How to network at your reunion

Graduate students wait for the start of the commencement ceremony at Ohio State University on May 5, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images) MANDEL NGAN

(MoneyWatch) In your search for work post-college, an important tool you lose after your graduation is access to the Office of Career Services. A still-greater loss is that of the daily, on-campus natural networking with people who have interests like your own. However, school reunions provide a great opportunity to reconnect with friends who share your history and may now work in the same industry.

That said, you don't want to head into your class cocktail party handing out cards and accosting people like Ned Ryerson, the overenthusiastic life insurance salesman in "Groundhog Day." It's offensive and ineffective, and you won't be able to enjoy yourself if you're "on" the whole time. Here are five better ways to building professional relationships while on your personal trip down memory lane:

Cleaning up your act

If you were a jerk in high school or college, you'll need to show people how you've evolved by being your (better) self. "If you were the class jock, prom queen or bully, that is how people remember you and still see you," says career coach David Couper, author of "Outsiders on the Inside: How to Create a Winning Career ... Even When You Don't Fit In." Own up to it before starting any conversations (whether personal or professional). "Acknowledge who you were -- even apologize -- explain who you have become and demonstrate how you are different before asking for a job lead from the geek you tortured who now owns half of Texas!" says Couper.

Let people talk about themselves

The most important advice the greater part of networking experts offer is to ask first what you can do for others before you ask what they can do for you. At a reunion, that may mean simply asking what people have been up to since you last saw each other. "Use the context to piece together your asks, but only answer questions about yourself in the natural flow of a conversation -- don't just talk about yourself," says Scott Gerber, founder of the Young Entrepreneur Council.

Do your homework

You already have something in common with these folks, but check social media before your reunion to see who else is in your field. "Once you've established a few select people that could potentially help you in your endeavors, approach them and discuss everything except the way they could potentially help you," suggests Avik Patel, senior staffing manager, technology contract staffing, WinterWyman Contract Staffing. "You'll be surprised how quickly your old classmates will want to assist someone who isn't asking for it."

Don't brag -- and be yourself

Few things are more off-putting than touting your own success. "I have a colleague who went to his school reunion with a gorgeous, successful woman -- a friend, not a significant other -- and a Porsche -- hired, not his -- and spent all the time trying to show off his success," says Couper. "He had a miserable night because everyone was turned off by his boasting and he was not being himself."

Acknowledge their accomplishments

Especially if you've attained a level of material success, be sure to applaud the success of others -- whether  meeting career goals, starting a family or progressing with a hobby. "You may have invented the latest gadget which bought you an island in the Caribbean, but you are not better than the classmate who has a job as an assistant manager at the Icee Freeze in your home town and who has two kids trying out for Little League," says Couper. "You both have things which are working in your life and which are not -- they are just different."

Look outside your old circle

Your reunion is naturally going to be a friendly place. After finishing school, most people have more important concerns than attending a reunion simply to recreate high school drama and divisive college cliques. "Who you were as a teen is most likely not who you are now, so [eliminate your] preconceived notions of people," says Patel. Someone who you may not have even met years ago may become a good friend -- or even business partner -- now.

Be subtle

This event isn't a networking party -- there's an important difference. Mainly, you'll have to be a lot more subtle in how you begin conversations. "Do not engage one person who is in a large group and target him or her," says Elaine Varelas, managing partner, Keystone Associates. "Also, only reach for a business card when and if you're asked for one. "Do not be the person handing your card out like candy," says Varelas.

Keep it short and sweet

Spare your pals the details of every project you're working on or where you hope to be in five years. These are former classmates, not career coaches, hiring managers or therapists. "Share just a little and convey why you love what you do," suggests consultant Rachel Polhemus at executive search firm Witt/Kieffer. "Enthusiasm is infectious and will make people want to network with you."

Follow up on Monday

When you're back at your desk after the weekend, take an hour to solidify any connections you made over the weekend. "Don't be aggressive or a pain, but make sure you reaffirm your asks -- and your progress on theirs -- and follow up," says Gerber.

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    Amy Levin-Epstein is a freelance writer who has been published in dozens of magazines (including Glamour, Self and Redbook), websites (including AOLHealth.com, Babble.com and Details.com) and newspapers (including The New York Post and the Boston Globe). To read more of her writing, visit AmyLevinEpstein.com.

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