02/02/2015 06:36 pm ET Updated Apr 04, 2015

Mentoring: The Missing Link for Many High Achieving Students -- and What to Do About It

Students, what's your dream college? Are you preparing for entry into an Ivy League school like Harvard or Princeton? Or hoping for admission to MIT or Caltech?

Did you know that working with a mentor is a critical component of your success?

You probably know that a mentor can give you advice on how to get your feet wet in your unique area of interest. And, of course, a mentor is there to inspire and support your dreams.

But do you know how to find one? Most students don't have any idea where to start.

Well, let's fill in the missing gaps with these nine steps to building a powerful mentorship.

1. Before you reach out, know what you want to accomplish.

Begin by brainstorming how you can use your talents and passions to create something unique. Are you interested in research? Creative writing? Engineering? Animal welfare? The environment? What about these areas makes you come alive? What, specifically, would you like to accomplish by taking on a project in this area? What needs can you meet? What innovations need to be created? What information do people need to make positive changes -- in their personal lives, in the world? How can you use your passions and talents to fill just one of these holes?

2. Make a list of people you admire in the field.

Once you've got a clear sense of the direction you want to head, start to brainstorm a list of people you admire in the field. Talk to your parents, your guidance counselor, your current teachers. See what names seem to come up. You don't need to have a personal connection with the people on your list. They could be current teachers, or teachers you've heard about from other students, or leaders you've read about in the paper or online.

3. Research prospective mentors.

You want to make sure you know enough about the people you're reaching out to. These days, a simple Google search is an easy way to start. Find out as much as you can about each person you're considering. Make sure the person's background fits with your interests and passions. And make sure you have a very strong understanding of how this person has contributed to society. That way when you initiate a conversation, you can begin by expressing your admiration for their work -- an important part of establishing your credibility. You're not just skimming for high profile names. You're actually investing time in getting to know this person, illustrating your level of commitment from the start.

4. Determine exactly what you want to gain from these mentors.

Before you reach out to anyone, you want to have a clear sense of what you hope to gain. Are you looking for an internship? For how long and how many hours/week? Are you looking for an opportunity to sit down regularly to talk through your ideas? You need to be clear about how often you want to do this -- once a week, once a month? For 30 minutes, an hour? Be very specific so the mentor knows exactly what s/he is agreeing to -- but start small. Asking to sit down for coffee for two hours is almost guaranteed to overwhelm your prospective mentor. Start with a one-time, 30-minute meeting, for example, and see how the connection unfolds.

5. Determine what benefit you can offer.

If you want a successful mentoring relationship, you need to consider what you're going to bring to your mentors. If you're thinking about an internship or a shadow position, what kind of skill and enthusiasm can you offer? If you're looking for advice once a month over coffee, you want to offer to pay for their latte as well as to volunteer a couple of hours to help out where needed.

6. Craft a brief, polite email requesting a brief conversation.

Make your emails brief and explain your knowledge and interest in the mentor's background. You want to state your interest in developing a connection with someone of his/her caliber and ask to set up a brief phone call. Wait before you come out and ask if you can become a mentee. You need to develop some sort of relationship first. If you are too nervous to get on the phone, you can make a brief two-minute video of yourself stating your interests and desire to form a mentorship with this person. A video will very quickly show your personality and get the person's attention.

7. Ask probing questions.

To gain a potential mentor's respect and attention, you need to ask probing questions that illustrate your interest in deepening your knowledge and experience. Good questions show the potential mentor that you have put some time and effort into your outreach. It tells them you're not going to waste their time. Continue with this level of questioning as you develop your relationship. It allows you to direct your conversations and get the most out of your interactions.

8. Don't be afraid to take on two or three mentors.

Every mentor will have different skill sets and different time constraints; no one person will be able to help you cultivate all aspects of your interests and passions. Instead, choose a range of people you want to connect with who can help you in different areas. One person may be able to give powerful business advice, while another person may be best suited to helping you set up a blog, while another may be great at offering inspirational advice.

9. Always say thank you

No matter what kind of connection you form with a mentor, whether it's a one-time 10-minute conversation or a year-long internship, saying thank you is a critical way to show that you value the advice and time of the person who's been generous enough to share both. The best way is to write a handwritten note. It's an extra level of effort that will go a long way towards building strong relationships.

Do you have a story about how you connected with an influential mentor? Please leave a comment below. We'd love to hear what worked for you!

Elizabeth Dankoski has been working with elite students as a private tutor and college consultant for 15 years. Her unconventional approach -- ditching perfection in favor of passion -- has helped her students gain acceptance to all of the nation's top schools: Harvard, Caltech, MIT, Columbia, and Yale, among many others.

To learn more about how you can distinguish yourself and get into your dream school, join us for a free online seminar on Saturday, January 31, 2015.