You spent four years and thousands of dollars as a student of your alma mater, so why shouldn't you use their lucrative alumni network?

Choosing which school to attend is one of the biggest life decisions you will make. Not only does it shape your college experience, but it also puts you into a professional alumni network of people who have the power and the ability to advance your career.

Don't believe me? Listen to this conversation between Tim Ferris of the Four Hour Work Week and Cal Fussman, a New York Times bestselling author and a 20-year contributor to Esquire Magazine's “What I Learned” feature. Unfortunately, many of us are far from maximizing the lifelong benefits of our alumni network. We chalk it up to our busy schedules and the logistical difficulty of coordinating a 15-minute coffee meeting, let alone a longer, meaningful conversation, with just about anyone. If you are nodding your head, the good news is that it is never too late to start utilizing your college's alumni network! Here are some networking tips on how to get started.

1. Get reconnected

Your alumni association can't let you know about recent developments and upcoming events if all they have is your email address from three jobs ago! Make sure you update the contact information they have on file. Sure, that might mean a fundraising call or two during the year, but it's a small price to pay for the opportunities you get in return.

Some school alumni associations also have active LinkedIn and Facebook pages, so you might want to consider connecting via social media as well.

2. Get involved in your alumni association

One thing most alumni associations want more than donations are volunteers! The core of the association is usually formed by full-time school employees, but event planning, alumni coordination, and miscellaneous initiatives are often powered by alumni just like you. If you have time and interest, consider volunteering for a committee. It will get you in a conversation with like-minded alums and allow you to make meaningful connections. Besides, it is a great way to give back to your school through service.

3. Pick a few events to attend every year

A virtual connection is great, but the ability to connect with former students in real life is even better. Your school probably offers dozens of events that are open to their alumni network, from football games to gala dinners and homecoming. Don't feel like you have to attend every event — make the most of one or two networking events to start, and maximize their potential by showing up ready to meet people. There may even be some dedicated alumni business networking events on the calendar!

As with any other networking event, it is best to go in with a goal in mind. Perhaps you would like to connect with two professionals in your area. Use the event as an opportunity to meet them and establish the initial fit, following up with a one-on-one coffee or lunch meeting. Aim to pick interesting people that you enjoy talking to and form some friendly connections. The rest will follow naturally.

4. Become a resource

Along the lines of volunteering for alumni committees, consider becoming a resource for other parts of your school. Career services offices are often looking for professionals in their alumni network who can guide and mentor current students, while admission committees look for volunteers to conduct interviews with incoming freshmen. These are great ways to be of service to your alma mater and advance your career at the same time. You never know — you might just meet your next superstar intern or connect with your next professional opportunity!

Related: 5 Ways a Mentor Can Boost Your Career Potential

5. Reach out to fellow alums

If a proactive approach suits you, consider reaching out to fellow alumni who work at companies or in industries you might be interested in joining. The “Alumni News” section in the back of the school magazine can offer great material to jump-start the conversation.

LinkedIn is a good way to expand your school network, as well. Find professionals by filtering search results using your school name and send quick messages of introduction inviting them to connect with you. You already have one thing in common! Fellow alumni could become great resources for informational interviews and introductions. Alumni who work in your field could also serve as mentors.

If your alumni association hosts an active Facebook page, consider using that space to ask for advice and guidance on anything from career changes to job-search tips.

6. Commit to staying in touch with key people

As with any other type of networking, the key to getting the most out of your shared college connections is being consistent about staying in touch. Emails, notes, and cards are all good options. You might set up Google alerts for people's names so you can be the first to send a promotion congratulations email. Put the planned outreach on your calendar — that way it is more likely to get done. In short, don't be that person who only reaches out to his network when he needs something!

7. Alumni associations aren't just for schools

Yes, it is true! Many companies have active former employee/alumni networks that are a fantastic opportunity to expand your professional connections and boost your career. Consulting and other large professional companies come to mind first, but it never hurts to check if your old employer has a formal alumni network. Your old co-workers go on to great things, from leading companies to launching their own firms. Those connections could be invaluable.

Formal professional alumni groups usually host a few events every year, from holiday gatherings to golf games. The beauty of many professional alumni networks, especially for larger firms, is that they offer regional chapters throughout the United States. It is a proven way to stay connected and meet professionals in a new geographic area.

Related: 5 Surefire Networking Tips to Rock Your Company Party

8. Be a good referral partner and a people connector

Contrary to the popular opinion, networking isn't just about getting to know more people. The true value of the networking exercise is in being able to connect with people for mutual benefit. Perhaps one of your alumni network connections has a client service opportunity that requires fraud investigation expertise. If you happen to know an alum who is a partner at a forensic firm, you will be adding value to both of them by making an introduction. Instant good karma — check!

By modeling good connection practices, you are building deeper relationships. That depth will get you better results in the long run than simply growing the number of superficial connections.

Now, you will get the most out of your alumni network connections if you make them a habit. Consistency wins the day, so use whatever tools you need to get you there — scheduling reminders work well for me. Leveraging your college connections makes a lot of sense because, after all, this is a big part of what you have paid for.

Click on the following link for more networking advice.

Need to vamp up your resume for your next networking event? Try out our free critique today!

Photo credit: University of the Fraser Valley/Flickr

Recommended Reading:

Related Articles: