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How to network the tailgate party

Young adults at tailgate party (iStockphoto)

Some people tailgate like it's their job (Cruizin' Cooler owners, we're looking at you), but can tailgating actually help you get a job?

It might be a good start, according to some career experts. The power of personal connections to help job seekers jump to the top of the resume pile is well known, and college students are sitting on top of a virtual goldmine of potential connections--a school's alumni network.

"Alums are very interested in getting to know students," said Diane Machado, director of career development and internships at College of Mount Saint Vincent in New York.

"You know the people are interested in you. They have a lot in common with you," she said.

Tailgating is all about mingling and meeting new people, making it an ideal setting for networking. But you can't just show up to a tailgate bash expecting free food, free beer and free business cards.

How can you turn a football tailgate into a networking event? Here are some tips to take you through game day.

1. Develop a game plan

Your football team doesn't take the field without a solid playbook, and neither should you. Machado recommends students prepare for any networking opportunity by having a 30-second introduction ready.

"If they ask you about yourself, you want to have a good answer," said Machado. "You don't want to make it look like you'd take any job anywhere. If you do, you don't look goal oriented. You don't look professional."

  • Extra points: Machado suggests students read up on current events in their field. That way, if the conversation turns to "that article in the Times last week," you can add your opinion.

2. Skip the face paint

A big part of looking professional is dressing appropriately, even at a tailgate.

"Do your research ahead of time," said Laura Turner, senior career manager for the University of Michigan's alumni association. "Know what kind of menu and tailgate it is. If you're coming to one of our events, you know you're going to be dressed in your fan wear, but a Presidential Society tailgate might be different."

  • Extra points: Machado recommends khakis and a golf shirt, which always look nice but are appropriately casual.

3. Never leave your wingman

Approaching a group of more experienced professionals can be intimidating, said Lindsay E. Brown, co-author with Nancy A. Shenker of the book "Don't Hook Up With the Dude in the Next Cube: 200+ Career Secrets for 20-Somethings."

"College students should find themselves a networking wingman," Brown said. "It's less intimidating for them to approach a group of older alums if they have their friend with them."

  • Extra points: Brown recommends striking up conversations while in line for concessions or waiting for the restroom. "In line is a great way to meet new people," she said.

4. Stay sober

Even though tailgating often revolves around beer, burgers and more beer, students who are looking to make professional connections should limit consumption.

"It's important that students decide what their purpose is in attending the game or event," said Brown. "If networking, meeting lots of new people and advancing their career is their goal, they should make that their priority."

  • Extra points: Brown suggests students pack water bottles with their tailgate gear. That way, they have something non-alcoholic to sip on and can stay hydrated easily.

5. Focus on what you share, not what you want

A tailgate is a social event not a business one, and students should approach it as such.

"Networking doesn't have to begin with a business discussion at all," Machado said. "It could very much be a casual conversation. What they want to do is get to know this person and get to know about this person. Ask the alum about themselves. 'When did you graduate?' 'What did you study?' 'What do you do now?' "

Turner suggests students use the shared college experience as a point of entry into their interests and experiences.

In Turner's case, "These are individuals that have the University of Michigan as a common connection." She said, "These are possible points of conversation--talking about what their experiences on campus have been and through that highlighting their skill set."

  • Extra points: "Be a good listener," Machado advises. Networking is a two-way street.

6. Don't be too pushy

Although students need to take the initiative when it comes to starting conversations with alums, Machado recommends they let the alumni take the lead when it comes to steering the conversation toward possible job offers.

"Students should follow the lead of the alum," she said. "They've built a relationship. The person knows who they are. They're going to remember this student who has shown interest, who has been so professional. They'll remember them next April."

  • Extra points: Follow up with any contacts you make within a week. Send a note saying it was great to meet them or indicating you hope to be in touch in the future. "A business card collected is no good if it just sits idle in your dorm room desk," Brown said.

Whether or not your school is a perennial football contender, your alumni network is almost certainly a professional powerhouse. If you bring your A game to the tailgate, you could score some big-time career connections.

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