50 Tips for Finding a Great College Mentor

50 Tips for Finding a Great College Mentor

Due to the rising cost of education, students often feel pressured to extract the most value from their college education. A student’s degree program and course materials represent one avenue for extracting value, but this may not be enough for many students who wish to accelerate both personal and professional growth alongside their academic development.

If you are a current or prospective college student with goals of personal and professional growth, a college mentor can help you achieve these goals. A study on the role of college mentorship among college freshman showed that mentorship plays a significant role in whether freshmen succeed in their first year.

Below, we’ll walk you through helpful tips for finding a great college mentor and getting the most out of the relationship.

Key Takeaways

  • College mentors are pivotal in turning challenges into opportunities, offering guidance and support for students’ academic and personal growth.

  • Effective mentors possess expertise, strong communication skills, empathy, and a genuine enthusiasm for mentoring, fostering a relationship based on mutual respect and growth.

  • Finding a great mentor involves understanding personal aspirations, leveraging networks, researching potential mentors, and establishing a respectful, mutually beneficial mentor-mentee relationship.
college student meeting with her college mentor to review a project

The Importance of a College Mentor

College brings many challenges. Yet with the right mentor, those challenges become opportunities. We only learn and grow by moving outside our comfort zone and being challenged.

Challenges, however, can sometimes seem overwhelming. A college mentor’s wisdom can illuminate your path and steady your academic journey, instilling many invaluable lessons.

The concept of mentorship goes back to ancient times. In Homer’s epic The Odyssey, Mentor was the name of a person. Mentor was the trusted friend of Odysseus and the guide to his son, Telemachus.

As Telemachus attempted the difficult task of finding his long-lost father, it was Mentor’s counsel that steered his quest. This story not only provides the etymological origin of the word “mentor” but aptly captures the essence of what mentorship entails: guidance, wisdom, and unwavering support in the face of adversity.

Key Point: A mentor isn’t just an instructor or advisor but a beacon of knowledge and experience. A mentor’s role surpasses traditional classroom teachings, morphing into such avatars as counselor, life coach, and confidante. While textbooks and lectures provide the basic material for learning, mentors infuse the learning process with insight and life, seasoning it with practical wisdom and personal experience.

How College Mentors Benefit Students During and After College

Mentors arise in all walks and seasons of our lives, but in the context of college, mentors are typically professors or associated staff. Mentors help their mentees to traverse daunting academic, professional, and personal terrains. Older successful students can sometimes fulfill this role: having traversed the path that freshmen are embarking upon, they can offer pertinent advice, bridging the gap between novice and experienced students.

The many diverse challenges of college can leave students feeling bewildered. These challenges range from academic pressures and financial burdens to personal dilemmas and looming career decisions.

For first-generation students or those from marginalized backgrounds, these challenges are only intensified. Mentorship in such cases can be truly transformative.

All the evidence consistently highlights the positive correlation between mentorship and college success. The guidance of a mentor not only enhances academic performance but can significantly influence one’s holistic development, ensuring emotional well-being, enhancing soft skills, and charting a viable career trajectory. Yet despite its immense benefits, mentorship remains an underutilized resource, with many students either unaware of its potential or hesitant to seek it.

Key Point: Mentors offer opportunities for learning and growth that carry lifelong value and may inspire life-changing development. Yet students and professionals alike often fail to take advantage of mentorship opportunities, despite their well-documented value.

college student meeting with her college mentor

What to Look for in a College Mentor

What should you be looking for in a mentor? What are the characteristics you want to see in someone before enlisting them as a mentor?

Mentorship is a relationship that can significantly shape one’s personal and professional journey. However, for the bond to be effective, it’s crucial that the mentor possesses certain attributes.

While every mentor-mentee relationship is unique, there are universal qualities that contribute to a successful and enriching mentorship experience. The tips below examine the essential characteristics to look for in a mentor.

While mentors illuminate paths and provide direction, they are not all-knowing entities that guarantee success. The mentor-mentee relationship thrives on reciprocity.

Students must actively engage, exhibit curiosity, and be receptive to feedback. This relationship is not about being spoon-fed solutions by the mentor. The mentor is not a servant to do the mentee’s bidding. The mentor-mentee relationship is about fostering personal and professional growth in both the mentor and mentee through collaboration and mutual respect.

Key Point: The mentor-mentee relationship is a two-way street, and should be approached like any other mutually beneficial relationship: with candor and self-awareness. Make sure to seek out a mentor who you communicate well with and whose personality won’t be at odds with your own.

How to Find a College Mentor

If you want a great college mentor, you’ll need to narrow the field of possible mentors, persuade a promising candidate from this field to actually be your mentor, and understand how to get the most out of your mentor-mentee relationship. What follows are actionable tips to guide you in locating, landing, and leveraging a great college mentor.

For more helpful tips from experts in the field of higher education, consider our guide to getting the most out of college.

college student sitting with his mentor having a discussion
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50 Tips for Finding and Cultivating College Mentor

  1. Start with Your Aspirations. Understand your career and personal goals, even if they’re still evolving. More importantly, understand who you are and want to be as a person. What is your moral center? What do you regard as of prime importance? What are you willing to live and die for?
  2. Your aspirations can be based on your academic interests, but they need not be. College for you may simply be a springboard to something non-academic, and that’s all right. Pinning down your aspirations will help align you with a mentor who understands and shares your vision.

  3. Cultivate Inquisitiveness. To be inquisitive is not the same as being curious. You can be curious but never do anything to satisfy your curiosity. Inquisitiveness adds to curiosity the desire and action to get to the bottom of what made your curious.
  4. To experience a successful mentorship means having the right attitudes to profit from it. Inquisitiveness is the prime attitude you need to cultivate. It motivates you to ask the right questions and find the answers.

  5. Clarify Your Expectations. Before seeking out a mentor, list the top questions or concerns you want to address with a mentor. This will bring clarity to selecting the right mentor and also make your interactions with any prospective mentor more meaningful.
  6. Leverage Your Existing Network. Sometimes, the best mentors are closer than you think. Reconnect with past teachers, family friends, or even classmates who have moved ahead in their careers. Their insights and experiences could be the guiding light you seek.
  7. Expand Your Search. If your immediate network doesn’t yield results, look further. Engage with university alumni, join career-focused online groups, or leverage platforms like Handshake to connect with potential mentors. At the end of this article we list a number of organizations you might want to contact in search of a mentor.
  8. Research Before Reaching Out. Before you approach potential mentors, understand their background, accomplishments, and passions. This will not only help you tailor your approach but will also show that you’re genuinely interested in learning from them.
  9. Check out what books they’ve written. Go to Google Scholar and determine their most widely cited articles (and read the abstracts). It looks bad if you approach a potential mentor and know next to nothing about his or her work, career, and life.

  10. Craft a Thoughtful Approach. When you’ve found someone you admire, take the initiative to ask this person to be your mentor. But be sure to personalize your request by acknowledging the proposed mentor’s specific achievements and explaining why you believe he or she, and not someone else, would be the right mentor for you.
  11. Try to meet in person. Meeting in person is always more impactful than electronic forms of communication. But if you must communicate electronically, go with a direct phone call or video conversation rather than an email.

  12. Exercise Caution with Emails. If email is your only option in your first approach to a prospective mentor, keep the email concise and respectful, showing that you’ve done your homework.
  13. In an initial approach, don’t ask a lot of questions that will take a lot of time on the part of the prospective mentor to answer. Academics are busy people, and they can gauge very quickly if an email is going to require a long response, in which case the email may go unanswered. Craft your emails so that a single paragraph response from the proposed mentor would suffice.

  14. Envision Your Ideal Mentor. Go beyond superficial characteristics and think deeply about the attributes of your ideal mentor. Maybe someone you are thinking of enlisting as a mentor has broken barriers you’re facing or has met similar challenges. Such alignments can make mentorship more effective. The next tips focus on what you should be looking for in a mentor.
  15. The Most Obvious College Mentor. Often mentors are hidden in plain sight. You take a course with a professor. You really like the professor, think the material covered is fascinating, and have developed a great rapport. The professor brings out the best in you.
  16. college student sitting in front of a laptop with her mentor

    You take another course with that same professor, and continue to be jazzed. You want to take every course this professor has to offer and to read everything he or she has written. If you find such a professor, it’s like you have your mentor.

  17. Expertise and Experience. At the core of mentorship is the transfer of knowledge and wisdom. A mentor should have significant expertise in his or her field and possess experience that aligns with the mentee’s goals. A mentor’s insights, derived from years of hands-on work, can provide invaluable guidance.
  18. Top of Their Game. Seek out mentors who are at the top of their game. People can grow old and lose their edge. This is not about their chronological age (professors in their 70s and 80s can still be dynamic) but about their running out of steam and losing the fire in their belly.
  19. Avoid would-be mentors who are eager for retirement, display a lack of energy, and are no longer contributing actively to their field. Focus on mentors who love what they are doing and who are able to infect you with their enthusiasm.

  20. Strong Communication Skills. An effective mentor will be able to convey ideas clearly and to listen attentively. A mentor’s ability to articulate complex concepts and provide constructive feedback ensures a productive exchange of knowledge and ideas.
  21. Such a mentor will also enhance your communication skills, challenging you to step out of your comfort zone and providing invaluable practice for interacting with professionals. Effective communication is crucial for job hunting and professional success.

  22. Is the Mentor Invested in Mentoring? A successful mentorship isn’t just about sharing knowledge; it requires genuine interest and commitment on the part of the mentor. Mentors who are invested in their mentee’s growth will actively engage, offer support, and prioritize the relationship.
  23. Mentorship is a gift. The best mentors are giving people—they give of themselves. If you are thinking of enlisting someone as a mentor and this person is constantly looking at the clock, impatient over the time spent with you, this is not someone you want as a mentor.

  24. Empathy and Understanding. Mentors should be able to empathize with their mentees, understanding their struggles, fears, and aspirations. This emotional connection often leads to trust, a foundational element of a strong mentor-mentee bond. Mentors have been there before you and can help pull you to where they are.
  25. Open-mindedness. In a rapidly evolving world, resting on one’s laurels is not an option. Industries and professions are constantly being updated and upgraded. A mentor needs to be open to new ideas, willing to adapt, recognizing the value of continuous learning in offering fresh perspectives, innovative solutions, and state-of-the-art insights.
  26. Broadening Your Perspectives. Mentors can help you see beyond immediate challenges in your studies and personal life. Their guidance can offer a broader outlook, helping you refocus on what truly matters. Seek a mentor who can help clear your vision when you’re too caught up in details.
  27. Patience. Personal and professional growth takes time, and as a mentee you will be making mistakes. A mentor should possess the patience to guide their mentee through challenges, setbacks, and moments of doubt, offering encouragement every step of the way.
  28. Encouragement. When you are feeling stressed, good mentors know when to offer a gentle nudge, a solid push, or merely a kind word. When checking out possible mentors, assess their approach to encouragement. Whether it’s through actionable plans, motivational talks, or compassionate support, the right mentor should inspire you to grow and thrive.
  29. Integrity. Trust is a cornerstone of mentorship. Mentees often share their vulnerabilities, dreams, and challenges. A mentor with strong moral principles ensures that the relationship remains respectful, confidential, and authentic.
  30. college student meeting with his mentor
  31. Adaptability in Communication Styles. Exceptional mentors can adjust their communication to match your preferred learning style, whether it’s visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. This adaptability ensures effective understanding and learning.
  32. Mutual Transparency. Authenticity is vital. The most impactful mentors willingly admit room for improvement in their work and lives. They don’t just showcase their successes but also share the lessons from their failures, ensuring a more holistic learning experience.
  33. But for your mentor to be truly effective, you need to present an honest picture of yourself, both strengths and weaknesses. Be straightforward. If you disagree with something, voice your opinion. Similarly, if you desire specific guidance or support, clearly state your needs instead of hinting.

  34. Mutual Respect. For mentorship to thrive, there must be mutual respect. The mentor, while experienced, should recognize the unique perspectives, skills, and potential their mentee brings to the table, as much as possible fostering a partnership of equals.
  35. Attention to detail on the part of the mentee is important here and includes punctuality, active engagement during sessions, taking notes, adhering to agreed-upon time limits, and acknowledging your mentor’s other commitments. Respect from the mentee encourages respect from the mentor, and vice versa.

  36. Genuine Enthusiasm. A mentor should display genuine enthusiasm about guiding you. A true mentor’s commitment is not driven by personal gain but rather by a sincere desire to see you flourish. The mentor’s reward is that of a parent seeing their kids succeed. This passion is often discernible during initial interactions with a potential mentor.
  37. Effective Listening Skills. Communication isn’t solely about imparting wisdom. Great mentors actively listen, ensuring they fully grasp your aspirations, challenges, and concerns, tailoring their guidance accordingly.
  38. Personal Compatibility. The mentor-mentee relationship thrives on genuine connection. Chemistry can’t be forced, so assess whether conversations flow naturally and if the mentor truly aligns with your personal and professional goals. A great mentor for someone else may not be a great mentor to you. Make sure your mentor is a good fit for you.
  39. Opportunities and Hidden Talents. The best mentors have a keen eye for identifying your untapped potential. Their insights can reveal new opportunities and help you concentrate on unsuspected areas where you can excel. Encourage them to help you discover new interests and activities that align with or expand your skills and passions.
  40. A mentorship can uncover abilities like writing, public speaking, and more, aiding in your career and personal development. This exploration can lead to personal growth and new academic pursuits.

  41. Support During Difficult Times. In moments of personal struggle, a mentor can provide a listening ear, practical advice, and guidance towards helpful resources. Whether it’s coping with stress, dealing with personal issues, or finding professional help, a mentor can be a supportive ally.
  42. Campus Guidance. A mentor can act as a personal campus guide, providing invaluable insights into campus life, from locating essential facilities to understanding administrative processes. A mentor’s experience and knowledge can significantly ease your adjustment to college life.
  43. Overcoming Academic Challenges. Experienced mentors can guide you in avoiding common pitfalls of college. Their wisdom can smooth your journey by helping you steer clear of typical mistakes like overextending academically, neglecting mental health, or mismanaging time.
  44. college mentor reviewing a project with a college student

    A mentor can offer strategies for managing coursework, act as a tutor in challenging subjects, and provide moral support during difficult times. A mentor’s guidance can be crucial in helping you maintain or improve your academic standing. Look for a mentor who can preemptively address potential issues, ensuring a smoother college experience.

  45. Building a Social Network. Mentors help you find and integrate into social groups on campus. They can introduce you to clubs and organizations, accompany you to social events, and support you in forming meaningful connections, which are vital for a well-rounded college experience.
  46. Professional Networking Opportunities. Beyond immediate guidance, mentors can also open doors to broader opportunities. Those mentors with robust professional networks can introduce their mentees to influential figures, resources, and chances that can accelerate growth.
  47. They can teach you how to craft an effective elevator pitch, navigate networking events, and transform casual connections into meaningful professional relationships. Such skills are essential for your future career and personal development.

  48. Global Perspective. In an interconnected world, a mentor with international experience and understanding of global issues can provide a broader worldview and guide you in becoming a global citizen.
  49. Digital Fluency. In this digital age, a mentor who is tech-savvy or familiar with digital tools and platforms can provide guidance on leveraging technology for personal and professional growth.
  50. Cross-disciplinary Knowledge. It’s great when mentors have interests or expertise outside their primary field. Such mentors can offer diverse insights and encourage you to think beyond the boundaries of your major.
  51. Goal Orientation. Effective mentorship involves setting and achieving specific goals, such as acquiring particular skills or building a network that can help you land a job. A mentor who emphasizes goal-setting, provides clear milestones, and celebrates achievements ensures that the mentorship journey remains focused and productive.
  52. Early in your mentorship, work with your mentor to define both major and minor goals. These could range from social objectives, like integrating into a group, to academic ones, like excelling in a challenging course. A goal orienatation gives direction to your mentorship and helps measure your progress.

  53. Constructive Challenge. Comfort zones are seldom conducive to growth. A mentor should understand when to provide gentle reassurance and when to challenge you, pushing you towards new horizons and fostering personal development. But mentors also need the wisdom not to over-challenge you, insisting that you overcome a hard challenge more quickly than you are able.
  54. Some area of study that came easy to the mentor may not come easy to you. A good mentor will appreciate the difficulties you may face in mastering an area of study and help you to successfully navigate those difficulties.

  55. Individualized Approach. While it’s tempting for a mentors to mold mentees based on their journeys, an exceptional mentor celebrates the uniqueness of each individual, providing guidance and yet without stifling the mentee’s authentic self-expression.
  56. Demonstrated Expertise. Expertise is foundational. Whether it’s navigating the intricacies of a university campus or diving deep into a specialized field, a mentor should possess seasoned experience, offering tried and tested insights.
  57. Feedback and Responsiveness. Constructive feedback can steer growth in the right direction. A mentor should be candid, offering feedback when necessary and responding to questions or concerns in a timely and respectful manner. If you are constantly being put off by a mentor, awaiting a response to important questions that you are raising and thereby finding your educational progress delayed time and again, you probably have the wrong mentor.
  58. college student greeting his college mentor
  59. Visionary Perspective. Beyond immediate goals, a mentor should help you visualize long-term prospects, equipping you with the tools, mindset, and strategies to not just achieve short-term aims but also to craft a sustainable, fulfilling educational and life journey.
  60. Set Clear Boundaries. When about to enter a mentor relationship, discuss and set realistic expectations. Whether it’s a bi-monthly check-in or quarterly deep dives, understand and respect the mentor’s time while ensuring the relationship benefits you both.
  61. Offer Mutual Value. A mentor-mentee relationship is two-sided. Offer your unique perspectives, insights, or skills that might benefit the mentor. It not only enriches the relationship but also creates a bond of mutual respect.
  62. Find Common Interests. Building rapport with a mentor is essential. Engage in mutual interests or causes, such as volunteering for a nonprofit they support, to deepen the mentor-mentee connection.
  63. Stay Engaged and Grateful. As your relationship develops, consistently express gratitude and keep your mentor updated on your progress. A mentorship is a journey of growth for both, so cherish and nurture this special connection.
  64. Be the Mentee You Would Want to Mentor. If you were a mentor, would you want a mentee who has made little effort to understand your achievements, who wants to be spoon-fed all the answers, and who expects you to do things that the mentee can and should do for him- or herself?
  65. If you would not put up with indolence and apathy in a mentee, then don’t exhibit those negative traits yourself. Always be industrious and engaged with your mentor.

  66. Avoid Taking the Mentor for Granted. As your relationship with the mentor unfolds, you may be tempted to take the mentor for granted, engaging in a level of familiarity that is inappropriate and even expecting the mentor to kowtow to your wishes. Always remind yourself that mentorship is a precious gift that requires respect and nurture.
  67. Time Together. Try to spend as much one-on-one time with your mentor as possible. Mentors can be busy people and you may be lucky to get two days a month with a mentor. But that’s not ideal. The more you can be with your mentor, the better.
  68. Just as long-distance romantic relationships tend not to work out, so do mentorships where time spent together is minimal. Try to find ways to spend time with your mentor (though without forcing things). Can you share the mentor’s commute? Can you cheer on the mentor’s kids at a Little League game? Be creative about finding ways to spend time with your mentor.

  69. Ego Is the Enemy. In relating to your mentor, are you mainly thinking what can the mentor do for me. That’s the wrong question. The right question is what can you do for the mentor—how can you serve and learn from the mentor?
  70. Make your relationship with the mentor about the mentor and less about yourself. It’s the mentor, after all, who holds the keys to the doors you want opened. Ironically, by putting ego aside, you gain much more than you do when making the mentor-mentee relationship all about yourself.

  71. Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence. Mentors who practice mindfulness or have high emotional intelligence can guide you in managing stress, building resilience, and developing empathy. These are crucial skills in both personal and professional realms.

Students’ Submitted Questions on Finding College Mentorship

If you still have questions on the topic of college mentorship, you’re not alone! Below you’ll find students’ submitted questions and our best efforts to answer them. Use the submission form below to submit questions of your own.

Tracy asks, “What are the best strategies for approaching and initiating a mentorship relationship with a college professor or professional in my field of interest?”

Dr. James Barham’s answer: The best strategy is to be upfront with the college professor or professional who you think may be a good candidate for your college mentor. It’s important to realize that a mentor takes on great responsibility, which means some may not be up to the task. For this reason it’s best to be upfront about your desire to find a mentor, so that they can give you an honest answer. If they are not up to it, they may know someone who is, which takes you one step closer to finding a great college mentor.

Robert Asks,“How do I effectively approach a college professor who I admire and would like to have as a mentor, especially if I’m an introverted student?”

Dr. Jed Macosko’s answer: As an introvert, you might find it difficult to approach your college professor in person. Instead, consider taking the time to write a thoughtful email to your professor where you explain your interests and goals. That way, when you do discuss college mentorship in-person, you will have already communicated the information that is most important to you, and you can let your professor take the lead. You might also suggest meeting the professor during office hours so that you can have an uninterupted conversation one-on-one.

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