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The Ultimate Guide to Freelancing in College

Have you ever wanted to make some extra money? Of course you have.

When you’re in college, though, it can be a challenge. You have classes, clubs, sleep, and Netflix binge watching sessions to attend to. How are you supposed to make some extra cash?

The obvious answer would be a part time job. Part time jobs are a great option, but they’re not the only way.

What if there was a way for you to make extra money, set your own hours, and gain experience that would make you extremely attractive to recruiters?

Well, there is. Freelancing is the way, and in today’s article, I’m going to cover everything you ever wanted to know about freelancing while in college.

So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Why Freelance in College?

“I don’t need to freelance. I’m going to get a real job when I graduate”

– You

Fair enough, but you might want to reconsider. Even if you don’t want to be a freelancer when you graduate, it can be a great way to get relevant work experience while you’re still in school.

If you’re like most students, your opportunities for getting “real world experience” are minimal. If you’re lucky, you can find a part-time job relevant to your major. It’s likely, though, that you’ll need to look elsewhere.

Your next option is summer internships (or semester-long programs if they’re possible through your school). While I absolutely recommend these, you’ll probably do three at most, and that’s if you’re really ambitious. Even then, they may be generic “grunt work” internships where all you learn is how much you hate unjamming the copy machine.

Freelance work, in contrast, allows you to work on your own time, anywhere you want, and in any area where you can create value for someone else (more on this in a minute). Particularly if you want to work in an industry too new or rapidly changing for college curricula to keep up, freelancing might be the only way to learn the knowledge you need to get your dream job.

Speaking of dream jobs, freelancing allows you to have a portfolio of work to show potential recruiters. Let’s say you want to work for a web design agency. While you can draw on your class experiences in an interview, how much more impressive would it be if you could show a recruiter five websites you actually designed, along with testimonials from satisfied clients?

This shows you know the subject, obviously, but it also shows initiative and literal professionalism, essential characteristics that you’ll never learn just by going to class and getting good grades.

If nothing else, freelancing will give you a bit of extra cash to pay down your student loans or save up for a major purchase.

Before you can make any money, though, you need to decide what kind of freelance services you’ll offer. That’s next.

What Should I Do?

Tools of the tradeOne of the most basic ways to view business transactions is an exchange of value–you create value for someone, and in return they give you something of (hopefully) equivalent value, usually money.

How can you create value for someone? According to Josh Kaufman, author of the College Info Geek-recommended business book The Personal MBA, there are twelve forms of value a business can create.

Most freelance work falls into the second type: services.

Kaufman defines a service this way:

“A Service is a form of value where you help and provide some type of benefit to someone, in exchange of a fee.”

He then goes on to explain how service-oriented businesses work. In a service business you:

  • Provide a skill (either yourself or through employees) other people require but can’t or don’t want to do by themselves.
  • Make sure that you are providing the service with consistent high quality.
  • Attract and retain paying customers.

To find your freelancing area, pick a skill you already have. You don’t have to be a master at it, but it should be something you enjoy and that you can (or can learn to) do well enough for others to pay you money.

If you think you don’t have any skills, you’re not thinking hard enough.

Here are a few potential skills and ideas for translating them into freelance services:

General computer skills. You don’t have to be A+ certified or anything advanced.

There are plenty of, ahem, older people who need help using basic programs such as Microsoft Word, Excel, and Gmail. They’re frustrated enough that they’ll gladly pay someone to show them how to use their computer. If you’re a typical college student, you probably do these things all the time without thinking about them.

Art skills. Love painting and drawing? You could:

  • Design logos
  • Make art on commission (popular at anime conventions, I’m told) – you can also sell things you make on Etsy
  • Create birthday, anniversary, or other gifts for people to give their friends and family

Photo/Video Skills. If you have some experience with a camera (and editing software), consider:

  • Shooting portraits, senior pictures, and weddings
  • Becoming a freelance photographer for a local publication
  • Creating videos (again, weddings are huge)

Interpersonal skills. Great with people? What about:

  • Planning parties
  • Arranging dates (matchmaking isn’t dead. Just listen to Season 2 of Startup)

Cooking skills. Think you need to go to culinary school to be a personal chef? Maybe if you want to cook for the President, but there are likely people in your college town who can’t/don’t want to cook for themselves who would happily hire an eager college student who can make tasty food.

Organizational skills. Does your dorm room look like the “after” photo from an HGTV show? Consider helping other people organize their stuff.

Web design skills. You don’t even have to be an amazing programmer. If you successfully follow Thomas’s personal website guide, read some basic WordPress documentation, and know how to use Google, you’ll have enough knowledge to design websites for local businesses or friends/family.

Athletic skills. You don’t have to be a personal trainer–you just have to know more about fitness than someone who knows nothing. Most people just want someone to motivate them to get in shape, and if you have the right personality, I’m sure you can do that. Just be careful.

Elbow Grease. If you’re willing to mow lawns, shovel driveways, trim hedges, chop firewood, and generally break a sweat, somebody could probably use your help.

Basically anything you’re good at has the potential for becoming a freelance skill. If it’s related to your major or a job you want to have after graduation, all the better, but I hope this list shows that you probably aren’t as unskilled as you think.

Now that you have a service in mind, let’s find you some clients!

Looking for more freelance job ideas? Check out this list of the best online jobs for college students.

Finding Your First Clients

At first, it may seem impossible to find any clients. “It’s all about using your connections” is the common piece of advice you’ll hear for finding freelance clients, but if you’ve never done any work, you can’t rely on previous clients to recommend you.

You have more connections than you think, though.

Here are a few places to look.

Family Members

Hey, you automatically have something in common. I wouldn’t suggest doing freelance work for your parents (that could get awkward), but they might have friends or colleagues who need your services. Likewise for your aunts, uncles, grandparents, and your crazy cousin Jimbo you only see once a year.

Remember, it’s about getting your foot in the door. You can work up to your dream clients from there. Just make sure to keep things professional–the last thing you want is to start a family feud.


While it’s unlikely that your friends have the money or need to hire you directly, they might have parents or relatives you do. Can’t hurt to ask.

Local Businesses

In addition to your school, your college town probably has lots of awesome local businesses. Reach out to them and see if they use your services. Does your favorite fair trade coffee shop have a terrible website? Offer to redesign it. Even if they say no, it’s still a solid conversation starter.

If nothing else, it will get you out of the “college bubble” and into your community.

Social Media

I found my first editing client in part through Twitter. I tweeted a slide show I’d created explaining how I edit, and he emailed me telling me he was interested in working together and wanted to learn more. Even if it doesn’t get you work directly, social media is a way to build connections that can lead to later jobs.

Twitter is popular because it’s easy to reach out to anyone, but don’t overlook Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+. These platforms can become especially powerful if you join groups relevant to your freelance service. For instance, I’m part of a Facebook group for Kindle authors and a Google+ group for writers.

Whatever approach you take, be helpful and genuine. It’s fine to promote your services occasionally, but don’t become a human spambot. Give people real value with no expectations, and they’re likely to give back.

Cold Emailing

Sometimes you have to be direct. While your website is an important part of promoting yourself as a freelancer (see below), clients aren’t going to come to you, especially in the beginning. If you want work, you need to put yourself out there. This means emailing people and offering to work for them.

Now, there’s a right and a wrong way to do this. Here’s what you don’t want to sound like:

Dear Tom-diddly,

I noticed that College Info Greek has a terrible design. You could be atracting way more clients, and if you give me a call I can give it a fresh, sexy desgin that will make you lots more mony.

Lets talk,

Misguided Freelancer

I wish I were exaggerating, but I’ve received similar emails in reference to my own site. Let’s break down what’s wrong with it:

  • An inappropriate salutation. Always use the person’s first and last name (or the name of the company if you can’t find a person’s name). Never use clever forms of address, and don’t be informal unless it make sense (hint: it almost never does in a first email).
  • Opening with an insult. You never want to criticize a potential client. Why would they want to work with you? Instead, start with some kind of compliment or friendly remark, and then get into how you can help them. Never should you sound critical or accusatory.
  • Being unfamiliar with the site owner’s goals. This person obviously hasn’t read College Info Geek, or they would know that Thomas doesn’t have clients–he has readers/audience members.
  • Vague buzz words like “fresh” and “sexy.” This isn’t the cover of Seventeen. Use concrete, descriptive words.
  • Promising “more money.” Besides being vague, this misses the point. Of course businesses want to make more money, but thinking only in those terms is limiting. Explain how what you do will make them more money. Will you increase the number of visitors to their site, increase time on a certain page, increase the number of people who click ads or opt-in to their email list? Those are measurable metrics.
  • Typos and misspellings throughout. Proofread your emails. If you can’t be bothered to do that, what qualifies you to do the work you’re promoting?

Now let’s look at the kind of email you should send:

Dear Thomas Frank,

I’ve been reading College Info Geek for a while now, and I love your content. Thanks to you, I’m better organized and have even gotten a part-time job on campus.

I couldn’t help but notice, though, that you have a few typos in your About page copy. I am currently majoring in English, but I also do some freelance editing on the side. I’d be happy to proofread your pages and blog posts for you, as I love reading College Info Geek and want it to be the best site it can be.

If that interests you, please let me know.

Keep creating awesome content,

Ransom Patterson

This email succeeds because:

  • It opens with a specific compliment. I don’t just say that the site is awesome–I give specific examples of how it’s helped me.
  • It shows I’ve actually read the site and know what it’s about. If I show I understand the site’s goals, then my proposed changes have more credibility.
  • It identifies a specific problem in a polite manner. I don’t just say that the entire site has copy errors–I point out a specific instance. I also soften what I say by opening with “I couldn’t help but notice” instead of being blunt or rude.
  • It includes my credentials. I mention that I’m an English major, which is relevant to proofreading and editing, and I also allude to my freelance activities. In your own emails, feel free to mention any relevant experience you have. Don’t paste your whole resume, but if you’ve worked on similar projects, describe them briefly.
  • It shows that I want to help. Nowhere in this initial email do I mention money. That shouldn’t come up until the potential client expresses interest. Instead, I focus on my desire to make the site even better.
  • It’s zero-obligation. I make sure to include the phrase “If that interests you” to give the potential client an easy way to decline me if they aren’t interested. I don’t make them feel any pressure. Everyone hates pushy salespeople; don’t be one.
  • It closes with a compliment. Instead of just saying something generic such as “Have a great day,” I use my closing line as a final opportunity to show how much I enjoy the site owner and their work. Even if they don’t want to work with me, they’re left feeling appreciated. We all need our ego stroked–the key is to do it tastefully.

For more ideas on attracting clients, see this article from The Freelancer’s Union.

Up next: building your online presence.

You Must Have A Website (and Preferably a Blog)


While you’ll probably get most of your clients through active networking, you should still have an online “home base” for your freelancing activities. Having a website:

  • Lets clients know you’re serious. If you’ve taken the time to set up a website, you clearly care about your work.
  • Gives you a place to educate clients about your services. You don’t need to hire a copywriter, but you should have a page on your site detailing your services and including testimonials from clients, once you have some. If you want to learn more about a topic, you research it on the Internet. Expect your clients to do the same.
  • Gives you a place to demonstrate your expertise. This can be through blogging, podcasting, video, or whatever medium is appropriate. The point is to show that you know what you’re talking about. For me, this means writing a weekly blog post about the craft of writing or editing. If you’re a graphic designer, it could be giving a behind the scenes look at a recent piece. If you’re a cook, it could be showing off a recipe you created. You get the idea.

For more info on how to create a website, check out Thomas’s Ultimate Guide to Building a Personal Website. It’s aimed at creating a personal website in general, but it will give you a solid start on creating your freelance site.

Once you’re online and have some clients, it’s time to do business. As with anything, there are some best practices you should follow.

Business Best Practices

“If you neglect basic business practices, you’ll end up with an expensive hobby instead of a fulfilling source of experience and income.”

It’s easy to get so excited about finding clients and providing services that you forget about the business side of your business.

Don’t. If you neglect basic business practices, you’ll end up with an expensive hobby instead of a fulfilling source of experience and income.

You don’t need to be a business major to understand and implement business fundamentals. I knew nothing about business when I started, but I’ve learned everything I needed to know for free through the Internet (with one exception, which I’ll discuss in a moment).

Here are some basic things to keep in mind:

  • Be professional and courteous. This means matters than you might think. In all communications with your client, be polite. Don’t kiss ass, but make your client feel appreciated and respected. Besides being the decent thing to do, this will make them more likely to refer you to others and work with you in the future.
  • Communicate clearly. Especially when doing business over the Internet, misunderstandings are just a vague sentence away. Make sure your client knows what you’re talking about, and don’t be afraid to ask detailed questions if you don’t understand what your client wants. Get on Skype or call them on the phone if necessary.
  • Deliver on time. If you agree to a specific due date for a service, you should provide it on the agreed day at the latest. If something legitimate comes up, then of course let your client know, but don’t delay just because of laziness or procrastination.
  • Get it in writing. When entering into a business agreement with someone you (probably) don’t know well, it’s best to have a written agreement. This make sure that both parties are clear on the expected services and compensation, and it also gives you something to refer to in case a client doesn’t pay you. You don’t need to involve a lawyer. Just follow a guide such as this one or use this online contract creator from Freelancers Union.
  • Learn basic accounting. You should keep track of how much money you bring in each month (income) and how much money you spend each month (expenses). This makes it much easier to do your taxes. You don’t have to be an accounting major or an Excel wizard to do this. I use a free web app called Wave that makes all of this very easy.
  • Track and pay your taxes. If you’re earning money through self-employment, you’re responsible for paying the taxes on that money. A good rule of thumb is to put aside 30% of your net profit (the money you’re left with after you pay any expenses such as web hosting, software fees, service charges, etc.) each month to pay taxes. I would strongly suggest, however, that you consult with an accountant, as the specific taxes you owe vary depending upon your state and many other factors. For $125, I was able to schedule a 45 minute consulting call with a CPA explaining everything I needed to know. If you’re serious about freelancing, the peace of mind is worth the cost.
  • Make it worth your time. When you start out, you’re not going to charge huge amounts of money, but don’t let your clients take advantage of you. Don’t be afraid to charge what a service is actually worth. Again, if you’re not compensating yourself adequately, you have a hobby that brings in a bit of extra money, not a business.

If you follow these principles, you should be fine.

What Next?


Whew! I know that was a lot. If you’re still with me, thank you. Freelancing is a lot more work than getting a part-time job, but the pay offs are greater as well. Freelancing isn’t for everyone, but if you’ve even thought about, give it a try.

This article is just a starting point. If you want to learn more, I recommend these resources:

  • Freelancers Union It’s not a literal union, but the site has some excellent resources on the business side of freelancing and how to find clients.
  • Paul Jarvis’s blog. Paul is a freelance web designer, author, and creator of a course for freelancers (which is superb!). He blogs about every aspect of freelancing from business to motivation.
  • The Five-Step System for Prospecting, Pitching, and Landing Freelance Clients. This post goes into insane detail about how to acquire clients smoothly and efficiently. Includes some clever automation tips.
  • Amy Northard, CPA. Amy is the accountant I consulted with. Feel free to choose whomever you like, but I loved working with her. If nothing else, she has a blog that answers a lot of common accounting and tax questions.
  • 79 Side Hustle Business Ideas You Can Start Today. These aren’t all freelance positions, but this article gives a huge list of ways to make extra money. I guarantee you haven’t thought of at least a few of them.
  • Come Write With Us. If you’re interested in freelance writing, you should check out this course from my friends Alex and Kristin. It covers everything from building your portfolio to setting your rates and landing your first clients.

Happy freelancing!


Image Credits: tools, have a website, winding road