You’re 97.4 percent sure that you’re totally ready for this “career” thing. You’ve got the business cards, the stylish-yet-appropriate work wardrobe, the networking know-how, the internship experience and the perfect LinkedIn profile. Even Boy Scouts aren’t as prepared as you are.
But do you have a mentor? If not, get on that, girl! Mentors are the last piece of the professional puzzle. The basic definition of a mentor is someone with more experience than you who will give you advice about your career—but mentors do so much more than that. They’ll help you kick butt and take names up and down the boardroom, inspire you, connect you with other professionals, help you navigate tough issues, teach you and support you.
You may want to pin this article, because here are the top five reasons you need a mentor for your work life—even if you’re still in college.
(Also, check out our tips for actually finding a mentor in the first place!)
1. You can follow in his or her footsteps
Say you’ve always dreamed of managing your own PR firm—but you’re a little fuzzy on the details of how you’ll get there. Obviously, every career path is different, but having a mentor with your dream job is a great way to figure out what your next step (or four) should be. Maybe your mentor got a degree in marketing, then moved to New York to work at a PR agency. Then she spent a couple of years building up a huge network of contacts in the industry before branching out on her own. Look at that, your list of goals went from, “Graduate college, become owner of PR agency,” to, “Get marketing/advertising degree, find employment at firm in big city, go to networking events and make lots of connections, build credibility and reputation.”
“If you don’t really don’t know what to do, look at someone who’s in the same professional field and say, ‘What are the steps that she took?’” says Tiffany Dufu, chief leadership officer at Levo League, a community for professional women. “Then you know, ‘That’s one way to go, and if I do that, it might work for me.’ But keep in mind your path might be different, so don’t feel pressure to follow her exactly.”
You can also copy your mentor in less obvious ways. Is he or she an avid user of social media? Take note of how often she tweets, what she says and her tone, and then adopt those techniques. Or, if you currently work with your mentor, ask to sit in on a meeting or phone call and pay attention to how your mentor interacts with others. Whoever said imitation was the sincerest form of flattery had it right.
The nice thing about a mentor is that you don’t have to be super close with him or her to benefit from his or her experiences. If you don’t live in the same city, or if you only talk once a month over phone or even if you only communicate via email—that’s okay!
Basically, you’re playing Simon Says, but for your career.
2. He or she can connect you to other professionals
Unlike in your social life, it’s totally expected—even kosher!—for your mentor to introduce you to as many people who could help your career as he or she can. And thanks to age and experience, your mentor will inevitably know way more people in the field than you.
Why is this so important? Almost 80 percent of jobs are filled by word of mouth, not through job postings. Your mentor can help you land an interview for a position you didn’t even know was open.
So don’t be afraid to tell your mentor you’re on the job or internship hunt. He or she will start dropping your name… and maybe your business cards.
Your mentor’s connections also can also help you build your own network. It’s like your industry is a huge frat party, and you’re the collegiette in the corner who knows almost no one.
Then, your mentor swoops in and starts showing you around.
“If you have a mentor who’s taking you around and introducing you to people, the value in that is that the mentor is saying, ‘Hey, this is a person who I believe in,’” Dufu says. “And now those people assume [good things] about you, because your mentor endorsed you.”
Even if you only talk to five people at the “party,” you now have five more people to ask for insight, opportunities and assistance. (Also, we think it goes without saying that you shouldn’t take the frat analogy literally, so don’t even think about showing up to an informational interview in your sequined bandage skirt.)
3. You can draw on his or her wisdom
Problem at work? Take a yoga breath, collegiettes. We promise that no matter how weird and unique your career-related problem is, you’re not the first person to ever deal with it. And guess who’s the perfect person to help you find a solution? Right—your mentor. Unlike your mom, your friends, your SO or your cat, your mentor knows the context of your professional dilemma. Either he or she has handled something similar or knows someone who did. Plus, your success is your mentor’s goal, which means you know you’re getting objective feedback.
“The basic definition of a mentor is someone who helps you achieve clarity through guidance and his or her own experience,” Dufu says. “You should absolutely ask them for advice!”
If you have multiple mentors—lucky you!—Dufu recommends asking them all the same question and then seeing what all of the answers have in common.
So if you’re unsure whether to go to grad school, volunteer abroad or get a job after graduation, you can ask your mentor for advice. If you’re super into your campus’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders but you know joining means your GPA will inevitably suffer, ask your mentor what’s more important to hiring managers in the field: relevant experience or super-high grades. You can even ask which specific classes to take or what skills you can learn now that will be huge assets to you later.
4. You can learn specific skills
Speaking of skills, maybe you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, but when we say, “due diligence,” you say “due what?” Your mentor can teach you what due diligence is (for the next Arianna Huffingtons, it’s when you carefully research the potential consequences, rewards and risks of a business decision) and how to do it. Or maybe you’re into graphic design, but some of Adobe Photoshop’s more advanced features are completely beyond you. Ask your mentor to show you the virtual ropes!
“I worked with a reporter at my last internship who gave me advice on my on-camera personality and appearance,” says Rachel Cisto, a senior at Hartford University. “I’ve taken the advice he gave me and [have] begun using it in my work at the Student Television Network.”
And even though Dufu is well into her career, she still uses this benefit of mentorship.
“I’m not a coder, but I have access to people who can help me with that skill, whether it’s General Assembly or some other type of programming,” she says.
If you haven’t entered the workplace yet, this is a great way to get ahead of the game so that you’re well prepared for your first job. And if you’re already cozily installed in a cubicle, learning from your mentor supplements the on-the-job education that you’re already getting. Either way, it’s a total win—so pick out a couple of things you want or need to learn and then ask your career mentor for help.
5. Your mentor can give you a confidence boost
We all have those days where it feels like we’re playing hide and seek with our confidence. Meaning, it’s MIA. However, it doesn’t matter if your mentor has the job you want or a completely different one—he or she can be a great cheerleader, pumping you up when you’re feeling deflated, inspiring you to keep trying or reassuring you that you didn’t just flub up that interview.
As a result, you won’t feel like you’re totally alone trying to navigate in the career world. Because feeling as lost as Hannah from Girls? It makes for good TV, but it’s not so fun in real life.
“I started making appointments with my current career coach, Heather, at the end of junior year,” says Kathryn Williams, a senior English major at Vanderbilt University. “What I’ve really enjoyed from the experience is the peace of mind. Every few weeks I check in with Heather and we make sure that I’m on the right track and that I don’t have any pressing doubts about what I want to do post-graduation. Heather has really helped me manage my stress and has encouraged me every step of the way.”
It can also be incredibly difficult to keep things in perspective when you’re working at your first couple of internships or jobs; after all, you don’t have any experiences to compare them to. You may think it’s a huge deal that you spilled coffee all over your manager’s sparkling white button-up, but she tells you everyone has those moments—and then the protocol on buying your boss a new shirt.
Plus, your mentor can push you to take on projects or apply for jobs that you don’t think you’re qualified for. A couple of people in the department you’re interning for are starting a massive rebranding project, and you think you have some valuable insights—but you’re scared of speaking up. One call to your mentor, and he or she can give you the confidence you need to volunteer your help. Huh—is that the sound of a future job offer we hear?
We hope that if you don’t already have a mentor, you just added “find one” to your goals list—because clearly they’re one of the best ways to upgrade your career, your confidence and your connections. And if you do already have one, take this article as a sign to send him or her some gratitude!