minutes for an exercise, put all your energy into it for twenty minutes. If you work on the exercise for twelve minutes and then browse around on your cellphone, you’re displaying the exact opposite of the qualities you need to impress reference writers.

Don’t let the range of important skills in Nisbett’s quotation above overwhelm you. Remember that you CAN gain all of those skills and qualities, and all it takes is working on it a little bit every day. Then when you’re ready to ask for references, you’ll have professors who are eager to tell the world about your achievements!

Getting Gritty about Grit

“Grit,” or “perseverance,” is one of the key factors in success. It’s the quality that keeps students motivated and working hard when life is at its most challenging. Put most simply, it means never giving up on your goals and your vision of the future. Grit means focusing on your long-term success. As psychologist Angela Duckworth explains, “Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

Duckworth is an expert on “grit” and her 2013 TED Talks Education presentation gives a quick and clear introduction to the concept of grit and how you can make it work for you. She focuses on children in her talk, but the ideas apply equally to university students.

You can click here to visit Duckworth’s TED Talks speaker page. You’ll find a survey to help you discover how gritty you are already, and a link to Duckworth’s research lab and insight on how to get even grittier.

Quick Tips–Boosting Self-Control

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel began studying self-control in children. In a series of experiments that became famously known as the “marshmallow test,” Mischel examined the skills and situations that could make squirmy kids hold off on eating one treat (sometimes a marshmallow) in anticipation of a double treat a little later.

Mischel’s new book, The Marshmallow Test, is filled with ideas on “mastering self-control.” I’ve just started reading it and I’ve already come upon one quick tip you can use to help yourself avoid temptations and distractions so you can study.

I love quick and effective strategies for reaching your goals, and Mischel’s explanation of “If-Then implementation plans” is elegant and powerful. All you need to do is plan ahead, and you’ll increase your self-control in the face of temptation. Make a plan. Tell yourself, for example, “At 5:00, I’ll start writing my paper.” Or “If my phone rings, I will ignore it.” Or, “If I get hungry I’m going to finish my chapter before hitting the kitchen.”

The key is to make the if-then plan before you face the temptation, and practice it until it becomes an instinct.

So simple, and yet it helps. Mischel explains the science behind the strategy and it’s a great read, but you don’t need to know why it works to use the trick to your advantage. Good luck! I’ll bring you more from Mischel soon.