Last Year of College? Forget the Job Hunt and Start Freelancing Instead

Sep 15, 2014 - Joe Matar
You have many good reasons to start your freelance career as soon as (or even before) you graduate college. Even if you’d prefer to work an office job or want to explore another type of traditional employment setting, think of how “running your own business” will look on your resume. Plus, as you trudge through the tedious process of sending out applications and racking up interviews during your job hunt, a freelance hustle can help bring in cash. You may even discover you like the freelance life so much that you decide to stay there permanently! You’ll be in good company; as Business Insider reported last year, studies predict over 40 percent of the American workforce will be freelancing by 2020. Of course, you don’t want to wait until 2020. You want your freelance career ready to go by graduation day! If your graduation date is in sight, take these seven steps to get your freelance career rolling before you walk the stage.

1. Hone in on your specialty

This might be the hardest step of starting your freelance career. You need to decide exactly what you want to specialize in. Some of us were born to be freelance writers or photographers. For others — especially those who want to freelance to make a extra cash while looking for that dream job — it might be harder to decide which freelance route to pursue. Think about your wide range of interests and talents. You could work online as a freelance writer, graphic designer or web developer. Or you might explore offline jobs like dog sitting or home organization. You could even become a dating coach! You could work with high school seniors on their college applications. You could provide branding advice to classmates launching startups. Plenty of freelance opportunities are out there, so pick one that interests you and get started.

2. Create your website and online portfolio

Your website and portfolio help you stand out from the crowd. Don’t settle for the same Wordpress template everyone else uses. Make your website look good, and make your portfolio look great. To launch your freelance career, particularly in a creative field such as writing or design, avoid drawing too much attention to your college work. Potential clients might be interested in your senior year capstone project, but an entire portfolio made up of college assignments is a turn-off. Snap a few candid and memorable photos at a wedding, submit a few articles to sites like XOJane (or check out the Brazen Careerist contributor guidelines) or design a logo for your friend — anything to get work in your portfolio that you didn’t generate in a classroom.

3. Professionalize your online image

Your social media channels are now part of your freelance brand. (Click here to tweet this quote.) Whatever brand you want to reflect, make sure it’s present on your Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. This means fewer Facebook posts about “Awwww, classes are so hard” and more posts like “Tonight I made ten logo mockups for a new project.”

4. Seek out freelance assignments

The sooner you take your first freelance job, the sooner you start building your freelance career. Where do you find these jobs? Job boards, online freelancer sites or networking with friends, family and classmates. Avoid freelance scams and look for good work that pays fairly.

5. Build your freelance reputation

When you’re a freelancer, you get your first few gigs based on your talent. You build your career based on your reputation. Start working now to make sure that reputation grows to be a good one. How do you build a good freelance reputation? Never miss a deadline. Always be respectful, gracious and professional with your clients. If you’re working with a difficult editor, a not-so-communicative lead designer, or even one of the infamous Clients From Hell, learn from the experience and choose your clients more wisely next time. Be pleasant to work with, and more people will want to work with you.

6. Learn about freelancer taxes

The two reasons to launch your freelance career during your senior year of college are:
  1. To build experience that will impress future employers and open doors
  2. To get paid
Don’t screw up the “getting paid” part by forgetting about your freelance tax responsibilities. One of the biggest new freelancer mistakes is spending your entire freelance paycheck now and scrambling to pay your taxes later. Freelancers pay quarterly estimated taxes. When you work for a traditional employer, that employer takes taxes out of your paycheck every time you get paid. When you’re a freelancer, you take out your own taxes and send tax payments to the government four times a year. Your tax burden will be different depending on your individual circumstances. Talk to a CPA about your tax responsibilities, and be prepared to put aside 25 to 30 percent of every freelance paycheck for taxes. Then don’t forget to pay your quarterly estimated taxes on time: January 15, April 15, June 15 and September 15. (Oh, and while you’re at it — check both your city and state laws to see if you need any licenses or permits to work as a freelancer.)

7. Become an expert at the freelance hustle

As a college student, you’re already an expert at managing your classes alongside extracurricular activities, sports, maybe a part-time job or volunteer gig, and of course friends, family, parties and relationships. That means you already have the skills to manage the freelance hustle. As a freelancer, you’re rarely working on just one project for just one client. You’re balancing multiple projects, with multiple due dates, for multiple clients. Just like taking a full course load, right? The one piece that differentiates the freelance hustle from, say, a five-course semester is the part where you have to look for new freelance gigs while you’re still working for your current clients. So make sure you work at least a little bit of freelance gig-hunting into your weekly routine. If you follow these seven steps, you’ll be ready to take on the freelance life even before you graduate from college. No matter what type of job you get after graduation, you have the skills to earn money and gain experience as a freelancer while you work towards achieving your dreams. Nicole Dieker is a freelance copywriter and essayist. She writes regularly for The Billfold on the intersection of freelance writing and personal finance, and her work has also appeared in The Toast, Yearbook Office, and Boing Boing.