What Should I Ask Alumni?

By: David Ross

So you’ve just found that incredible lead and think this could be the big break you’ve been waiting for…there’s an alum working at a place of great interest to you. There’s just one slight problem – you’re unsure what to ask the alum and want to make the best impression possible. How should you proceed?

Carefully. Cautiously. Professionally. While there’s no “magic formula” here, you do want to think carefully and plan ahead before reaching out to alumni. Sometimes, I’m asked by students what are some questions to ask an alum? Here are a few ideas:

Can you share your thoughts on how to best prepare myself for a career in (insert career here)? Sure, we’ve all heard about pursuing internships and making connections, but depending on the field you are interested in, an alum’s perspective on some of the more subtle or less mentioned skills that are valued can be particularly helpful.

How did your Penn (and/or school at Penn) experience prepare you for your career? This question is a great way to really delve into the Penn connection you share and ways that you can leverage that experience.

In your experience, what are some attributes of individuals who are most successful in (your field)? Not only will this question shed some light on what it takes to be successful, it may also be helpful to evaluate if a certain career field is a good fit for you personally.

Are there any courses at Penn that you would recommend taking as preparation? A decision on what classes to take is up to each individual. However, an alum’s experience with certain courses he or she found helpful and useful may give you some new ideas to think about.

While asking questions can be a helpful way to begin a discussion with alumni, some individuals prefer a more direct approach and like to “cut to the chase.” Be careful with this as you certainly do not want to put an alum in an awkward position – especially if he or she does not know you. Think about it – would you recommend someone for employment at a company if all you knew about the person was based on one email or a phone call you received? Developing strong networking connections can take some time. And while it may not be easy to cultivate a contact, it’s very easy to make a bad impression in the process. Always keep that in mind.

Of course, there are many other questions you can ask alumni as well. But hopefully this gives you a few ideas to open the lines of communication and connect with alumni.

Author: David

David Ross is a Senior Associate Director of Career Services for Wharton undergraduates and occasional blogger for "Penn & Beyond."