I was at a conference for career services professionals when one of the presenters, a career office director, nearly had me choke on my coffee. “Students don’t want to be mentored,” she said, “they want internships and jobs.”

As someone who’s mentored 200+ students and launched hundreds of successful mentoring programs at Firsthand, I nearly stopped her, mid-presentation, to tell her she was missing the point. Of course students want jobs. Getting a good job is the #1 reason people pursue higher education. Saying that students want jobs and not mentoring amounts to saying that people want a salary, but don’t want to work. 

If the benefits are clear, why aren’t students onboard? 

A study of 30,000+ graduates by Purdue-Gallup found that having a mentor was the single greatest determinant of ending up in a good job. It’s tempting to think that students don’t realize this link. “Students don’t know what they don’t know” goes the saying, but I don’t think we give students enough credit. No student would turn down help from someone who could actually help them realize their dreams, especially if that person really gets them. Students don’t trust however that traditional university mentoring programs can pair them with these types of mentors.

One traditional mentoring program, launched not long ago at a top business school, serves as a case in point. The school’s leadership had decided that all 400 first year MBA students should be paired with an alumni mentor and be required to meet with that mentor six times throughout the year. They kicked off the program with a grand event, attended by every student and mentor. At the end of the year, when students were asked whether they’d found the mentoring program valuable, the verdict was split. One half responded positively. It was valuable. They would do it again. The other half responded negatively, and strongly so because they’d been forced to meet repeatedly with mentors they had no chemistry with. Hearing this, the administration decided to discontinue the program. 

Why mentoring is a loaded term

When people say that mentoring is a loaded term, it’s loaded with stories like the previous one, where mentoring equates to being sent on a blind date and then being required to go on five more dates with the same person, irrespective of how the first date went. 

Many university mentoring programs try to solve the unhappy pairing problem by making their programs highly selective, screening for students who will “take the program seriously.” Following this approach is seductive, because it self-selects for participants who will give the program good feedback, but it’s also morally fraught. If you have a population of 5,000 students who all stand to gain from mentorship, how can you justify only offering it to a privileged group of 50 students?

Is the path to more mentoring less programming?

There’s a better approach to mentoring and it comes with accepting that we can never perfectly predict whether a mentoring pair will have chemistry and that one-size fits all programming simply doesn’t work at scale. Student mentees fall all over the spectrum in terms of how much and what type of help they need. When you introduce any form of programming, you’re asking people to change their behavior and if you’re asking for too much, it won’t happen.

The better approach to mentoring emulates how people find mentors organically, which is not by top-down decree, but through relationships that start small over a shared interest and grow into something bigger over time, if chemistry and mutual benefit exist.

Learning from ten years of organic mentoring at Firsthand

At Firsthand, we’ve followed this approach for ten years. We aim to give every student and young alum the ability to connect with a mentor on their own terms. At the schools we work with, we don’t just sign up 50 mentees, we sign up hundreds and thousands. Some students only connect with an alum once, for last-minute resume feedback or interview prep. Some talk to lots of different alumni to collect a multitude of perspectives. Some keep going back to the same alum, who goes from being an advisor, to a mentor, and eventually to a sponsor who recommends them for jobs or opportunities. In all these cases, and every case in between, students are finding value in connecting with alumni and experiencing a new version of what it means to be a part of a university mentoring program.

When you facilitate mentoring on students’ own terms, they overwhelmingly want to be mentored. 99% of our students say their mentoring experience was valuable. Students mentored on Firsthand’s platforms are also 18% more likely to graduate with a full-time job and land jobs with 22% higher starting salaries on average. Perhaps equally important, a majority of student mentees go on to becoming alumni mentors. It’s a virtuous cycle that trains new alumni to give back while making mentoring more accessible and its benefits clearer for new students to see.