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7 Ways to Beef Up Your LinkedIn Game Before You Start Networking

In the age of social media, we tend to allocate a ton of our times toward curating the perfect Instagram feed and making sure we always post the funniest tweets. But what if this social media savvy could get you connections with the very people who might hire you after you graduate? (Spoiler: It can!) As most of you probably know, LinkedIn is the go-to social media platform for professionals. With a little know-how, it can be just as fun as Instagram (with about a million times the benefits). Here’s everything you need to know before you become the LinkedIn queen.

1. A good profile picture is worth the effort

LinkedIn is not the place to be sloppy or silly, so your profile picture should be a high-quality professional headshot. The whole point of LinkedIn is for potential employers to compare you to other young professionals. So if you’re equally as qualified for a job as another candidate, but her profile picture is a professional headshot, and yours is a picture of you in your backyard wearing a sweatshirt, guess who’s more likely to get the job? (Hint: It’s not you.) This isn’t because employers are shallow, but because they know that the professionalism and attention to detail the other person demonstrated in their profile picture will carry over to the workplace.

You should also be mindful of the image you want to project. Amy Homkes-Hayes, the Lead Innovation Advocate for the Digital Innovation Greenhouse at University of Michigan, says, “If you, for example, are an artist, you may want to use a more artsy picture. If, conversely, you are practicing law, typically anyway, you will likely use a traditionally professional photo.” In addition to your career path, your personality and the type of workplace environment you desire will also impact your choice: “Some folks want to project a formal image, and others are aiming for something more casual. Either is a fine choice if you make it in a deliberate manner based on your understanding of the type of professional image you are trying to project, and responsive to the type of audiences you’re trying to reach. In either capacity a high-quality photo is preferred over a low-quality one.”

Related: 9 Ways to Take Your LinkedIn Profile to the Next Level

2. Take time with your job descriptions

Your goal is to convince employers that all of your professional, extracurricular, and volunteer experiences have provided you with skills that make you a more valuable employee. So think of your job descriptions as a persuasive English paper. They should be well-worded and to the point. For example, if you were a camp counselor over the summer, don’t write, “Did arts and crafts with kids, sat with kids at meals, etc.” That won’t apply to any jobs except childcare jobs. Instead write about how you provided constant leadership over 8-10 children, demonstrated enthusiasm and organized a one-hour interactive cabin activity each day.

Still at a loss for words? There’s nothing wrong with using others for inspiration! For example, if you worked as a sales associate, Google “sales associate resume description.” Read the resumes that are available online, and choose words and phrases that apply to what you did. It’s also helpful to look back at the job description that you read when you were first applying for the job. Make sure to focus on the parts of the job that you want employers to know about! For example, if you’re applying for a customer service job, emphasize the customer service you did as a sales associate.

3. Make sure that your most important experience is front and center

As students, it’s likely that a lot of our relevant experience comes from student organizations. However, the format of a LinkedIn profile doesn’t cater directly to students, so it doesn’t give extracurricular activities a large spot on your page. Say you are the president of a community service organization at your university. LinkedIn gives you the option to list this under “Activities and Societies” in the Education section. However, if you do this, then the community service organization will essentially be hidden on your profile. (It will be part of the description of your university, rather than an activity listed on its own.) There’s a simple way around this: if a student org is important to you, then list it either under “Experience” or “Volunteer Experience”. That way, it will be listed front and center on your profile for everyone to see, instead of hidden somewhere in Education.

4. Be selective about who you endorse

LinkedIn allows you to provide a list of skills, such as soft skills like “communication” and “leadership”, and hard skills like “C++” and “Java Script.” You can also endorse people’s skills, which is cool, because that means they might endorse one of your skills back. These endorsements are important! Homkes-Hayes says, “Employers do review endorsements when they review LinkedIn profiles, so it makes sense then that they may look for endorsements critical to the job or to skills you highlighted in other aspects of your professional presentation (e.g. resumes, cover letters, etc.) If you are applying for a job where public speaking is a critical component,  for instance, you could see where several endorsements on your public speaking skills could be a value-add.”

Be careful whose skills you endorse, though, and only endorse people if you’ve actually seen them in action. (So don’t endorse your roomie’s public speaking skills if you’re not even sure she’s ever given a speech!). “I do encourage students to make and seek endorsements thoughtfully,” Homkes-Hayes says. “If, for example, someone endorses you for a skill set or ability you don’t feel completely proficient you may hide relevant endorsements. Conversely, if there is a skill you would like to highlight and do not have any endorsements in, you may ask connections on Linkedin to endorse you, and I encourage it.” Jeff Harshe, an executive at a real estate company, who has often used LinkedIn to recruit and hire staff, adds, “It’s okay to endorse friends, but don’t get carried away. Quality is important, and multiple endorsements from one person start to look cheap. It’s better to be honest and let them grow organically over time.”

5. Once you’re ready to network, use it as a learning experience

If you’re confident in your page and feel that it portrays your best self, then you’re ready for the really fun part: networking! Homkes-Hayes says, “Networking is a critically important job searching and professional development task. And frankly, building a professional network before you’re looking for an internship or job enables you to leverage it once you start.”

Think about people whose jobs sound relevant or interesting, and use LinkedIn as an opportunity to learn from them. Once you’ve built that relationship, who knows what could happen down the line!

How do you get started? Homkes-Hayes says, “The good news is everyone already has networks. The goal is to brainstorm how you may use existing contacts from all areas of life (friends, family, community, etc.) towards your professional goals. It could be that one or more members of your communities are in the field(s) you are interested in. It could also be that even if none of your strong ties are in fields you want to pursue, they know folks (weak ties) who are. Linkedin is one particularly effective tool for networking because you may join groups of mutual interest, use the University tool to search for alumni who are in industries you are interested in, and because the system tells you how you are mutually connected, and at what level (i.e. 1st, 2nd, etc.), so you may leverage your 1st level connections (strong ties) to introduce you to 2nd level connections (weak ties) and so on.”

6. Always use a personalized message

When you request to connect with someone, LinkedIn provides you with an automated message that you can send them. As Homkes-Hayes says, “When you send a connection request via Linkedin you are typically not only asking to connect to that person, but you are also asking to access their profile-most often including their connections as well. Most folks are reticent to offer up access at this level unless there is a good reason to do so. So, including a personalized message when sending an invitation request substantially increases the likelihood someone will accept it.”

Harshe adds, “A personalized message is very important. I’m willing to connect with nearly anyone who wants to, and asks – but I don’t like the invites that feel like they’re just fishing. I don’t like it when someone who’s clearly not on my level just says, ‘Do you want to connect?’ You’re not my friend. You’re a kid. But if you’re candid about who you are, you’re aspirational, and there’s a little bit of deference to my position, and you say you’d like to learn how to get somewhere near where I am, then I’d love to help you.”

You don’t need to write a full-on letter or anything. Simply say, “Hello! I’m a student pursuing a career in sports management (or whatever field) and I am very interested in your work. I would love to connect and learn more about what you do!” That simple message speaks volumes about why you want to connect with them.

This personal message can be a tool to connect with professionals who are otherwise “out of your league.” Homkes-Hayes says, “It is okay to add someone you’ve not personally encountered, a current or former supervisor, etc. if you provide a personalized connection request, and you provide context for your request. Again, LinkedIn’s value rises as your number of connections do, so don’t be afraid to invite people to connect.”

7. Use these connections to network outside of LinkedIn!

It sounds scary, but one of the most valuable things you can do when it comes to networking is to meet up with local professionals in person. If you come across someone from your area on LinkedIn who’s working at a company you might want to work at after college, message them and ask if you could meet at Starbucks sometime to learn more about what they do! Just make sure that you do so thoughtfully. Homkes-Hayes says, “The reality is first impressions do matter, so generally I advise to start more formally than casually in how you approach new connections. This includes using formal tone and language in things like email introductions. If your contact responds in a casual way, then by all means mirror their communication style, but generally starting a bit more formally shows that you care about that person’s time. Other aspects of impression include articulating a specific request (i.e. what kind of information or interaction do you want), showing appreciation for the person(s) time, providing context for your request (i.e. this is how I found you or who we mutually know), and finally clearly indicating next steps (i.e. scheduling a meeting or phone call, etc.)”

Harshe emphasizes the importance of having the right attitude when connecting with a professional: “I’m in real estate, and I’m a graduate of University of Michigan, so if I get a LinkedIn invite from you saying, ‘Hi Mr. Harshe, I’m a U of M student in the real estate club, I noticed what you do and I’d love to connect,’ then, it’s done. Great invite. And if there’s a follow-up saying, ‘Would you mind answering some questions for me about my career aspirations?’ then that’s great as well. There’s no false pretense, they’re honest, and I’d love to help you. Don’t pretend you’re something you’re not. You’re a nineteen-year-old kid, that’s okay, we all were there. Appeal to that part of the high-level executive, and that will resonate far more than saying, ‘Hey buddy, I’m one of you now!’”

It’s intimidating to think that we’re at the age where we need to start making business connections, but if any generation has the potential to thrive on LinkedIn, it’s us! Just like we learned to stop posting “LMS for a truth is” on Facebook every single day, we’ll eventually catch on to this whole LinkedIn thing. If we do it right, by the time we need a job, we’ll already have all the connections we need!

Hannah is an editorial intern for Her Campus and the editor of the High School section as well as a chapter writer for the University of Michigan. Achievements include being voted "Biggest Belieber" (2010) and "Most Likely to Have a Child Born Addicted to Starbucks" (2016), as well as taking a selfie with the back of Jim Harbaugh's head.  Goals for the future include taking a selfie with the front of Jim Harbaugh's head.  She's also an obsessive Instagrammer, so hit her with a follow @hannah.harshe