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Expert Advice: 8 Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Mentor

July 8, 2014
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Navigating through college and into the job market is an exciting rite of passage into adulthood, but it’s also one of the trickiest. It can be challenging and intimidating for students from any background, but the good news is you don’t have to go it alone.

College is the perfect time and place for students to develop mentorship relationships because everyone around is willing to help, and wants to see a student succeed. A mentor can be anyone—an inspiring professor, manager, or coach—who is invested in a student’s future and will willingly offer career guidance. Mentorship relationships benefit the student, who receives invaluable advice from an expert’s perspective, but also the mentor, who is gratified knowing he helped a student accomplish his dreams. What’s more, mentorship relationships result in real career advantages: According to a study by Sun Microsystems, those who are mentored are five times more likely to receive job promotions.

While colleges prepare students for the real world through academic and career advising, many graduates look back wishing they had received more personalized mentoring. To help you find that perfect someone and to make the most of their sage advice, NerdScholar asked the career experts. Here are their eight best tips:

[Want more career advice? Check out our Job Search Guide for Gen Y.]



1. Allow mentoring relationships to occur organically.

Since a mentor can be anyone who provides guidance and support, mentoring relationships are not always clearly labeled. A student can have many mentors without quite realizing it because “the best mentor relationships evolve naturally,” says Scott Hammond, clinical professor of management at Utah State University. “A student and a professor work on a small research project that becomes big. A business owner asks you to help with a project. A small success leads to a bigger relationship.” Instead of actively looking for a mentor, students should focus on developing the professional relationships they already have.

For students who want a more formal mentoring relationship, many colleges offer programs that match students with mentors. South Carolina’s Wofford College has a formal mentoring program in which students are matched with alumni mentors, but Scott Cochran, dean of career services, says, “We also see a lot of informal relationships develop between students and college staff, professors, coaches, or work supervisors.”

Similarly, Ron Culp, director of public relations at DePaul University in Chicago, tells students to “avoid the direct ask: ‘Will you be my mentor?’ You and the prospective mentor should know by osmosis if this has the potential of a long-term mentoring relationship.” Mentoring relationships can be formed in different ways, but many students prefer reaching out to someone they already know and trust.


2. Approach the relationship with clarity and directness.

After finding a mentor, whether organically or intentionally, the student should clarify goals, roles, and expectations so the mentor can best guide them. “The student should approach the relationship with a clearly defined goal: a question they need answered or advice on how to get from point A to point B in their career search,” says Cochran. “It’s a waste of a mentor’s time for a student to present themselves with no idea of what they want or need.” Before approaching a mentor, the student should be well aware of his or her career goals, and reflect on how a mentor could help attain them. Once the student is prepared, he or she should outline the plan to the mentor in a clear and direct manner. OluwaTosin Adegbola, public relations educator at Baltimore’s Morgan State University, tells her students to “be upfront with what [their] goals and needs are of [their] relationship with [their] mentor.” A mentorship relationship based on clarity and directness will ensure that both mentor and student are on the same page.




3. Take initiative in the relationship.

In the same way that it’s the student’s responsibility to approach a mentor, the student should continue to drive the relationship after it has been established. “We definitely have to help our students understand that the mentor doesn’t drive the relationship, the student does,” says Cochran. A mentor is filled with knowledge, experience, and tips, and a student should actively seek out advice. After all, the relationship is built to bolster the student’s knowledge. Instead of waiting for a mentor to offer advice, a student should take initiative and ask questions. Adegbola recommends asking any and all questions related to careers. “Ask them questions that require them to divulge their ‘trade secrets’ that lend themselves to benefit you directly. Over time, also ask questions that invite them to evaluate your ability to incorporate key strategies that they have shared along the way.”

Students should make the most of mentors by asking for input on ideas or decisions, too. It is rare to come across an expert who is willing to share insider tips with an inexperienced student, which is why mentors are so precious. As Cochran says, “Getting advice from someone who has ‘been there, done that’ is priceless.”


4. Be mindful of your mentor’s time.

Given that mentors gladly provide invaluable guidance, it makes sense that students would want to be in constant communication with them. However, mentors are not available around the clock, since they have their own responsibilities. “Mentors are often successful, busy people with families and lives to live,” says Cochran. “They want to help, sure, but they don’t have unlimited amounts of time to spend on their mentees.” To best benefit from a mentorship without burdening the mentor, students should aim to meet with mentors once every few weeks for no longer than an hour. To make the most of each visit, Adegbola tells students to “be clear on what [they] need with each visit. If need be, write out three key main areas that [they] need addressed; the mentor will appreciate an obvious attempt at respecting their time and the desire to be organized and structured.”

For students who are unable to meet with mentors on a regular basis, Culp recommends email correspondences. “There are many highly successful email mentoring relationships, which I fully endorse as a way to stay in touch,” he says. Communication by email is oftentimes the most accommodating for mentors. Of course, Culp reminds students, “don’t overstay a welcome with a barrage of emails.”


5. Remain professional.

Even though mentorships are meant to develop trust and closeness, they are still professional relationships. “A mentor is not a mom, dad, best friend or nanny. They are a professional who can help you,” says Hammond. “But they expect a professional relationship in return. In most cases they do not need to hear about college romances, social activities or personal problems. They do want to hear about career plans, next steps, graduate school plans and new ideas.” Ideally, the relationship would become a friendship, but even so, all discussions should be about academics and careers. A mentor wants to know that a student is serious about the future, and inappropriate conversations will make the student come off as disrespectful and disinterested. That being said, a strictly professional relationship does not mean that a mentor is not invested on a personal level. Cochran says that “the best mentors are, of course, those that do take a personal interest in the student and genuinely want to see them succeed.”


6. Avoid relying on mentors to solve all problems.

Mentors are available to guide and to help, but they shouldn’t be doing all the work. Adegbola says that a common misconception about mentorship relationships is that “a mentor gives [the student] the playbook on how to succeed. This is impossible as the person on the journey is the key determinant for their success.” Mentors can give the best insight, but it is still up to the students to apply the knowledge to their own futures. Students should think of mentors as experts who assist in professional growth, and not as all-knowing problem solvers. “Mentors cannot get [students] a job,” Culp says. “They can provide advice and they sometimes can open doors, but [students] have to ultimately stand on [their] own two feet.” Preparing to enter the workforce can be nerve-racking, but it’s a process that all students have to experience for themselves. Mentors can keep students from making mistakes, but they cannot build futures.

As Hammond says, “Mentors are guides in the wilderness of work, but they do not carry the pack or set up the camp.”


7. Reciprocate.

All relationships require contributions from both sides, and mentorship relationships are no different. While the relationship between a mentor and student is largely for the student’s benefit, he should still do his best to reciprocate in some manner. “The core of the relationship is learning,” says Hammond. “But the relationship demands reciprocity. What can you do for them? How can you help? A student should always ask what they could do to add value to the relationship and not just focus on what they might get.” Mentors probably do not need to learn about careers, but they may want input on how to effectively give advice. “Students sometimes don’t understand that mentors are also in the relationship for a reason,” says Cochran. “They want to help, and if a student doesn’t let them know that their advice is working, there’s not a lot of motivation for the mentor to continue the relationship.” A mentoring relationship is a two-way street, and both of the participants should benefit by sharing knowledge.


8. Routinely update the mentor on professional successes.

Once a student’s professional life takes off, correspondences will become less frequent and the relationship will begin to plateau. However, students should continue to inform mentors about accomplishments and advancements. Culp recommends students check in “at least twice a year” to update mentors on progress. Mentors will be happy to hear of their students doing well and to know that their advice was useful. “A good mentor can provide an experienced perspective that a student can benefit from when making decisions about their path,” says Cochran. After the path has been paved with the help of a mentor, students should “thank them, often, for the help they received.”


Scott C. Hammond, Ph.D, is a mentor and mentee, and a Clinical Professor of Management at Utah State University.

OluwaTosin Adegbola, Ph.D., is a public relations educator at Morgan State University in Maryland. She has spent the last five years offering hands-on career coaching and professional development strategies to traditional and nontraditional students alike.

Ron Culp is a corporate and agency veteran who now consults and serves as professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University.

Scott Cochran is Dean of The Space in The Mungo Center at Wofford College, which gives students real-world experiences to prepare them for life after graduation. Its programs include career services, entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship development, consulting opportunities and internships abroad.

Professor and student image courtesy of Shutterstock.