Using Your Alma Mater

By Ginny Frizzi

May 7, 2010 6 min read

Those looking for jobs in the current economy are urged to leave no source untapped when it comes to developing leads or contacts that could lead to new positions.

However, there is one resource overlooked by a surprising number of people: their alma maters' career services offices. They go by various names, including career services and career development, and their assistance is available to alumni of most colleges and universities.

Services traditionally include r?sum? assistance, mock interviews and access to career databases. The new technology has increased the ways in which alums can be in contact with their alma maters.

According to Nancy Westfield, assistant director of career services at Ohio Wesleyan University, ways in which alumni can utilize their college career services offices include phone appointments, instant message appointments, in-person appointments, joining the schools' LinkedIn communities, attending on-campus job fairs and networking events, and submitting e-mails containing r?sum?s, cover letters and personal statements, which are reviewed and returned with comments and suggestions.

Julie Hays Bartimus, vice president of the Alumni Career Center for the University of Illinois Alumni Association, points out that the depth and range of career services available to alumni vary by institution. "To orient themselves with what their alma maters offer, candidates should connect with the campuses' alumni associations or career services offices," she says.

In addition to the schools themselves, some alumni associations -- often run independently of the institutions -- offer career services. An example is the University of Illinois Alumni Association. Online services are offered to 700,000 alumni at no charge, and advising services are available for a nominal fee, Bartimus says. The online services include a job board, the Virtual Career Center for advice and resources, and regularly held webinars.

Job seekers should check out what their alma maters offer for alumni when it comes to career services because the schools may concentrate on working with graduating students, according to Kristen Fischer, author of "Ramen Noodles, Rent and Resum?s: An After-College Guide to Life." "College career centers offer valuable information for students and alumni and are likely the first contact that students have with the real world," Fischer says. "When returning as an alumnus for help, be sure to evaluate the career center and ensure that their standards, including r?sum? writing, are up-to-date. If they help mostly students and you already have some professional experience, you want to make sure they can best convey that in your r?sum?. They also have valuable contacts, so definitely explore it, but don't rely on the college career center. They may have a good network, but the best network for what you need is always created by you, because you can expand beyond the university."

Career services traditionally have been free for alumni at numerous institutions, but some now charge nominal fees, often for special workshops or events, because of a combination of their own budget constraints and the fact that more alumni are requesting assistance.

Messiah College has seen a large increase in such requests. "Last month, we had 19 alumni requests for career services, when we usually receive fewer than a half-dozen," says Dwayne Keiffer, assistant director of career development at Messiah. "All of the alumni have referred to the economy as the catalyst for their visits, with the majority recently having lost their jobs."

This comes at a time when Messiah College itself has had to trim its staff. "We still service those alumni who seek our help," Keiffer says. "However, we are also launching the Alumni Career Network. This network will allow alumni to seek out other alumni who may be working in fields of interest."

Consultant Nick Vita of Vita Partners provides some suggestions for people looking to utilize their alma maters' career services offices. "I actually consult college career services and development centers for a living," Vita says. "The reason my job exists is many of these offices could implement small changes that would benefit the community greatly. I've found that many of the career services officers come from a higher-education background and, as such, have little true exposure to careers, industries or skills outside of that arena."

The best thing to do is contact the career center directly, according to Vita. "Try to get an understanding of what they really are capable of and whether they are proactively seeking to build their alumni network," says Vita, who wrote the book "Career Diem."

"In this market, some alumni will post job listings with the career services department, but many won't," Vita says. "It's a buyer's market! So my answer would be this: Yes, use your career services department. Use every resource they have -- mock interviews, job listings, r?sum? writings -- because it won't hurt. But remember that if you really would like to become part of the community, you must be willing to give and help, as well, or otherwise the network collapses."

But the search doesn't end there, Vita says. "In fact, this should be a minimal portion of a candidate's efforts," he says. "Trying to connect with alumni who work in your desired or current industry is your best bet -- LinkedIn, Facebook, etc. Most alumni will be willing to help."

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