How College Students Can Find a Career Mentor

A mid-career black woman counsels a young white woman.

Has anyone told you yet that you need to find a mentor? If not, get ready to hear that advice as you go through college and enter the workplace.

Finding a mentor may sound complicated, but it’s really straightforward — find someone you can consistently go to for advice and honest feedback on your path to a career.

Mentor is a fancy word for advisor, coach, counselor or teacher. The word is found in every high school student’s favorite piece of ancient literature, “The Odyssey.” As your English teacher would hope you remember, when Odysseus left to fight in the Trojan War, he left his son with his friend named Mentor. Because of this, the term “mentor” has become a generic word for anyone who’s a positive, guiding influence.

The reason to find a mentor is clear — you can learn a lot from someone else's mistakes and successes. Way too many people try to figure everything out on their own, often not even realizing that there’s a huge network of advice they can access.

Meanwhile, college students with mentors tend to be more connected and engaged on campus, while college graduates with mentors tend to be more successful in the workplace. For example, mentorship is a major part of the insurance industry, with older professionals often guiding young professionals as they learn the field, which gives them a major boost as they start their careers. That’s why “Find a mentor” is such common advice for anyone starting their career path.

Who is a Mentor?

The truth is you probably already have a number of mentors, or at least potential mentors. Up to this point, your parents, teachers, coaches, bosses, family members and older friends have probably helped you along the way, serving as informal mentors.

As you start thinking about careers, you’ll have more specific questions that your existing network of advisors can’t always answer. When that happens, it’s time to start looking outside the people you already know to people who have more in-depth experience in the profession you’re thinking about joining.

So the short answer is that anyone whose experience you can learn from and who is willing to provide consistent feedback can serve as a mentor.

How Can I Find a Mentor?

For most college students, a professor or alumnus with the career you’re interested in is often a good person to start with. Professors are there to help, and most will be happy to provide some general advice outside the classroom. Just among the MyPath team, professors were instrumental in steering us toward our college majors. They helped us navigate our initial job hunt, and they even reached out after we graduated.

Alumni, meanwhile, may be even more helpful. Unless you’re pursuing a professorship, professors are usually observing the job market from afar, whereas an alumnus is experiencing the job market on a day-to-day basis. If the alumni recently graduated, they also will have a fresher memory of getting through college, applying to jobs and making it in the workplace. You can try to track alumni down through services like LinkedIn, or go to your school’s career center and ask for a list of alumni in your prospective major.

That being said, you may have potential connections through your existing networks that you’re unaware of. Your family, friends and peers know people, and some of those people may be able to help you. You probably never asked your uncle whether he knows any business executives, for example, but you might be surprised to learn that he has a friend who started her own insurance agency. All you have to do is ask.

How Should I Reach Out to a Mentor?

There are probably two main reasons why more young people don’t have mentors: 1) they don’t think of it, or 2) they feel shy or awkward reaching out for advice.

Clearly, the first point shouldn’t apply to you because you’ve read this far into this article. So let’s address the second point. The truth is that most people are flattered by someone reaching out to them and asking for their guidance. However, if they don’t respond or say they can’t help, don’t take offense. People are busy. That’s fine. No matter what, reaching out can’t hurt.

The best method for reaching out to a potential mentor is to ask a shared connection to introduce you to him or her. For example, if a professor knows an accomplished alumnus, ask that professor to send an email to the alumnus to introduce you.

The second best way to reach out to a potential mentor is to simply email the person, which is a slightly more comfortable and professional approach than cold calling someone or sending a private message via social media. Begin your email by explaining why you’re reaching out to that particular person, detailing why you respect him or her and think he or she has valuable expertise to share. You don’t have to slather it on, but two or three complimentary sentences in an email would almost certainly butter up potential mentors enough that they’ll be eager to help.

After that, state a clear question. Don’t simply say, “Would love if you could help!,” and leave it at that. Like we said, people are busy, so ask a specific question, like, “Do you have 15 minutes for a phone call to chat about your career path?” It’ll put less pressure on the person to think, making it easier for him or her to say, “Yes, of course!”

During your first conversation, prove that you share a common passion and are genuinely interested in — and worthy of — a mentor’s expertise. Try to form a relationship with the person. Get to know his or her personality and exhibit your own. Don’t expect a roadmap — there typically isn’t one — but definitely ask mentors how they got to where they are today and for advice on how to navigate your own path. And don’t forget to follow up after your first call with a quick email expressing your gratitude. It’ll go a long way in helping you establish an ongoing connection. If all goes well, you’ll soon be following in that person's footsteps.