At a mock reception at the University of Texas in Austin, students rub elbows with local employers. The goal: to give out 20 business cards in 10 minutes.
During the exercise, students try to deliver a quick infomercial about their interests and achievements, avoid the impulse to come right out and ask for a job, and pick up on an employer's signals that it's time to move on - important lessons for working a room in the real world.
For college seniors on the prowl for a job this year, networking is more important than ever. Experts estimate that 50 to 70 percent of jobs are never advertised. And when new graduates have to compete against experienced professionals, building a wider circle of contacts who may know about those hidden jobs becomes essential.
Campus career counselors are finding they have to teach networking skills to a generation of students who have never had to look much past their noses to land part-time jobs. Colleges routinely give workshops on the art of informational interviewing and help students tap into huge databases of alumni who are happy to give advice.
Tips for interacting at a networking reception range from where to stand (near the food table) to how to position your name tag (on the right side of the chest, one expert advises, because the eye follows the right arm when you shake hands).
Beyond the etiquette, networking is simply about building relationships and exchanging information. "Even after you have a job, you will likely be in a role where client relationships are very important ..., and the skills you acquire in networking will serve you throughout your life," says Sharon Lutz, director of the Ford Career Center at UT Austin's business school.
When students recoil at the word "networking" because they equate it to schmoozing, Ms. Lutz just starts by asking whether they've ever sought connections for carpooling to a spring break destination. That's networking, she tells them.
To build up lists of contacts during a job search, "we encourage students to be a bit adventurous in meeting new people in the communities where they want to belong," says Richard DelliVeneri, a career consultant at the University of Denver College of Law. Even undergraduates can attend local professional association meetings to find out about the types of jobs in their field.
Another point Mr. DelliVeneri drives home to students is that they never know which quick conversations will bear fruit later on. "In our culture I think we've become accustomed to instantaneous gratification," he says. "Networking takes time and effort ... but patience does pay off."
At the career center of St. John's University in Jamaica, N.Y., "we talk about networking constantly," says associate director Stefanie Zizzo. The result: 35 percent of students in the past three graduating classes attributed their jobs to networking success.
But even before a job is cinched, one step is universally recommended: Remember to say 'Thank you' to anyone who helps along the way. "Preferably in a personal way," DelliVeneri says, "like writing a thank you note."