Nowadays it seems like everyone is stepping up their game to gain experience, land internships, and expand their network. In college, we’re often expected to do these things to be successful, but finding new ways to stand out from your peers can feel daunting. One potential solution: Finding a mentor who can help you navigate your career path.
I spoke with mentors and mentees to learn how having a mentor can help you advance professionally and even give you the extra edge you need to succeed. Here’s how to ask someone to be your mentor in college, and how to make the most out of the relationship.
Why You Need A Mentor
Having a mentor is one of those things you never knew you needed — once you find one, you’ll ask yourself why you waited so long in the first place. Emily Boyd, PhD, the Director of Undergraduate Studies and head of the Mentor Collective program at Washington University in St. Louis, says, “A mentor can support you in a way that no one else does. That person is [someone] between a friend, academic advisor, career counselor and life coach.” Dr. Boyd also mentions how many jobs are secured through personal connections, not just blind applications, and having a mentor can help with that process.
Melanie White, a mentor at Indiana University’s Center of Excellence for Women in Technology, agrees. She tells Her Campus, “Getting advice and information directly from someone in your field early on in your career can not only save you time, but can also give you insight into topics that would have taken you years to learn.”
Whether your mentor is a college student a few years older than you or an established professional in your field of interest, mentors can offer advice and fresh perspectives when you’re exploring different career paths. They can also provide insight when you’re making big decisions and empower you to carve out a path that’s right for you, based on their expertise and experience. Better yet, it’s amazing if you can have more than one mentor — everyone can bring different strengths to the table and provide value in diverse ways.
how to look for a mentor
It’s one thing to know how important mentorship is, but finding the right one can take time. Like any relationship, you want to make sure that the mentor-mentee relationship suits you and your needs. First, get real about what you want. Where do you see yourself in five years? What field do you want to work in? What steps do you need to take to get there? Is there anyone in your circle — whether personal, family, through your university, or maybe a mutual connection with a classmate — who can help elevate you to where you want to be?
“If your school or company has a mentorship program already established, that’s the first place to start looking for a mentor. Otherwise, it’s best to get out in your community and meet people,” Dr. Boyd tells Her Campus. “Once you find a potential mentor, someone you think you can learn from, identify the reasons this person could be helpful to you. The next step is to approach him or her and ask to email/talk/meet so that you can learn from that person.”
If you never felt a strong connection to any professors in college or aren’t enticed by anyone at your current job, try involving yourself in different groups in your community. Start conversations and express your interests, both personal and professional. Simply having conversations can be a great way to gauge whether or not someone will be a supportive mentor — or even if they have the time — and conversely, you’ll also be able to tell who might not be ready for a mentor-mentee relationship.
Remember, it’s important to know what you want in a mentor and what you’re interested in — your potential mentor will appreciate your ability to be straightforward, because this allows them to more easily help and see if they’re a good fit for you. If you’re uncertain about what your future looks like, or what career path you want to take, you may want to find mentors in multiple fields while you’re still exploring your options.
“This process can be intimidating, since most people have a fear of rejection, but you would be surprised at how helpful and kind people can be when approached with sincerity,” Dr. Boyd says. I couldn’t agree more — make connections and put yourself out there! Don’t let fear hold you back from approaching someone.
I have a mentor, now what?
There’s no point in having a mentor unless you are proactive in utilizing that relationship to your advantage. Once you’ve found a mentor, establish clear expectations about what the relationship will look like. Will you meet weekly, monthly, or every semester? Regardless of frequency, always make a point to stay in touch with your mentor, schedule meetings as needed, and update them on your life and career so they can best help you navigate it.
Aisha Burton, a mentee in the Biology Department at Indiana University, says, “My mentor has helped me identify ways to improve my organizational skills and work-life balance. When thinking about the future, they helped me identify my weaknesses and how I can potentially improve on them.”
Melanie tells Her Campus, “One of my favorite things about being a mentor is seeing how my real life experiences can benefit someone else and seeing the effects of the advice that I give in real time. My mentee has taught me to make the best out of each situation, even if it is not your ideal.”
Chances are, your mentor won’t be someone who knows you inside and out — and this is a good thing! As Dr. Boyd mentioned, a mentor shouldn’t be your BFF – rather, this is someone similar to an academic advisor who can provide wisdom and guidance based on their knowledge of you, your personality, and your aspirations. Remember, being open and honest with your mentor is beneficial for them as well, and makes the connection worthwhile. Who knows, you’ll probably end up teaching them something new, too!
It’s never too early to seek out a mentor in college, even if you’re uncertain about what your future looks like. College is a time where you can explore many different career paths, and having a mentor to bounce ideas off of can be helpful and worthwhile. Don’t worry, you don’t have to have it all figured out right now, but looking for a mentor can be a good place to start. Cheers to feeling empowered and taking this exciting step toward your success in college — whatever that looks like for you.
Emily Boyd, PhD, Director of Undergraduate Studies, Washington University in St. Louis
Aisha Burton, Indiana University Biology Department
Melanie White, Indiana University Center of Excellence for Women in Technology