If you’re itching to know everything possible about your upcoming college experience, you’ve probably read all the available incoming-student material and are still eager for more information.

In that case, talking to alumni and current students is a good next move. Ahead is practical advice for finding and speaking to alumni with just the right amount of poise and polish. 

How to Find Alumni

Once you announce where you’re going to college, you’re bound to hear it: “My mom/uncle/cousin/sister/dog went there.” Take advantage of these connections. Find out the connection’s graduation year and what they studied. If they’re a recent grad — 5 to 10 years out, max — or have similar areas of interest, ask to be put in touch. 

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If you want to cast a wider net, social media is a great way to locate current students and recent alumni. Try searching the school’s hashtag on your social media platform of choice and you’ll find current students and recent grads who are just a DM away. Ashley Miller, a recent college graduate, said she found a friend of a friend of a friend on Instagram and reached out the summer before her freshman year. “I felt a little awkward, but I’m glad I did it,” Miller said.

“I felt a little awkward, but I’m glad I did it.”

— Ashley Miller

“She was a year ahead of me and when I got to school, we met up and became friends.” Of course, be safe with online connections you make. Ask for the advice you want, but don’t give away personal information or agree to in-person meetings that make you uncomfortable. 

You can also go through your school’s alumni office. Mark Beal, author of 101 Lessons They Never Taught You in High School About Going to College, says, “There is a good chance [the alumni office has] an alumni-student mentorship program that is not heavily promoted, where they are looking to connect current students with alums of the school.” Even if you’re not interested in the full mentorship experience, the alumni office might be able to put you in touch with an alumnus for a one-off phone call or email exchange. 

How to Talk to Alumni

It can be intimidating to initiate a conversation with alumni or older students, but it’s actually pretty common. Usually the biggest conundrum is deciding how formal or informal to be, but there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Remember to be polite and respectful of their time, and you’ll likely get a positive response. 

If it’s a current student or recent grad, it’s perfectly fine to address them as a peer — albeit a peer you don’t know well. This means first names are acceptable, as is a somewhat casual writing style. Just be gracious. Nobody is too young for please and thank you.

If it’s an older alumni, especially if you’re contacting them through their business phone or email, it’s best to be more formal in your communication. “I’d rather err on the safe side. I’ve never heard of anyone getting offended because a student was too formal,” said James Pollard, a career coach and adviser. “Be formal until they give you a reason not to be. I’ve found most alumni-student relationships become more casual as the relationship grows.”

What to Ask Alumni

When you’re unfamiliar with something, it can be hard to know what questions to ask. Beal has a few ideas to get you started:

  • What is one thing you regret not doing in college?
  • What should I do as a freshman to set myself up for success throughout college? 
  • What one piece of advice would you go back and tell your freshman self? 

Ultimately, the best questions are the ones you’re already asking yourself. 

Don’t be afraid to reach out to alumni and current students for more information. For the most part, you will find that people are happy to chat about their experience in college and won’t mind sharing tips and maybe even advice. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018.