It’s no secret that employers are looking for recent graduates with experience. These days, taking classes isn’t enough; even while you’re still in school, you need to prepare outside of the classroom.
Hiring managers want to see your skills and work ethic tested in situations that imitate real-work examples. While campus involvement and internships can help in this department, college students often don’t take advantage of one of the best opportunities: freelancing.
During my college career, I’ve landed freelance work as a writer and social media strategist. It wasn’t easy at first; taking the step to freelance took some courage. I had to transition from thinking of myself as a “learner” to a professional.
But I’m so glad that I took the plunge. I’ve learned so much, developed a professional knowledge of my field, and gained some great experience to discuss in job interviews.
Why You Should Freelance While You’re in College
Don’t make the mistake of thinking the freelance world is just for photographers and writers. Students from all backgrounds can use their skills to freelance, and yes, make money while you’re at it! This could include consulting in your area of expertise — for example, a dance student who choreographs a high school play — or billing hours of technical work like web development, social media, cooking, translating, etc.
A good friend of mine made money on the side as a personal trainer. He made a decent wage helping his clients get fit, and was an appealing option because he was more affordable than most personal trainers who work for gyms. By leading sessions in parks with his own equipment, he was to grow a client base around fun, outdoor activities.
If you’re a student who is considering venturing into freelancing, here are four reasons you should take the plunge.
1. Build Confidence
One of the hardest things to develop while you’re still learning is confidence. But when it comes to interview for jobs or graduate schools, confidence will take you a long way.
Freelancing will help you learn how to deal with the stress that accompanies real-life situations. That power, as well as the pride you’ll feel after doing good work, will help you develop a solid foundation of self-assurance in the professional world.
I used to read a lot about social media. I found the subject interesting, so I made time to learn about trends and strategy outside of my coursework. When an opportunity came along for me to contract as the social media manager for a business, I jumped on the chance.
But I knew that as a student, I had some credibility to earn. So I went above and beyond the job description to completely redesign the company’s social media presence. Although I helped the business succeed, I also proved to myself that I was capable of doing great work outside of school. Since then, I’ve been able to confidently share my social media skills with potential employers.
2. Grow Your Network and Professional Rapport
For a student, the professional world can feel intangible and distant. We’re still learning in classrooms, and assignments rarely mimic the type of work we’ll actually do in our dream career. If you’re not getting the experience you want from class work, it’s time to take that into your own hands.
There’s no better way to orient yourself with your field’s workforce than to begin working alongside them. And if you’re friendly and eager to learn from other professionals, you’ll take the edge off any competition or awkwardness. Like-minded people who support one another can accomplish great things.
Plus, professionals are usually happy to help students — they’ve been in our shoes, they’re sympathetic to our struggles, and even the busiest professionals know it feels good to pay it forward. Once you enter the workforce, these relationships you developed as a student will come in handy.
I made the acquaintance of a talented social media strategist when she found me on the website of a firm where I was freelancing. We met up for lunch and had a great time sharing ideas and visions of the future of the social media world. Not only did we learn from one another, we also opened up opportunities for each other. I got a series of website copy writing assignments from one of her contacts, and in return, I put her in touch with a few of my personal connections.
3. Make Money to Pay for College and Beyond
You might want to begin your freelance career by working without compensation, at least until you reach a certain comfort level… but don’t sell yourself short!
It can be difficult to gauge when you’re ready to charge for your work, but one test is to compare your work with others. Search online to find websites that offer the same services as you. Ask yourself: Are my skills comparable? If you’re not up to the same level of professionalism, can you provide a bargain where your skills fall short? Some of your customers will gravitate to a lower price tag even if you can’t compete with larger firms on skills or experience.
Another way to judge your skills is to ask your friends, teachers and colleagues for an assessment of your work. Tell them you need some honesty, and that you appreciate all feedback. Not only will this help you figure out a price point, you can also get suggestions to improve your business model.
I had to bargain for my first freelance gig. Since I was a student, the employer likely thought he could pay me less than the going rate. But I knew I could match, and even beat, the skills and results of the person I would replace. I was firm and clear, but compromised — I agreed to a month of part-time unpaid work to prove my worth. I worked about 15 hours a week on various projects while also revamping the firm’s social media strategy. Once I demonstrated my value, I was able to renegotiate with the company, and I felt much more comfortable doing so.
Not sure how much to charge? You’ll find lots of resources online about how to price your freelance work. Lifehacker offers a guide to setting and negotiating prices, and some Google sleuthing will turn up rates for specific industries, too, like how much to charge for social media consulting. You might also try an app like MyPrice that will help you factor in different components like the project, client and location.
While there are lots of ways to earn money while you’re in college, freelancing truly helps you kill two birds with one stone. You’ll gain valuable skills and experience, while also bringing in cash — and that’s something we can all appreciate given the rising prices of earning a degree. Earning an income while you study can help you cover tuition and living expenses, and keep your student debt at a minimum, which means you’re more free to pursue the career of your choice once you graduate.
The best part about charging for your work? That extra income can potentially allow you to devote more time to your freelance work. Why not replace that boring campus job that’s unrelated to your field with valuable — and lucrative! — freelance experience?
4. Find Your Voice and Choose a Career
Freelancing is a great way to gain insight into your field. You get to test-drive a potential career and figure out what you do and don’t like. For example, a computer science student could realize, through freelance work, that she loves building websites but hates designing apps. This knowledge will go a long way toward informing a career search upon graduation, putting you on the fast track toward earning a solid income.
Working as a freelancer also gives you the opportunity to assess your strengths and weaknesses. As a freelance writer, I’ve been able to pinpoint what I do well and what needs improving. Now I know I love to ghostwrite for corporation leadership, a skill most students haven’t explored. On the other hand, I also recognize that I take too long on some easy, even “fluffy” pieces. With this in mind, I’ve started practicing timed writing. Fortunately, I’ve been able to work out these kinks on my own time, without the pressure of a boss’ expectations.
This self-imposed orientation as a freelancer can be incredibly valuable for moving forward professionally… while earning money at the same time. What could be better than that?
Your Turn: Would you consider freelancing while still in college? If you’re doing this already, what services do you offer?
Kelly Miller is a writer, social media strategist, and aspiring public relations practitioner. She is a senior at the University of Dayton and plans to move to Washington, D.C., upon graduation.