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How to Find a Great Mentor in College

Growing up, you may have felt like adults were always around to guide you and help you make difficult decisions: teachers in the classroom, coaches on the field and your parents at home. Once you enter college, you face new experiences and situations that you may leave you asking, “Who’s here to help me now?” Luckily, even in college, you’re still surrounded by adults and experts willing to offer a helping hand, although they may not be as obvious as your earlier sources of guidance. These advisors are often referred to as mentors. Finding the right mentor and developing a relationship with them offers many advantages and potential opportunities.

We talked to career experts and a recent graduate to get the low-down on all things mentorship: who mentors are, where to find them and how they can benefit you.

What is a mentor?

A mentorship is a relationship in which a more experienced or knowledgeable individual acts as a trusted advisor to someone with less experience. The relationship is typically long-term and focused on supporting the growth and development of the mentee.

A mentor-mentee relationship can take place on many levels and in many different situations, but in college, it is typically academic- or career-related. A mentor may give you direction when deciding on an academic path in college as well as preparing for post-college plans, such as attending graduate school or finding your first job.

Why should I have a mentor?

A mentor can have an incredible impact on the life of a student, both professionally and personally. Your mentor has gone through similar stages to those that you are currently going through, so they can offer first-hand advice of what worked or what didn’t. Mentors can offer a better perspective when it comes to making career-related decisions, such as what summer internship you should apply for or what elective classes would be relevant to your future.

“It is invaluable to have access to someone who has insight and hindsight regarding the career path you are pursuing,” says Barbara Zito, a career development specialist for the University Career Services at Rutgers University. “It’s the closest thing to having a crystal ball to see the future: You have an idea that if you do X and Y, then Z might happen.”

There is no one way a mentorship has to look. Feel free to tailor the mentor/mentee relationship to fit what you specifically want to get out of it. A mentor can be that sounding board, support system, voice of clarity or extra boost of confidence we all need sometimes! 

Having one mentor in college can lead to having many mentors down the road as they introduce you to other professionals (and maybe even potential employers) in the field.

Who should I look for to be my mentor?

There is an abundance of professionals on college campuses, and it is important to narrow down your search to find the right mentor for you.

“When we help our college women build the confidence they need to network and build powerful relationships, we tell them to seek mentors that are powerful, bold and consistently stepping into her personal power,” explains Rachael Bozsik. Bozsik is the CEO and founder of The Brand Girls, a workshop and sisterhood focused on empowering the next generation of women. “There is such power in modeling (mimicking the behavior and the actions of someone you would like to be like someday); you will want to seek a mentor who you admire and want to follow closely in their footsteps.

Thomas Dezell, author and professional career advisor, recommends pursuing a mentorship with “an individual who is established and knowledgeable in a field you want to pursue a career in. Ideally, he or she should be at a supervisory level, having advanced in that field and seen others who have also done so.” With such first- and second- hand experience, the mentor can give insight into what skills or experience are most valued in said field.

What qualities should I look for in a mentor?

In addition to experience, there are certain characteristics that can make someone a good mentor. “Above all, a mentor should be someone with whom you feel comfortable having a conversation,” explains Zito. “If you’re overly intimidated by that person’s job title or experience level, then you’ll feel awkward talking to them, let alone asking important questions about next steps in your career search.”

Try to email or meet with several mentor candidates to feel out if your personalities, values, and ways of interacting are a good match.

Related: 6 Surefire Ways to Stand Out at Any Conference or Networking Event

Where can I go to find a mentor?

With a schedule full of classes, a job, extracurriculars, weekly errands and, oh yeah, having a social life, adding “find a mentor” to the to-do list can seem daunting. But many potential mentors can be found working at the places you go to every day!

“I made an appointment at my school’s Career and Academic Planning Office to have my resume reviewed. The advisor I met with noticed my psychology major and mentioned she had just talked to a professor starting a research lab the next semester in a field I was interested in pursuing,” said Jenny, a recent graduate from James Madison University. “I probably never would have heard of this opportunity or professor without that meeting, and I ended up working with him for my next three years of college. He assisted in re-defining my passions and opened doors for other experiences down the road.”

Mentors can be found in the classroom in the form of graduate and teacher assistants, or professors who followed a career path you’re interested in pursuing. Many students with on- or off-campus jobs find a mentor in a boss or older co-worker.

In addition, you can join extracurricular activities, professional organizations or school-organized mentorship programs, as well as attend networking events and seminars to meet professionals that you may want to connect with later on. “Another plus about finding potential mentors through associations is that they can focus on advising you on ways to enhance your career toward your field,” says Dezell, who believes this approach gives a more comprehensive, holistic outlook. “A mentor within the company you work at, while very beneficial, is more likely to advise you on how you can advance your career to the benefit of that company.”

Don’t hesitate to reach out to advisors specific to your major who may be able to guide your search for a mentor by suggesting certain professors to meet with or associations (think your school’s business fraternity, or pre-professional health clubs) to become a member of.

How do I ask someone to be my mentor?

Now that you’ve found someone you’re interested in forming a mentorship with, the big question is how you officially start this relationship.

“You should never formally “ask” someone “Will you be my mentor?” recommends Bozsik. “You want this relationship to feel powerful on both sides, not an obligation to the individual.” Instead, the best approach is to ask the potential mentor if they have some time to meet with you and answer a few questions. Bozsik advises asking the individual out to coffee or lunch, and start by learning about their past/current role while showing you’ve done your research and making connections between their path and the path you hope to take. When ending this meeting, it is imperative to “have a call to action – create a plan to meet again or how you will continue the conversation. We tell our college clients at The Brand Girls to create a networking excel document where they track their conversations, dates and notes – you should be in touch with your potential mentors at a minimum of every other month.” 

While it may seem intimidating, confusing or just like extra work, college campuses are chock full of potential mentors and opportunities to meet them. Having a mentor during your college career provides unique guidance and advice when facing those all too important (and sometimes difficult) decisions. You’ll be reaping the benefits of this relationship long after graduation, eventually thanking your college self for putting yourself out there and creating such an important relationship.

JMU alumni making her way into the "real" world. Passion for spending time with my large Italian family, running and eating any and all desserts I can get my hands on.