How to Start Freelancing As A College Student

by Jalen & Sarah Bromley
how to start freelancing as a student

Most college students would benefit from a little extra cash. But finding the time to make money alongside studying and other college activities can be tricky—most jobs expect you to turn up at certain hours, which doesn’t always match a student’s dynamic lifestyle. Freelancing can be a solution as it offers the chance to choose your hours, vary your workload, and adapt where you work.

This article explains how to start freelancing as a student, along with tips on choosing your niche, pricing, and more. And with almost five years under my belt as a freelance writer, I’m speaking from experience! 

What is freelancing?

Freelancing gets its name because of the freedom it offers. Employees agree to work certain hours in return for a fixed salary and benefits package. They typically work exclusively for one organization, and are expected to work specific hours or in a particular location.

In contrast, freelancers are self-employed and (generally) work with multiple clients. They’re paid per project or per hour instead of receiving a fixed salary, and they usually have control over how, when, and where they work.

Freelancers can be sole proprietors or invoice clients through a business, like an LLC.

Freelancing is mostly associated with work carried out online, like writing, graphic design, and web development. That’s what this article will focus on. However, it’s worth noting that professionals like hairdressers or performers may also call themselves freelancers when they’re self-employed.

What kind of freelance work can I do?

Even limiting the scope of freelancing to work you can do from the comfort of your own computer, the list of potential freelancing areas I could cover is practically endless.

Upwork — one of the biggest freelancing platform in the world — has the following categories:

  • Admin and customer support
  • Development and IT
  • Sales and marketing
  • Finance and accounting
  • Writing and translation
  • HR and training
  • Design and creative
  • Legal
  • Engineering and architecture

This isn’t an exclusive list of the types of freelancing you can do, but it does give you an idea of the most sought-after areas.

If nothing is jumping out at you from the list above and making you think “I can do that,” don’t panic — I’m about to explain how you can find the right match for your skills.

Finding the right match for your skillset

There’s a place for everyone on the freelance market — no, really, there is.

Freelancing is different from standard employment for two reasons. Firstly, it’s all about specialization. A standard employer might expect a new hire to be able to perform a dozen tasks to a reasonable standard. Meanwhile, freelancers can make a killing from only doing one very specific task.

An extreme example is the Fiverr seller “Jesus Christ,” who exclusively records videos dressed as Jesus Christ, relaying the messages requested by his clients. It’s hard to think of a more niche service, but he’s turned it into a successful hustle.

Other clients hire freelancers for work that is easy enough but they simply don’t have time for themselves. For instance, virtual assistants often handle tasks like appointments, admin, and replying to emails. 

But how can you figure out what you can offer clients? I recommend starting by brainstorming your interests and skills. Don’t think of whether you can monetize them at first — just write as many ideas as you can think of. You can consider strategy afterward.

Remember, almost anything can be relevant. If you spend a lot of time on TikTok, you could become a social media manager. If you’re an expert in knitting, you could become a freelance writer specializing in knitting. Don’t rule yourself out!

How to start freelancing as a college student

Once you’ve decided what kind of freelancer you want to be, it’s time to start taking action. The guide below takes you through this process step-by-step.

While the specifics of starting freelancing may vary depending on the type of freelancer you want to be, you can broadly apply the same principles.

Build your portfolio

It might sound counterintuitive to build a portfolio when you’re starting from scratch and haven’t done any freelance work yet. But unless you’re one of the luckiest would-be freelancers on the web, nobody is going to hire you unless you can show them what you’re capable of.

Whereas employers might care about your qualifications or credentials, most freelance clients just want proof you’re capable of doing the work. 

If you’re lucky enough to already have some experience in the area you want to start freelancing in, all you need to do is add that work to a professional portfolio. Otherwise, you’ll need to create a portfolio. Aim to make at least three pieces to start with (though a single example may suffice in special cases, such as a mobile app).

Working for free to make your portfolio might sound like a slog, but on the bright side, it’s a good tester to see if freelancing is right for you. Don’t make the mistake of spending weeks perfecting your website, only to realize that you hate being a copywriter (or whatever else you’re offering).

As for the form of your portfolio, freelancers can use a few approaches. Some use readymade portfolio websites where they can add their projects — for instance, there’s Muckrack for writing or Github for development. Other freelancers create a PDF document to showcase their samples or upload them as downloadable files to their website. 

Create an online presence.

To be a successful freelancer, you need to know how to obtain clients. Nine times out of ten, getting clients requires an online presence.

Some of the most common ways freelancers find clients include:

  • Applying to gig postings on job boards
  • Directing clients to them through a website (via SEO or PPC)
  • Meeting clients on social media (like Instagram, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn)
  • Using gig economy platforms like Upwork and Fiverr

As you can see, all of these methods involve an online presence. It’s possible to get freelance clients without one—for instance, you could attend in-person networking events or send emails. But having an online presence makes you appear more professional and gives you a central base you can direct potential clients to.

One option is to start a website. If you’re on a budget, you don’t have to buy your own domain or hosting — you can use a free plan on a website builder like Wix. Alternatively, you can make LinkedIn your home.

This is the step that many potential freelancers end up dedicating weeks on end to perfecting. But you can continue to hone your online presence as you freelance, so it doesn’t need to be perfect from the get-go.

Market yourself 

Marketing is optional for freelancing, with many focusing on client-hunting efforts (the step below) rather than marketing themselves. However, I’ve included this here in case you want to make it part of your strategy. 

Many freelancers do have great success with marketing. Some options for how you can market yourself include:

  • Posting regularly on a social media platform 
  • Joining groups on social media platforms and posting your services or replying to relevant posts
  • Paying for ads on search engines

You can often achieve success in unconventional ways. For instance, some freelancers talk about their skills on TikTok or YouTube and have leads reach out to them.

If you don’t want to go through the above but have built an online presence through social media, a website, or freelancing platforms, make sure you at least optimize them from a marketing perspective. Pay attention to your profile picture, check you’re using the right keywords, and write copy that sells yourself. 

Look for clients

We’ve already mentioned that being a freelancer is all about the clients. If you do an excellent job of establishing your online presence and marketing yourself, you may be lucky enough to have all the clients coming to you rather than needing to reach out to them yourself. 

But most of the time, finding clients is going to be a tedious process of doing a lot of outreach or filling out a lot of applications.

Specific sources of where you can find clients will vary depending on the kind of freelancing you want to do. But some ideas include:

  • General job boards like Indeed and Monster
  • Jobs posted on LinkedIn
  • Relevant hashtags on LinkedIn and X
  • Freelancing platforms
  • Specialist job boards for industries 
  • Social media groups dedicated to job postings
  • Google job alerts for certain keywords 
  • Cold outreach by email or LinkedIn

Mentally brace yourself for this to be a long process. It takes most freelancers weeks to get their first leads freelancing, and finding steady clients takes even longer.

Sort out the financial and legal side

As a freelancer, you’re responsible for handling your own finances and operations. That means ensuring that you’re complying with the taxman and the law! 

Although we’ve placed sorting finances and legal aspects below looking for clients, I actually recommend carrying out both of these tasks around the same time.

Ideally, you should separate your business and personal finances for tax purposes. To do this, you’ll need to open a new business bank account. Next, you’ll need an invoice to send to your clients. This doesn’t need to be anything fancy, and there are plenty of templates available online.

Some freelancers take extra measures to protect themselves, such as asking for a deposit before starting work or asking all clients to sign a contract.

Note that if you’re freelancing via a platform like Upwork, you won’t need to invoice yourself, but you’ll still need to transfer the money to your bank account.

Manage your time and relationships 

The work involved in starting freelancing doesn’t end when you land your first client. At this point, your work is only just beginning!

For me, one of the biggest challenges of freelancing has been juggling different clients, projects, and deadlines. This is especially tough if you’re balancing freelancing with your college work. Therefore, make sure you have a system in place to help. Using project management software like Trello can help, or you could simply make your own schedule on a calendar app.

Ongoing client communication is also an essential part of freelancing. Consider setting aside a chunk of time each day to respond to emails or other inquires. 

Should I pick a niche?

To niche or not to niche is a major question of freelancing. Let’s examine both sides.

I mentioned earlier that offering a specific service is one way to succeed as a freelancer. An alternative approach is to choose a niche. For instance, you might provide general social media advertising services but specialize in the SaaS sector. 

People often talk about the freelancing world being “saturated” because there are thousands of people globally who offer the exact same service. Choosing a niche is a way you can separate yourself from the crowd. And because the whole world is potentially your market, you can select an ultra-specific niche and see success.

However, it’s not always practical to have a niche when you first start freelancing. At the start of my freelance career, I was applying for practically every gig that popped up. I did choose a niche, and I had more success securing clients in that field than I did applying for random jobs. But I have been offered positions in areas I wouldn’t have expected, and some of them turned out to be fulfilling long-term relationships. 

My verdict overall? Pick a niche for your online presence, but be prepared to be flexible.

How much should I charge?

There’s no easy answer as to how much you should charge. In this respect, the freelancing market is something of a Wild West — there’s no standard pricing, and you can find freelancers changing anything from $5 to $500 for the same project.

Going to Upwork can be helpful as a starting point. If you were planning on charging $50 an hour but find that plenty of freelancers with years of experience are charging half that amount, you know you’ll have a tough job selling yourself. 

Alternatively, you could price yourself based on the minimum you need to meet your needs. Work out your budget and expenses as a college student. 

How much money do you need to earn to be comfortable, and how many hours can you dedicate to freelancing to make up the shortfall? Divide the amount you need by the hours you have each week, and there you have your hourly rate. Or, if you’re charging by project and not by hour, work out the figure based on how long you expect the project to take.

The hardest part is starting

Starting freelancing as a college student can be a daunting process, but don’t let your perfectionism hold you back. No individual step is overly difficult — so get building your portfolio and online presence, contact some potential clients, and enjoy the process. If I can do it, you can too!

Whether freelancing is the right fit for you or you’d prefer to use alternative methods to earn money while studying, Frugal Student has you covered.

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