Thank you to Nathaniel Larson ’19 who shared this blog post with us that he wrote from is own experience reaching out to alumni and other industry professionals.
Much of a student’s focus at Whitman is on life before graduation. How do you fit together all the right classes for your degree? Have you completed the requirements for your major? What is a thesis, and how do you write it?? But many Whitman students also recognize the importance of life after graduation. After all, most of your life will happen after you leave campus. So, what do you do to get ready for the so-called real world?
One way to prepare for life after Whitman is informational interviewing. An informational interview is a professional one-on-one conversation in which one person (you) asks another person about their experience or specific knowledge. It is a simple and powerful tool, and luckily for us, we have access to an incredible pool of willing and helpful informational interviewees.
The Whitman alumni network is a powerful resource available to students. There are over 11,000 past Whitties on LinkedIn, and thousands more elsewhere, who would be glad to help you figure out what comes next for you. In my own experience, alumni are willing to bend over backwards to help current undergraduate Whitties. So take advantage of being a “helpless” undergrad and reach out!
This document outlines one tried-and-true, seven-step process for connecting with Whitman alumni. Feel free to take parts of the process and leave others, but always remember to be respectful and enjoy talking to these fascinating people.
1. Think About What You Want
When I first met with Whitman alumni, I quickly realized that I was not sure what I wanted out of the conversation. I knew I wanted a better sense of options for my future, but I hadn’t reflected very much. The result was that I had some interesting conversations that didn’t lead anywhere.
Nowadays, I conduct some research before I reach out to someone. I think about what I might be looking for (an internship, a job), and then pinpoint the people who might be able to give me answers to the questions I have. That is not to say that you need to have everything figured out–au contraire!–but rather you should have a good sense about what you want to figure out next.
2. LinkedIn Search & Whitman Connect
Contacting a Whitman alum takes two steps. First, you use LinkedIn. Go to the Whitman alumni page. Then search for specific professions (“consultant,” “nurse practitioner,” “zookeeper” etc.) or refine the search based on location (“Greater Seattle Area” anyone?), employer, major, or area of work to find people who interest you.
Once you find someone who appears to be interesting and you would like to talk to, you will use Whitman Connect – Whitman’s proprietary alumni directory. You’ll find directions to access this valuable resource here. Once you log in (or set up your account), and do a simple search for the person that you found. You can look at the (minimal) information on the site, but you may notice that you can also send an email.
3. The Email Draft
Now it is time to draft an email–in your own email account, NOT in Whitman Connect–to send to your chosen alumnus or alumna. (See examples below.) When writing your email, here are some pointers:
- Address them “Dear [first name],”
- Tell them who you are “My name is [your name] and I am a [major] major at Whitman in the class of [year].”
- Tell them what you are looking for “I have been looking for the past couple months at possible jobs/internships in…” or “Recently, I have started looking into career options that suit my interests in…”
- Tell them what interested you about them “I noticed your experience in [something] and I would like to ask you about it” or “I am looking at entry-level positions in your field and I am hoping to find out more about what advice you might give to an undergraduate considering a career in [exciting field]”
- Make the request “I hope to schedule a 20-30 minute informational interview over the phone with you sometime in the coming weeks. Please let me know if you are willing and available and I can send a variety of time slots for you to choose from.”
- Sign off “Thank you in advance for your consideration! I look forward to the possibility of speaking with you.”
Remember that emails take time, and truly professional emails take more time. Read the email out loud before you send it (there is a mistake there somewhere!). Take the time to sound professional, because that is how you get hired to be a professional.
**NOTE: As of January 2019, Whitman connect takes beautiful text like:
“Hello, My name is Nathaniel. I would like to meet you. Sincerely, Nathaniel”
And turns it into:
"Hello, My name is Nathaniel. I would like to meet you. Sincerely, Nathaniel”
So, I usually write a disclaimer at the top of my emails:
“Sorry about the formatting of this email - Whitman Connect often compresses text into a block.”
4. Schedule a Time
They email back, possibly with a single sentence like “Yes, would be great to talk.” Now, you send them a variety of times to talk. Make it easy to read and understand:
“I am available the following times (all Pacific Time): Tuesday, January 8 ~ 10am-11am, 3pm-5:30pm Wednesday, January 9 ~ 10am-noon, 2-3pm Thursday, January 10 ~ 8am-noon Please let me know which half hour slot works best for you. Also, please let me know if you need more options! My phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX”
They will email back and the time will be set.
5. Interview Questions
You should always have questions prepared to ask of your interviewee. There are many resources online to help you formulate some questions. Here are a few of my favorites:
- My starter: “How would you describe your career trajectory after graduating Whitman?”
- “How are you managed? Does this system work well for you?” rarely asked by others
- “What is a favorite project that you’ve worked on in this position?” reveals fun stories
- “What are the difficulties of position X compared to position Y” and other comparisons
- “What advice would you give to someone like me applying to company X?”
- My parting question: “What are you looking to do next in your career?” always a fun ending
If you’ve established a good rapport, you may also ask if they would be comfortable giving you a referral to their company (if you plan to apply) or if they would look over your resume.
6. Signing Off
Remember to thank them for their time at the end of the call. Then, get off the phone and write them a thank you note (to send in the mail that day if possible!). Something simple is absolutely fine. Make sure that you know their company/branch address so that the note will get to them.
Saying thank you, in any form, really has an impact, so if you don’t have the time for a handwritten note, send an email.
7. Following Up
Now that you’ve spoken with this person, you have a valuable connection. This connection can lead to a job, a possible mentor, another connection, or a better understanding of what you want to do. Make sure to stay in touch with this connection.
Start by connecting with them on LinkedIn. That way you won’t lose track of them. Later, if you want to ask them more detailed questions, send them an email with your previous conversation attached. Or, check in with them to ask if they could connect you with someone else. Almost any Whittie would be happy to do so.
It is also good to keep them apprised of your progress, particularly if they provided helpful information, a recommendation or an introduction to their contacts.
Other Interview Tips and Resources
Forbes on job interviewing, with interesting dialogues
The Muse on informational interviews
The Muse on cover letters
The Balance Careers on professional emails
The Muse on sending introductory emails
…plenty of clickbait/actually useful articles
And, most importantly, the Student Engagement Center
I believe in the power of examples, so here are some emails that I have sent to others in the past. When you write your own emails, remember that you can use similar language and sentences in your messages, but don’t use a template. Anyone can tell if you copy-and-pasted.
Dear [So-And-So], I'm Nathaniel, a rising junior and math major at Whitman. While I am not a native of Eastern Washington (I'm from Minnesota--far away from home!), I have an internship this summer at [The Firm] downtown, so I am trying to take advantage of this opportunity to look through profiles on Whitman Connect to find alumni in Walla Walla who have careers that interest me. Your experience in user research at [Company X] caught my eye because technological user design is one of the fields that I am considering pursuing. I was wondering if you would be willing to meet with me in the next couple of weeks so that I could ask you questions about your career path. At this point in my education I’m trying to find a way to combine my love for graphic design, math, and computer science--and I think it would be very valuable for me to talk to you about the work you do to see whether it might be a good fit for me too. If it is convenient for you--and if you are indeed around Walla Walla, I see that [Company X] is located in Seattle--I'm hoping that I could schedule a half-hour informational meeting with you sometime this week (July 5-7) or the week after (July 10-14). I am available to meet during the afternoon somewhere downtown (I can take an hour break any time midday), or in the evening after five. I am also open to meeting on a Saturday or Sunday if that would be better for you, probably after 11. I realize that you are on a busy schedule and I would greatly appreciate any time that you could spare to meet with me. If it is better for you, I can also send you an email with a couple short questions. At this stage in my college experience, any advice you could share with me would be extremely useful. Thank you in advance for considering this request. I am looking forward to the possibility of meeting with you in the coming weeks! Sincerely, Nathaniel Larson Class of 2019 (I apologize if the formatting of this email turns out odd--Whitman Connect tends to do some interesting things)
Dear [Someone], Hello! My name is Nathaniel Larson and I'm a math major and senior at Whitman College. A few weeks ago I had a call with [someone cool]--also a Whitman grad--and after our conversation she suggested that I try to make contact with you. I'm interested in the field of economic consulting, especially the more technical ways in which [Companies X, Y, Z], and other firms create economic models for rigorous litigation. When I mentioned my love of Python, she immediately thought of you, and over the course of the talk thought that connecting with you would be valuable for me. If you are willing, I would love to schedule a 20-30 minute informational interview over the phone sometime in the next couple weeks. If you are available, I can send you a variety of times for you to choose from. If you'd prefer, I can also send you questions for you to answer over email instead. Please let me know if a phone call would be possible for you. I'm excited to hear more about your work in technical management at [Company X]. Thank you for considering this request! Sincerely, Nathaniel Larson