There was a time when, if you were freshly out of education and wanted a job in the City, you told your dad and he told his friends at the golf club and hey presto you started on Monday. But international competition has meant that all City firms are now lean and mean and can't carry passengers, however important their fathers are.

Legislation also means that, even in the most hallowed of old boys' networks, the recruitment system has to try to be free and fair. So the days of "who you know not what you know" are behind us. Well not quite. Landing a job in a prestigious city firm is still difficult because the competition is fierce. City firms take your qualifications as read - they assume you have good grades but they expect a lot more. They want you to have highly advanced people skills and to be totally motivated towards your career. But how can you convince them you're this motivated?

When you share your lunch with fellow students or workers, you discuss all sorts of minutiae that others would find hard to follow. It's why spouses hate office parties because the chatter is all about people and events that they've never heard of and frankly don't care about. People respond to common experiences and that's why, in the city, you still have to "schmooze to success". Of course in the city they don't call it "schmoozing" they call it "networking". To get anywhere in the city you need to meet the right people, not so you can bypass the recruitment system but so you can extract the right information and work out the best route in for you.

Information is power. You will stand out from the crowd if you understand what a job involves, if you know what the issues of the moment are for particular firms and if you understand the culture of the place. It's difficult to get to grips with this by simply studying an organisation's website or brochures - but it's incredibly easy if you meet the people and you ask the right questions.

Another reason for getting yourself known by people already working in the City is that you will hear about and be able to apply for the huge number of jobs that go unadvertised. If you don't look so hot on paper it may also enable you to bypass the application stage.

So how do you network? Hanging about with your ears open where people lunch or drink after work will begin the immersion therapy. Making sure that everybody you know - and everybody they know - is aware that you want to meet people who are involved, however tangentially, in the City will help you develop contacts.

Your careers service may provide networking opportunities or may have an alumni register of people in the City who are prepared to talk to you. And then what? Your mission is to find out about their job, their firm and the wider context of their work so you can use the knowledge during the application process.

On no account should you ruin the relationship by asking them for a job. Everybody responds to being asked about themselves but the subtle approach is usually more effective than the straightforward "So what do you do then?". Firstly you should try to build a rapport with the people that you meet, maybe around common interests. Old boys' networks operate effectively because the people have a bond from going to the same school.

Alumni or professional associations can work on the same basis but if you don't have that advantage you have to find the link somehow, even if it's as basic as "we're both women" or "we both like pasta" - anything that will make the early phases of the relationship and the opening phrases of the conversation flow more smoothly. If you have absolutely nothing in common then fall back on flattery. "Your job seems fantastically glamorous (or stressful, lucrative etc)" will usually do the trick. Gather information from as wide a range of sources as possible. That way you both create a true picture and avoid boring just one source to death!

Once you have the picture, the trick is to compile your evidence for how and where you fit into it. Armed with the evidence, it should be easy to convince an employer to take you seriously and to be a successful applicant to the University of London Careers Service (ULCS) Graduate Select Finance Fair.

Anne-Marie Martin is the director of ULCS