Can a cup of coffee perk up your job options? You bet.

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Whether you’re established in your career or just starting out, networking is the biggest key to getting ahead. We’ve all heard, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In a tough job market, you need all the friends you can get. One way to cultivate these contacts is through an informal coffee interview.

The coffee interview is a low-key informational chat, frequently held at a neutral location like a coffee shop (hence the name.) It doesn’t typically lead directly to a job—though some people get lucky—but it can help you build important contacts and give you an inside look at what’s really going on in your industry. Because it’s a low-pressure, casual setting, you can ask questions you might not ordinarily ask in a first interview, like questions about the kind of compensation or benefits you might receive, or what sort of work/life balance you can really expect. If you’re just starting your career, or if you’re out of practice when it comes to interviewing, it’s also a low-key way to brush up your skills.

Landing the coffee talk.

Be bold. Scour your network of family, friends and acquaintances for people they know in your area of interest. You never know whose brother’s sister-in-law’s cousin knows someone in the field you want to break into. Don’t be afraid to make calls, send emails or interact on Twitter—just don’t be annoying. Remember, people are generally nice and want to help others succeed.

Before your chat.

Prepare yourself. Research the industry, company and person you’ll be talking to. Develop a list of questions to ask. Be prepared to talk a bit about yourself, your skills and your interest in the business, but be succinct. Take any materials you wish to share—your resume, a portfolio, whatever—and steel yourself to graciously and humbly accept feedback. In general, listen more than you talk. Remember, you’re not asking for a job; just for the opportunity to learn from an expert.

The day of.

Arrive on time and look nice. Don’t overdress, but be neat and put-together. Order something simple—no white-chocolate caramel frappe with extra whip for you today, buddy. It makes you look high-maintenance. Offer to pay. Be sure to be a good steward of the other person’s time. He or she probably has a busy schedule, so be aware of that and wrap things up at the agreed-upon time.

Afterward.

We sound like our moms here, but seriously, send a thank-you note. Not an email, not a text, not a post on the person’s Facebook wall. Send a real, live, handwritten-on-stationary thank you note. IN CURSIVE. It seems old-fashioned, but it makes an impression. And wasn’t that your plan all along?

(Photo Credit: chichacha)

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