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The Undergraduate Guide to Freelancing Your Way Through School


As a student freelancer, you have many advantages. Every day, you encounter dozens of people who could become clients: fellow students, faculty, alumni, and local businesses. The opportunities are there, but there are challenges to overcome.

It's difficult to juggle your studies and freelancing responsibilities, yet it is highly rewarding for those that can manage their schedules.

Freelancing can provide you with a better income than a part-time job—putting more cash in your pocket. You can choose your own hours, pick your projects, and gain valuable hands-on experience. Are you ready to get started?

5 Basic Decisions to Make

In this section, you'll figure out what to sell, learn how to manage your time, select the markets to serve, and do some long-term career planning.

Decision 1: What will you be selling?

Your answer will put those Venn diagrams from math class to real-world use. It lies within the intersection of these three circles:

  1. Passion: what you want to do.
  2. Skill: what you can do.
  3. Opportunity: what the market will pay you to do.

Passion, skill, and opportunity. They can be your best friends. Or your tough-love crew. For example, you may be highly skilled and passionate about calligraphy, but you're in a college town with no market for it. That won't make you happy, but the tough-love crew is saying that you should find other places to promote your elegant script. Your hometown, perhaps?

Then there are those classmates who dread writing papers. You? Well, you're such a wordsmith that you sign up for classes that require lots of writing. While you won't write your classmates' papers, you have a knack for turning their tangled prose into something readable. Your career as a freelance editor has begun.

Decision 2: How much time do you have?

As a student, you're already balancing the demands of classes, labs, papers, presentations, tests, and extracurricular activities. Add freelancing to the mix, and you're going to be busy.

Web and graphic designer Amber Leigh Turner can relate. She says:

I have so much more time to work on my freelancing than I did when I was in college. Most of my college career, I marketed myself as a full-time freelancer and worked close to 40 hours a week while attending school. While going to school, I worked 24/7 it seemed. Between my very long commute to school and back several times a week, doing 15 or more credit hours, and my art studio classes consuming lots of time, I felt like I was working 20 hour days to get everything done.

Nowadays Turner feels that she can focus on her freelancing, without all the demands she had while in school.

If working 20 hours a day sounds like a strain, it is. After all, you're a student. You still want to spend time with friends and family, go to that big show, and get some sleep too. What can you do?

  • Learn how to study. You may find that the study habits that got you through high school aren't working anymore. If your campus offers a student support center that teaches study skills, go there. Head to the library and find books on this topic. Or log on to HowtoStudy.org.
  • Delegate. If you're working hard on a deadline project, you'll probably have to miss a class or two. Do you have friends who can take notes? Hire them. Launch them on their freelance note-taking careers.
  • Become a student of time management. Start with David Allen's excellent book, Getting Things Done. Like to draw? Then you'll love mind-mapping. Or try a minimalist approach.

Decision 3: Does your freelancing business need to have anything to do with your major?

Simple answer: no. You may have salable skills that have nothing to do with your major.

“Salable skill” is one of those terms that you'll hear quite often. Simply put, it's something you know how to do that others will pay you for. It could relate directly to your major, and Amber Leigh Turner offers an excellent example:

[M]y freelancing business is very closely tied to my degrees. I have two degrees: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Communications (focused in Graphic Design), and a Bachelor of Business Administration in Marketing.

Since I went to college knowing that I wanted to work in the design field and hopefully own my own business, I was able to start off with just the right degrees. It just so happened that a year after starting college that I started freelancing, and a year after that started doing it full-time.

Or you could be like my university classmate, Brian. I met him while I was co-editing a campus organization's newsletter with a housemate. Brian was the organization's in-house financial wizard, and I was sure that he was an accounting major. He never had much to say to either of us, but my housemate informed me that Brian had nothing to do with our university's business school. Uh-uh. No way. Brian was studying history and he also was a musician. He went on to become a professor of liberal arts.

So, there you have it. Your freelancer's skill set can relate directly to your major. Or it can be completely different. It's up to you!

Decision 4: Do you want a college-centric freelancing business? Prefer other markets? Or do you want to handle both?

Amber Leigh Turner's answer? Both!

My business isn't college-centric, however I have two side projects that are very college student-centric. With Students That Freelance, I have written about articles that relate to the student freelancer, like how to gain projects while still in school.

After graduation, I then took all the things I learned and wrote a book, called Student Freelancing 101 that is meant for high school and college students to read and quickly start freelancing while in school.

Turner's on the leading edge of a trend. She recalls that few of her fellow students were also freelancing. However, she says:

Once I started freelancing, I found more and more people not only at my school but at all different types of schools being more interested in freelancing.... So while I feel my situation and experience was unique, I don't think it will be unique for much longer as many other students start exploring opportunities to learn outside of the classroom.

If you're a student freelancer, the trend is definitely your friend. Writing in the Huffington Post, University of Minnesota College of Design Dean Thomas Fisher said, "[A]nalysts following small businesses see the number of 'contingent' workers – the self-employed, free-lancers, or 'accidental entrepreneurs' laid off from full-time positions – growing to 40 to 45 percent of the workforce by 2020 and becoming a majority by 2030."

Decision 5: Do you want to continue freelancing after college?

If the answer turns out to be “no,” that's okay. A lot of employers will want to talk to you. Why? Because you understand how a company makes money. A lot of your classmates have no idea how that happens.

Then there are students who get freelancing into their system, and it never leaves. Graphic designer Julie Rustad started freelancing while she was in high school. A local pizza shop needed a logo. The advertising and design teacher asked the class for ideas, and ta-da! Julie's was chosen.

Rustad went on to paint her logo design on the pizza shop's window. She also took a job at the shop so she could earn extra money. Rustad says:

I've never stopped freelancing. Even while I had full-time jobs, I would freelance. I suppose this gave me the confidence to start my own business almost eight years ago!

The work experience you get while in college lays the foundation for you to jump into the job market with more experience then your graduating peers. Alternatively, freelancing builds the confidence and experience you need to launch head first into freelancing full-time after graduation. In either case, freelancing while an undergraduate is a smart move for your future. There is another path as well.

Freelancing = Gateway

Freelancing can lead to entrepreneurship, such as launching microbusinesses or starting up companies. This is the path that University of Arizona business student, musician, and sound engineer Björgvin Benediktsson is on. Benediktsson says:

I run my Audio Issues blog mostly as a business and make most of my income from there. However, that never would have worked if I hadn't started doing work [as a music recording tutorial creator] on Audiotuts+. I have done other freelance work but today my main job is being a blogger for myself.

Benediktsson expects to finish his economics and entrepreneurship degree in December. In the meantime, he and three other students are putting their expertise to work in Crowd Audio. This startup company connects bands with a community of audio engineers who compete to mix and master their music.

Building your blogging skills, working as a freelance blog writer, and launching your own authority blog are all potential opportunities you can tap while in college.

Getting Started as a Freelancer

The thought of freelancing may feel overwhelming. You may question whether you are ready to freelance as a student. You may have valid concerns that your portfolio isn't up to par, you may not have any experience working with clients, or dread the idea of tracking expenses. There is definitely a time commitment and learning curve to freelancing.

Is freelancing really feeling like the right direction for you? Only you can answer this. Keep in your mind though, all the challenges here can be overcome. Do consider jumping into freelancing, as the rewards for those that put the hard work in are quite high.

There is no better time to get started freelancing than while you're in school. You're agile, you're smart, you're willing to stick with it until you break through; that's the attitude you need to begin.

Here are three pillar resources on FreelanceSwitch to help get you started with building your freelance business:

So, are you ready to start on your student freelancing career? You'll be earning while learning, and you'll be gaining knowledge and experience that will serve you for the rest of your life. Better yet, you're on the leading edge of the global trend toward more freelance work.

All the best to you!

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