A college mentor can support students in their academic and professional pursuits, even virtually. Learn what a good mentor looks like and how to find one.

How College Mentors Can Foster Student Success

If you are currently in college or a recent grad, you've probably heard about how important professional networking is in your early career. Finding a good mentor is useful for networking, but it can also lead to many other benefits.

Mentoring relationships focus on connecting you and your goals with opportunities to succeed. The 2018 Gallup Alumni Survey found that "college graduates are almost two times more likely to be engaged at work if they had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their goals and dreams."

The study also found that college graduates with faculty members who "cared about them as a person" benefit from higher levels of wellbeing.

A male college student wearing a bright blue t-shirt excitedly talks to his college mentor as they go over a sheaf of papers.

Mentors and Student Transitions

Times of transition ⁠— such as making the move from high school to college, or from college to your first career ⁠— can be daunting. Having adequate support that you can rely on during these times improves your experience and ability to succeed. This support can come from many places, including mentors who share what they learned when they underwent similar transitions.

Students can connect with potential mentors in many informal ways, such as by talking with faculty members, on-campus supervisors, and advisors. Formal mentorship programs are also common on college campuses. The goals of these programs include increased retention and graduation rates, higher academic achievement, and guided career exploration.

Students can connect with potential mentors in many informal ways, such as by talking with advisors, or they can participate in a formal college mentorship program.

College mentorship programs can be particularly beneficial for specific groups, such as first-year students, first-generation students, and underrepresented minority students. According to MENTOR, at-risk youth who have a mentor are 55% more likely to enroll in college than their peers who lack a mentor.

Meanwhile, research from the College of Charleston shows that for first-year, African American students, "the mentoring relationship can provide academic, social, and career guidance that is invaluable during the undergraduate years."

How to Be a Good Mentor to College Students

Not everyone is an effective college mentor or willing to devote the time and attention this kind of relationship requires. You'll need to keep in mind several characteristics as you look for and connect with mentors in your life.

MENTOR suggests that all good mentors meet the following criteria:

  • Sincerely Interested in Getting Involved

    Building a solid relationship takes time and effort. Finding a mentor who is committed to this process is important.

  • Respectful

    A good mentor is kind and admires you as a whole person who may be different in small or large ways.

  • Good Listeners

    They use active listening skills that allow them to pay attention and provide appropriate, non-judgmental feedback.

  • Empathetic

    Good mentors recognize that you have a unique point of view and can understand what you are feeling.

  • Able to See Solutions and Opportunities

    In addition to providing advice, the best mentors ask questions to help you determine your next steps and stay focused on your goals and priorities.

  • Flexible

    The mentoring relationship may change as your life and goals evolve. Adapting to these changes is an important characteristic of a quality mentor.

As you consider this list, you may already know someone, or several people, in your life with these qualities. Having more than one mentor may be ideal, too.

5 Types of College Mentors Students Need

Business expert Anthony Tjan says there are five types of mentors everyone can benefit from having in their lives. Why so many? According to Tjan, "[R]arely can one person give you everything you need to grow."

These five types cover a variety of needs, life roles, and sources of support. Think about how these different mentors can help you as you move forward through your college program and into a career after graduation.

An Expert in Your Field

Find a college mentor who can share advice about navigating the career path you are pursuing or want to pursue based on their own experiences. They can keep you informed of current trends, answer questions, help you expand your network, and guide your decision-making.

A Personal Champion

We all need someone who is always in our corner. This type of mentor cheers you on no matter what, helps you understand and learn from your failures, and enthusiastically shares your success.

A Peer

Not all mentors are older or more experienced than you. Build a co-mentoring relationship with someone who is going through similar experiences. The potential benefits of this type of mentor include an open sharing of challenges and opportunities, as well as finding ways to collaborate.

An Anchor

This type of mentor is someone who keeps you grounded. This person considers your school and career goals as part of your whole life, reminding you of your priorities and prompting you to stay focused when the going gets tough.

A Mentee

Look for opportunities to share your knowledge and advice with someone who has less experience than you. You can learn a lot about yourself by helping others.

Professor Greta Hsu from the University of California, Davis, describes having more than one mentor as having a "developmental network."

In addition to focusing on professional advice, Hsu emphasizes the need for diversity in your network, which "allows you to use your network as a 'port of entry' to social and organizational groups you don't have direct access to."

A young woman in a yellow blouse sit with her mentor at a tablke in the common area of an academic library.

How to Find a Mentor in College

Many institutions offer mentorship programs for college students. Talk to your academic advisor, career services office, writing and learning centers, and/or professors to find out what your school offers.

You can also contact your school's alumni association — even before you graduate — to see whether a program is in place to match you with a graduate interested in mentoring a current student.

Mentors can be found off campus as well. For example, participating in an internship will introduce you to people currently working in your field at a specific company or organization. These experiences can lead to mentorship opportunities, industry experience, career exploration, and full-time employment.

Students looking for mentors can participate in a campus mentorship program, start an internship, or join a professional association.

Some professional associations also connect students and early-career professionals with mentors. For example, the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the American Association of Nurse Assessment Coordination sponsor mentorship programs for new career counselors and healthcare professionals, respectively.

You can use CareerOneStop's Professional Association Finder tool to locate professional organizations in your field of interest.

The process of identifying and approaching good mentors can be particularly challenging for first-generation and minority students. An article from the American Psychological Association provides several suggestions to help you reach out and make these connections.

  • Embrace the fact that you need support and don't be afraid to ask for help.
  • Look for multiple mentors with different areas of expertise that are relevant to you and your goals.
  • Have ideas about what you want to gain from the mentorship experience and share these expectations with potential mentors.
  • Think beyond your own academic program and avoid stereotypes as you consider who might make a good mentor.
  • Get involved in student clubs, volunteering, and other activities through which you can meet and get to know people who might become helpful mentors.

Making Virtual Mentorships Work

Virtual and remote internships are becoming more prevalent due to campus and office closures triggered by the coronavirus outbreak. Without the ability to meet with a mentor in person, virtual mentorships may become more prevalent.

As a college student with recent experience in remote or online classes, you are likely already familiar with the potential problems with connecting at a distance. Here are a few steps you can take to make the most of working with mentors online.

Communicate

You and your college mentor should have a conversation about how and when you will connect with each other. While some may enjoy spontaneous text messaging and weekend calls, others may prefer scheduled video conference appointments and email exchanges.

Coordinate

Working with a virtual mentor may mean adjusting your schedule to accommodate multiple time zones or work calendars. Schedule regular meetings and conversations, but be flexible when the need for rescheduling arises.

Collaborate

Unstructured conversations can be helpful and an easy way for you and your mentor to connect. However, as distance communication continues, think about ways you can structure or plan for meetings to address specific topics, events, and activities together.

Remember that a successful mentorship involves two-way communication — it's not up to your mentor to keep the relationship going. This is particularly true of virtual mentorships, which rely on shared initiative to keep you connected.

The Power of Mentorships

Tjan says, "The best mentors can help us define and express our inner calling." This kind of influence and perspective is valuable throughout our lives. Research shows the benefits of having a mentor, both while you are in school and after you graduate.

Whether you identify a single person to connect with or many mentors, these relationships have the potential to, as Hsu explains, provide you with "access to more information as well as access to individuals with diverse skills sets, and both of these things give you power."