Building Relationships and Networking to Get Into Grad School

Building relationships is of key importance throughout your life. The value of a strong social and professional network is impossible to overestimate, especially in the nonprofit sector. Some people think “networking” is a dirty word. In reality, building relationships and networking are exactly the same thing.

People who are probably already in your network:

  • Classmates, roommates
  • Peers and co-workers
  • Professors, teaching assistants, supervisors
  • Resident assistants
  • Campus staff: career center, service-learning, student life, and others
  • Organizational partners
  • Professional associations
  • Alumni of your school who are now working in your field
  • Civic leaders and fellow club members
  • Guest speakers who are experts in your field
  • Local affiliates of networks that exist elsewhere if you plan to move, like your undergraduate alumni group or your religious group
  • Family, friends, family members of your friends, friends of your family

Shyness is your enemy: Networking do-and-don’ts

  • Do serve as a resource for others: let others know about projects, job openings, and other opportunities that will help them. People remember those who helped them. Do ask people questions about themselves. People love to talk about themselves and by listening you will get ideas for how your work might intersect.
  • Do call or email the contacts you have been referred to, they may be waiting to hear from you!
  • Do cultivate relationships with people who have and need connections; this isn’t fake, it’s networking: taking part in a mutually beneficial relationship where you are each considering each other’s needs.
  • Do perfect your elevator speech, a brief oral introduction of yourself and your immediate goal
  • Do let people you meet know what you need (ideas about where to go to graduate school, a job, donated space for an event, partners to get the word out about a project, etc.)
  • Do look out for what others need. It’s great to help people, and if you help them first, even better.
  • Do ask people for help with open-ended questions, like “How can we work together?” and “What connections do you have in my field” and “What job openings do you hear about?”
  • Do collect and distribute business cards; make notes on the ones you collect to remember the context or seed of partnership.
  • Do ask to meet for coffee for a longer discussion (or an informational interview). Do follow up with meetings and phone calls by sending thank you notes (email or by post), and updates when you have found what you were looking for.
  • Do respect the relationship; if you know someone who is “famous” only send serious inquiries, or people you know very well, to contact them. If someone trusts you enough to put you in touch with their “famous” connection, be on your best behavior! Respect the honor of meeting someone who could help you a lot and be worthy of trust. By the same token, if your connection wasn’t able to help you out, trust that they may be able to next time. You are planting a seed.
  • Don’t ask for a lead from somebody then never follow up. Worse yet: don’t ask for a lead in February, then ask again for the contact information for the same lead in May because you never contacted the lead and then lost their contact info!
  • Don’t abuse the connection. When you use someone else’s leads, you are not only representing yourself, but also their trust in you. If you flake out, it reflects badly on you and your connection. It could have a negative impact on their relationship.
  • Don’t drop names! People only want to hear about your connections when it is useful to them or the team.
  • Don’t be selfish and one-sided. Share your connections when possible.
  • Don’t over-contact your lead. If you don’t hear back within a week after a positive phone call or meeting, follow up with a polite email. If the other person persists in ignoring you, you may have to accept that this is not the best person to help you.
  • Don’t over-promise. Always take a wait-and-see attitude when trying to help someone else.

Networking can seem intimidating, but if you’re authentic and remain focused on the work you know you’d like to do, it doesn’t have to be awkward. Be genuine and kind. 

Use social media to widen your network

LinkedIn can be a great tool for discovering people you’re connected to. Consider all the networks you belong to. They can be geographic (your hometown, your high school), community-based (your fraternity, sorority, organizations or clubs you’ve belonged to), collegiate (your undergraduate university), professional (organizations you’ve worked or volunteered for), or even faith-based. Use LinkedIn to search for people who share these connections with you. For example, is an older alum of your high school also a graduate of your target grad school program? Send that person a message on LinkedIn (even if you’ve never met before or heard of them!), say hello, and ask if they might be willing to answer a few questions for you. Don’t ask for a referral right away unless you know you share a strong connection. It’s all about building the relationship first.