When it comes to the job and internship search, we have all heard the saying, “It’s not always what you know, it’s who you know.” Although the right qualifications are key to landing the ideal opportunity, it often takes knowing the right person to get your foot in the door.

Building and maintaining a professional network can be a daunting task for students and young professionals. This might tempt students to put off actively networking until their senior year; however, the act of networking is a process that actually begins before a student’s first day of college.

You may feel as if you are starting from square one with no one to reach out to for help in your job and internship search. But there are a handful of people who can help start building the foundation of your network.

  1. Professors: Educators are key members of your network. Not only can they provide letters of recommendation, but they also have insight into different opportunities in your field. Your professors are there to guide you, so don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
  2. Classmates: When you look around the classroom, you are surrounded by the people who will one day make up the industry in which you work. Get to know your classmates and be sure to stay in touch after graduation.
  3. Past employers: You may not think to reach out to the supervisor at your first fast food job, but any past employer can be a valuable connection in your network. Even though you might not want your old job back, your managers can vouch for your work ethic and connect you to new opportunities within their network. You never know whom they may know.
  4. Family: Don’t forget to let your family know when you’re searching for opportunities. Aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents can pull through with surprising connections you wouldn’t know of unless you ask.

Once your network foundation is built from the above sources, you must grow and cultivate it to its full potential. Here are some basic tips for building and strengthening your relationships within your network.

  1. Stay connected: Social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, have made it incredibly easy to stay connected to your network. That being said, it is important to stay active on these sites with an up-to-date profile to use them correctly. Engage in conversation in relevant groups, and congratulate others on their new jobs and promotions. These small gestures will help to strengthen existing relationships and create new ones within relevant communities.
  2. Be active in professional organizations: Joining an on-campus or industry organization is a good start to expanding your network. But to create meaningful relationships that can connect you to opportunities, you should be an active member in the organization. Try your best to regularly show up to meetings, join a committee or take on a leadership position where you have the opportunity to work with others. Remember that being an inactive member in an organization sends the message that you don’t really care and are in it for the wrong reasons.
  3. Put in the effort: Professors, past employers and fellow classmates will have a hard time speaking highly on your behalf if they don’t have many nice things to say. Going the extra mile inside and outside of the classroom and workplace will leave a lasting positive impression that will pay off in future networking endeavors. When a classmate or professor knows someone on the other side of the hiring table, you don’t want to be remembered as the student who showed up to class in PJ’s and slept through lectures.
  4. Ask for help: To tap into or grow your network, don’t be afraid to ask for help. A great way to do this is through informational interviews. Ask to get coffee with someone from your network through email or LinkedIn. Often times these connections will not only offer tips for new opportunities, but they will also give you a new connection to reach out to for help.

Your professional network is only as strong as the time and effort you invest into maintaining it. Remember that each interaction you face in your jobs, internships, organizations and in the classroom is an opportunity to make a lasting impression. Be proactive and start your networking journey today.

What are your tips for building your professional network?