My purpose in writing this post is to clarify a common misconception regarding the forging, maintaining and utilizing of professional contacts. I often hear students speak with pessimism about not having family contacts in their industry of interest or being reluctant to cold call firms. In my freshman year at Wharton, I forged, maintained and utilized connections that I’ve used since.
You may know someone through family or friends. In that case, consider yourself short-term lucky. That person may be your key to a summer internship after freshman year, but one cannot rely solely on such contacts for the long term.
It is essential that students begin reaching out to complete strangers as first-semester freshmen. In doing so, it is unnecessary to have a specific goal in mind; in fact, industry leaders often feel honored when students seek general advice and show interest in their work. Just as you are excited to establish contact with the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, he or she may be just as eager to talk to you. Many of the world’s most brilliant minds come to speak at Penn because they want to inspire the next generation of leaders—some of whom may become their own successors.
A great way to forge contacts is to become involved in campus clubs and organizations that plan speaker events and visits to companies. During Wharton Clubbing Night, find out which organizations have committees devoted to event planning and corporate outreach. As a member of the Wharton Management Club, I worked on a committee that brought in the world’s leading entrepreneurs, executives, architects and restaurateurs. I’m also a member of the Wharton Real Estate Club “Treks” Committee, through which I plan trips to leading developers, property managers and real estate investment firms all around the country.
Now let’s talk about maintaining contacts. My biggest piece of advice is that one can never revise an email too many times. The manner in which you follow up with people will significantly influence their perception of you. Try to gauge peoples’ personalities and make your emails fit them. For instance, if someone is clearly very busy and down-to-business, to-the-point emails will be better received. On the contrary, longer, more passionate emails work better when corresponding with passionate, energetic individuals. How to follow up is a judgment call you’ll have to make, but two things are for certain: follow up with people and express gratitude.
So imagine that you’ve established a relationship with the CEO of your dreams. You may be thinking a lot about how that contact can help you, but you will have greater success if you change your mindset. Do extensive research on a particular aspect of that CEO’s career that is most interesting to you. Study his or her background like you will be tested on it. Upon doing this, you will have everything you need to make the conversation about them, not you. Once you are knowledgeable about this person’s background, it is appropriate to ask for any help he or she may be able to provide in finding early work opportunities similar to those that served as the building blocks of their own career. Ask for help securing a “learning experience” rather than a “job.” Say how much you admire their path rather than how eager you are to shape your own.
Always remember that you have the power to establish invaluable relationships. You never know where they will take you. At Wharton, there is no upward boundary to achievement outside the classroom. Consider your professional network the ladder to the sky.
Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on the Wharton Undergraduate Program’s Student Voices blog on Aug. 22, 2014.